Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, U.S.A – I was at a camp in a neighboring town, and we were going around saying where we were from.
When it got to be my turn, I said that I was from Lower Merion. Half of the people in the room turned around with their eyebrows raised. I wasn’t really sure why until I heard one boy say, “Wow. She must be rich!”
I don’t really think of my family as ‘rich,’ but Lower Merion has a privileged reputation. Located about 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia, its public schools are among the top 25 in the country, and it is known for being a safe, expensive place to live.
My high school – Lower Merion High School – is also known for being the place where Kobe Bryant went to school.
I’ve even heard people call it our ‘bubble,’ because we are right outside of Philly, the poorest major city in America. There is a lot of truth in the bubble critique, because while our sheltered neighborhood is great, it blocks out the horrible problems that many are facing in the not-as-privileged areas of Philly.
Parts of living in Lower Merion can be amazing. A lot of the people here are very kind and supportive of me. Through the years I have become friends with, or been mentored by, a variety of outstanding people.
I love feeling safe on my street and inviting friends over to swim in my pool. Living right outside of Philly is also super cool for day (or night) trips into the city or going to hang out on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
Lower Merion has a very prominent Jewish community. I’m a Christian, and I’m actually in the minority. Through the years, I’ve been to countless Bar/Bat Mitzvahs (I’ve even helped say a prayer in a few!), have attended Passover seders, and eaten delicious latkes, matzah ball soup, and – my personal favorite – challah bread.
Things are far from perfect in my town, though. There is a very competitive spirit that shows up in a lot of circumstances. On my street, there is a constant, unspoken rivalry between all the yards to see who can clear snow and rake leaves the fastest, who can keep their grass the greenest, and who has the best holiday decorations.
More seriously, at school, it’s always about grades.
A lot of people believe that anything below a 95 means that you’re not smart, which is obviously not true. Not aiming to go to an Ivy or Ivy-Plus college is unheard of. Sadly, this has led to a stressful culture. For example, I saw people have nervous breakdowns over the weekly vocab tests in my seventh grade English class.
The neighborhood isn’t very racially diverse, either. I can typically expect to be the only girl of color in my classes. Since I am biracial (my dad is black and my mom is white), and very light-skinned, people don’t always realize that I’m black. That has led to very racist things being said to my face – even by a couple of my teachers.
Despite its flaws, I have lived in Lower Merion for most of my life, and it has been, overall, pretty great. The hard parts about it have given me good life lessons and helped me to find my voice. I wouldn’t ask for another place to grow up.
Charissa Howard is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.