Some of the most basic questions about money are also central to figuring out what and who you want to be: What do I have, what do I want, how does that compare to others around me and how should I feel about it?
In The New York Times’s 10th year of publishing teenagers’ college application essays about money, work, social class and other related topics, all four writers grappled with these questions in their own ways.
How should I handle my parents making a drastic change in how they earn their living? What will I do to get money, and why? What can I learn from careful attention to physical money itself? And how should I best process the riches and poverty that coexist within feet of each other — and of me?
None of the questions have easy answers, or correct ones, necessarily. But learning to ask the hard ones is a giant step toward understanding your place in the world.
“We took ‘family owned and operated’ to a new level.”
Franklin, Tenn. — Battle Ground Academy
When you meet new people, there are things you immediately know: their hair color, their height, their fashion sense. As for me, I also immediately know who they voted for, that they’re a proud N.R.A. member, or that they support the “sanctity of life” and Southern “heritage.”
That’s because I work at my family’s carwash, so naturally my first introduction to people is their bumper stickers.
I didn’t always work at a carwash in the outwardly beautiful, but decidedly fraught, Columbia, Tenn. In fact, until I was 14 my father worked on Wall Street — the New York one, not the Tennessee one boasting our county’s only Chipotle.
But when my 40-year-old aunt died, my parents engaged in radical grieving methods: having complete midlife crises, leaving their stable jobs, moving us 950 miles away to Nashville and opening a carwash. As you can imagine, my parents’ crises translated to an entirely new crisis for me. In Tennessee, it often feels as though I stick out like a blue crayon in a 125-pack of red crayons (with a sharpener attached).
When my family opened the carwash, we took “family owned and operated” to a new level. My dad traded in his khakis and button-down shirt for shorts and industrial work shirts with our logo on the pocket. My mom abandoned her past experience managing accounts with Cartoon Network and pivoted to making WindMaster signs telling people not to hit other people.
And me? I went from an eighth grader to an assistant manager.
I know things that virtually no other 17-year-olds know or want to know: how to grease equipment, the perfect mixture of chemicals to get algae off cement floors and the best way to dodge a car flying directly at you. I’ve also had the pleasure of being the on-duty manager when cars have crashed in our parking lot, leading to my trying to work a brand-new surveillance system while profusely apologizing to the police, who very obviously wished an adult was present.
There are, however, things that have happened at the carwash that are far from funny. As a female and a minor, customers have made comments and jokes when talking to me that have made me feel deeply uncomfortable, exposed and, most importantly, out of place.
It’s hard to feel I belong in Tennessee, where we’re on the news weekly for a new book ban, shooting or shutdown of a Pride festival. I’m entrenched in a place where so many interactions feel like a contradiction of everything I stand for. It’s not easy to accept that our regulars — the people I’ve grown to love who always bring me a caramel candy or a water or show me pictures of their kids — don’t believe in my right to reproductive health care. Some of them carry guns, and most of them are unvaccinated. They care about me, but they don’t care about me.
And they’re never going to truly know me, the me who marches in protests and works on political campaigns. Part of the reason for all those loud bumper stickers is that we live in a time of not only great division, but even greater hatred. I’ll admit I’m no angel, but I truly believe that activism must come from a place of love. So I’m going to keep fighting for what I believe in, not in spite of but because of the people I disagree with.
Although the carwash regulars may not fight for my rights, I love them enough to fight for theirs. I’ll fight for them to have free universal health care, for their kids’ guaranteed school lunches and for a fairer economy.
I may be ready to leave Tennessee, but its future matters to me. So while I’m here, I’m going to try to change some minds, whether it’s one door, one protest or one carwash at a time.
“I have always been ‘The Money Man.’”
La Jolla, Calif. — La Jolla High School
There it is. The little mutant, who is supposed to be immortal, lies still, right beneath our noses.
The sun pulsates down on our backs as midday approaches on a scalding day in San Diego. The cockroach lies still, sprawled across the floor with one of its six legs pointed in each direction. An assemblage has emerged around the dead invertebrate, as our posse quarrels about what we could do with this prospect.
“Bet you won’t eat that cockroach right now,” challenges one person.
“Ten bucks says I will!” I shout confidently.
