When I told a friend of mine that I’d written a book called Project Chic to Paulie, he asked, “What makes you a project chic?” I answered quickly, “I’m from the projects. I grew up there.” He shook his head in acknowledgment, but suddenly all the things I used to feel when I was a young girl in boarding school rushed back.
When I left the projects to attend St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, I was ashamed of the fact that I came from the projects. I went through four years of high school never discussing anything that happened over the summers or while I was on break. I knew people thought a certain way about people who lived in the projects, and I did not believe my family fit into those stereotypes at all, but I was still afraid of being labeled.
My brother told me that we were some of the luckiest kids in the projects because we had both of our parents. I never wanted for anything. But we lived in the Van Dyke projects in Brownsville, and it didn’t seem to matter how many nice things I had or cool places I’d been. The truth I could not avoid was that no matter what I was, I would always be a “Project Chic.”
My image of this girl was the image I believed other people had of girls who lived in the projects. She had unprotected sex and would become pregnant at a young age. She drank and maybe used drugs but hoped her parents wouldn’t find out. She cursed and had physical fights with anyone who crossed her or sometimes people she just wanted to hurt. Her parents were on welfare, and there was often no food in the house. Her older siblings had gotten into a life of crime and were possibly in jail. If she had younger siblings, then she hoped they would have a better life, but the odds were that they would not. A “Project Chic” was destined to fail. The chances of her survival and success were so small no one even considered it a possibility—no one except for the admissions department at St. Paul’s School. They believed I was “Paulie” material.
In the way that growing up in the projects makes me a “Project Chic,” going to St. Paul’s makes me a “Paulie.” My image of a “Paulie” was a girl with wealthy parents. The kind of wealth that meant she could go to a foreign country for a two-day weekend. She was probably white, blond, thin, and athletic. But most importantly “Paulies” were destined to succeed. I felt I could never be this girl as I am black, curvy, not particularly interested in sports, and my parents were certainly not wealthy. And all the while I attended St. Paul’s, I did not know that I could succeed—not until graduation day.
After graduation I realized that being a “Paulie” and being a “Project Chic” were about so much more than the stereotypes I’d created in my mind. I based my images on other people’s beliefs and not on my actual experiences. I realized that my experiences may be the exception, but that does not make me any less a “Project Chic” or any less a “Paulie.” I define the terms. The terms do not define me.
Project Chic to Paulie – Available to Purchase On Amazon