Sentenced to fourteen days in prison, Felicity Huffman told the judge that she wanted her daughter to have a “fair shot” at college. As the college admissions scandal investigations progress, I am learning that my definition of “fair shot” and Felicity Huffman’s are worlds apart. I was a homeless teenager without a safe and stable place to sleep until my sophomore year of college after my mother kicked me out for being gay at age 14. White Zin sloshing in one hand, blue cigarette smoke curling around the other as she screamed at me to get my “gay influence” out of her house. I only hope that the Varsity Blues trials might be a catalyst for us to legally define what is considered a “fair shot” in higher education.
Each time I read about a new development in the cases, I remember the hot embarrassment flashed across my face as a homeless college freshman, watching the financial aid advisor lick her finger to leaf through my documents. Letters from social workers to legally affirm that I was a homeless teenager with no family. If I wanted to go to school, I would need to legally prove to the university that no one wanted me.
Another college scandal story broke when The Department of Education noticed an anomaly in the number of students with guardianship in the Chicago area. After further investigation, it was uncovered that Lora Georgieva, owner the Illinois consulting company Destination College had urged wealthy families to employ a loophole which qualified their children for financial aid. If guardianship was transferred to a family friend or relative from a less wealthy tax bracket, the teens would become eligible for the financial assistance reserved for poor students. I wish that I could have been one of those teenagers. Not because they had wealthy parents. But because they had parents and so many adults who cared about them.
When I finally made it to college, it was not my dream school — Oxford because I wanted to run far away. Unfazed, I was excited when I was invited to join the pre-med coed fraternity on campus. Before qualifying for financial aid though, I had to prove that I was independent. U.S. law stipulates that between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, you may be allowed to vote, drive, buy cigarettes or porn, but you are legally in limbo for six years. Until your twenty-fourth birthday, you are eligible to be covered by your parents’ health insurance and you are not independent in the eyes of FAFSA for financial aid purposes. Unless, of course, you get pregnant or married. But I was not prepared for either of those prospects my freshman year, so I gathered the paperwork together.
My voice shaking with embarrassment, I explained to the financial aid advisor that it would be too dangerous for me to ask my parents for money for school. I struggled to find the right words. My father was a dangerous felon and although my mother did not have a criminal record, she had kicked all of her children out. “I guess my mom just doesn’t like teenagers,” I shrug and laugh when I have to explain this to people.
I spent most of high school working three jobs and living in a cave near the Elwha Dam a few miles outside Port Angeles, Washington. You know the place — where the Twilight books were set and Raymond Carver wrote about sad waitresses like my mother. On nights that it didn’t rain, I would parkour on top of the high school auditorium to sleep so that I wouldn’t be late for class the next morning. The neon crucifix from the hillside church illuminating the football field. For a few months, I lived in an abandoned house in Eden Valley. I camped alone at Lake Angeles and in the forests of Olympic National Park. When winter came, I lived at a hippie commune where I slept in the goat stables like a Gay Jesus origin story. But that ended when the owner of the farm called my mom out of concern that I was a runaway. So I set out for the city. Thinking that maybe there would be better opportunities there than living in the woods forever like a feral human. I hitchhiked to Seattle in a VW van where I hid in the basement of the University of Washington library (a college that I would work for, years later) and scavenged discarded pizza boxes abandoned by stressed out students during finals week. Huddled against the cold, I fell asleep outside Powell’s. The warmth of the famed bookstore’s Harry Potter display enveloping me in its light like an inviting beacon. A cop woke me to ask if I was soliciting. “Soliciting what? I’m not a British lawyer. I’m just trying to sleep,” I told him, thinking that he was asking if I was a barrister. Frustrated, the cop asked if I was a prostitute slut and demanded my ID. I couldn’t risk getting arrested as an underage runaway, so I ran. When it was empty, I slept on the scratchy plywood floors of the construction site for a Portland Art Museum remodel. When I had no better option, I slept outside in a soggy mummy sleeping bag like a cocoon in the mud. Between Portland’s Burnside and Steel Bridges where a luxury condo now stands.
Why do so many parents believe that if you throw the “bad apple” away they’ll roll back not-gay apples? My mother’s religious beliefs and progressive liberalism made it okay for other people’s children to be gay, but not her own. I wish that I could have been adopted by an adult who cared for my safety, well-being, and the trajectory of my future like the parents embroiled in the recent college admissions scandals.
The college admissions scandals have had ramifications for the children of these parents too. Lori Loughlin’s (“Aunt Becky’s) daughter Olivia Jade lost her business partnership with Sephora over the outcry. I feel sorry for Olivia Jade, her sister, and all the other students who are experiencing the shame and fallout of their parents’ actions. As the trials progress, I only hope that their children choose not to carry on their parents’ legacy. I hope that someday when I have children, the American education system will be more fair. That a zipcode will not dictate their life’s trajectory or the quality of their primary education. That inflated tuition costs will not leave my children with the same crippling debt that I may never pay off. We all want a fair shot for ourselves and our children. But we each define fairness differently. I wish that there was a legal standard for fairness and equity in the hot pursuit of happiness. A baseline, instead of the vicious individualism that pervades American culture and access to opportunity.
I wish that Felicity Huffman had been sentenced to tutoring disadvantaged students or helping students write college admissions essays instead of a two week stint in prison. But this is America, where the criminal justice system is a misnomer. I’d love to invite Felicity Huffman out to coffee to discuss the ethics and implementations of fairness. I’d love to ask her the definition. Does “fair” describe the color of my skintone? Is “fair” the zipcode that you grew up in? Is the entrenched caste system of our education system fair? Are the median test scores that your high school churned out before you left for college fair? Because I too want Felicity Huffman’s daughter to have a fair shot. I want us all to have a fair shot. And yet, I have no idea what that really means in America.