The small crowd grows into a state of silence, as heads begin to turn toward the instigator, then back to me, anticipating a standoff.
I have always been the “Money Man,” so being offered to eat a cockroach, or any other similar requests, in exchange for monetary value was a common occurrence. I cannot explain why $10 entices me to conquer obscure feats. I have had a fortunate childhood where my earned dollars would typically buy a Snickers bar for my enjoyment.
Oftentimes, I ask myself why these trivial challenges matter? My father’s job requires him to live on the other side of the globe for six months each year. His absence in my life has left me with an insecurity that no money can buy.
From a young age, I had to learn to live without a father figure. Our trips to Mission Bay Park were always cut short when his next rotation came, leaving me to teach myself how important a spiral was when throwing a football.
As a child, I quickly learned not everyone lived a life like mine. Growing up, due to my father’s job, we lived overseas, providing me firsthand lessons in the value of money. I have witnessed poverty at its worst. Living abroad opened my eyes to the sheer number of people who would consume a cockroach for an American $10 bill.
I watched children who were 5-years-old in China doing backbreaking work for their families, just to make ends meet. Or beggars lining the streets of Egypt as their prestigious neighbors parted the road in their gold-plated G-wagons, spending millions on parties and feasts rather than helping their predecessors. Or my own family members in Mexico, who begged us to bring back clean water jugs and books for them and their children.
I may be privileged, but I have seen every nook and cranny of what it takes to make it in life. So, when the opportunity comes to make an extra dollar, I understand its value and embrace it.
Maybe I am money-driven, because it is my everlasting belief that I have every reason to make it in life. I have witnessed people come from immense poverty. So, I have no excuse to not make it, because people around the globe, who have so much less than me, still manage to hustle their way to the top.
Maybe it is the belief that if I learned the value of a dollar at an early age, I would be able to help my many family members struggling on the other side of the border. Maybe that is why I took a job in construction, not because I needed the money, but because I understood its importance.
I hope attending college, something most of my family couldn’t do, will allow me to both help provide for them financially and be present in their lives. My family taught me the importance of a dollar, no matter what, even if I had to become “Cockroach Guy.” My value of money and understanding of its global meaning will hopefully help me succeed in the classroom and beyond.
“This was my very first experience blowing $300 in a day.”
Brooklyn, N.Y. — Brooklyn Technical High School
I stepped out of the bank, my eyes tracking the silver- and copper-colored specks shimmering beneath the water of the fountain.
Reaching into my pocket, I watched a man fling a coin in anticipation of his wish coming true. I slid my fingers along the edges of my quarters, contemplating throwing one in myself. However, I couldn’t toss away a potential winning lottery ticket that easily. I grasped the rolls of coins just tightly enough to leave slight imprints in my palm and headed for my car.
Once home, I commenced the familiar sorting process I performed with all the coins in my collection. I cracked open the rolls of quarters on my desk, inspecting the sides to see if any coins had silver cores. The tangy scent of copper swirled around my room as I separated the coins by date, looking online for possible prices and potential error coins — coins with manufacturing flaws.
My eyes lit up. I’d found one: A 2005-P Minnesota quarter with a reverse double die, a duplication of design elements on the back.
I quickly positioned the coin into a small case, scribbled an estimated $60 value and carefully piled it in my wooden drawer with the other rare coins. Although it was just a bargain-basement case, it was far superior to the makeshift ripped paper and tape “cases” I had been using as a new collector.
I reached into the back of my drawer and picked up a 1981 Australian 20-cent piece, one of my first-ever foreign coins, and also my favorite. I turned to the reverse. Having lived in the United States all my life, it always fascinated me to see a platypus rather than the freedom bird staring back at me.
I spun the coin between my fingers while looking through the other quarters. It invariably reminded me that I was never this prudent with my money before; my coin collection was more of a monthly holiday, rather than a facet of everyday life.
My original connection with coins arose from my grandmother’s many trips around the world. When she had come back from South Africa, she let me check out some coins and bills from the bottom of her purse. However, when I peered inside and saw one remaining coin that was the most vibrant gold color, my 8-year-old mind couldn’t help but want to entertain myself with it.
The coin in question: An early 1960s 2 Rand, valued at well over $300. It felt like a small-scale quarter but had far more pronounced ridges along the edges and was significantly heavier.
I remember holding it in the palm of my hand; the peculiar heft felt as if it was going to push my arm down. It had a stunning image of an antelope on the reverse that apparently made me think it was actually an antelope.
I made the ingenious decision to have the “antelope” gallop on a railing over the steep embankments of Riverside Park. This was my very first experience blowing $300 in a day, and I didn’t realize until years later what I’d lost.
After the antelope incident, I made sure to keep the rest of my coins safe and secure, leading to the development of my attentive sorting routine. I scanned all the remaining coins and double-checked to make sure I hadn’t left any treasures behind, then scraped together the quarters and placed them back into rolls. I headed back to the bank to trade in the quarters for pennies so I could once again attempt to bolster my collection.
On the way out, I again saw multiple people tossing change into the fountain. But the smiles on their faces quickly turned to frowns, for I took off my shoes and, not wanting to let wishes go to waste, rolled up my pants and hopped in with a bucket.
“Kickstand up, ignition growling and helmet firmly on, the world is new again.”
Phnom Penh, Cambodia — Logos International School
Through the morning haze of dust particles, car exhaust and visible heat waves, my mind races faster than my motorbike’s 30 kilometers per hour. A world filled with incomprehensible, outdoor merchant hollers and a window pane delivery man on a motorbike tempts the curious and analytical.
As my mind races with curiosity, I am challenged as a driver. Another motorbike’s sudden swerve or a cloth thought to be roadkill makes me jerk for my handlebar brakes. Although keen, my senses are not supernatural; nothing can account for the lawless roads of Phnom Penh.
My daily drive to school is anything but monotonous. Our starting node is dropped in a gated community. Kickstand up, ignition growling and helmet firmly on, the world is new again. Amongst the houses passed, a pattern emerges of villa, Lexus and renovation — a gold spray-painted gate or a large green overshade — giving me a peek into the homeowner’s head. Although the thought of finding rushes of neural activity in their actual brain sounds endlessly exciting, I am content with deducing their aesthetic values — for now.
Before bidding the neighborhood guards farewell, I stop very carefully for the woman driving a Rolls-Royce with an infant in front while a woman pulling a tin wagon of brooms and foliage pulls up behind me. Questions of luxury car shipping, infant safety and wagon construction are trumped by the irony and tragedy of the gap I create between them.
I join the hubbub of commuters spreading like liquid particles filling in every ounce of empty space. I reject an opening to swerve through two large cars, but apparently, my depth perception fails me as another driver seizes the opportunity.
My recent failure to calculate time and acceleration fades, as I ponder humanity’s natural acclimation of skills. I take the first and second virtues of volleyball, aggressiveness and communication, to heart after my failure. A traffic light’s contradictory instructions open the traffic floodgates, but I make it through with deliberation. Every yellow light run and sidewalk driven on drops me into a thought experiment on human nature. Although for me, questions of habit, the inorganic nature of driving and social pressure rise before the innate chaos and evil of the human soul.
Signage in Khmer, English, Chinese and Korean becomes as legible as my abilities allow as my motorbike comes to a halt. A truck filled to the brim with factory workers blocks my path. The intersection’s green light flashes, and the truck continues straight, just missing the turn to the brand-new H&M in the country. It is a wonder that they didn’t make one earlier, considering how cheap the transportation fees would be.
Seeing the manifestation of global issues makes me realize that I will always appreciate Model U.N. for the large-scale awareness, but I could have never felt the weight and burdens of the world without everyday life. Ingrained systems built on poor foundations cannot be easily rebuilt. With little things like not running yellow lights or connecting impactful NGOs with students that want to help, I can try to help support a new foundation.
Through the outdoor market, past the conglomerate’s mall and turning to face a neon construction sign road, I am finally on the road leading to my school. The concept of sequent occupance has always stuck with me. From the broad effects of genocide to the more minute classification of “charred animal on spit,” everything is an amalgamation of its past and present.
The chaos, injustice and joy of the roads of Phnom Penh have fundamentally made me who I am, and I will only continue to grow as I leave them. As I pull into the parking lot, I know that my education has started far before the bell has rung.