She said she’d gotten into the program because she was from a Brahmin family and had gone to Scripps. “He’s sorry now,” she told me. “I’m not what he expected, and now he won’t even talk to me.” The young woman had relocated thousands of miles from home for the program, but realized all too soon that she was a disappointment to her thesis advisor. Only one of the graduate students was allowed to call their department chair by his first name. This young woman felt like a failure at twenty-two.
I worked with a woman at the University Book Store who had made a mistake too. Florence had a job during the war as an engineer, and then the war ended and so did her job, her parents were ill, and she spent most of the rest of her life caring for them. By the time I met Flo, she was in her 60s or 70s, her hair still dyed red, working close to minimum wage because she’s lost most of the middle of her life. I met two sisters, in the 80s in Iowa. They too had cared for ailing parents, had never worked, and were too proud to accept pubic assistance. Those three women had led good lives and were aging into desperate poverty.
Just now, a great many students who struggled to achieve their educational goals are reevaluating everything they have been taught about hard work and persistence and earning their way. Richer parents bought their children admission to college.
The world is not fair. We hear that all the time. Yet many well-off people cannot seem to overcome the belief (a Puritan belief) that financial life success indicates human merit.
We do not live in a meritocracy where each person earns their place. Most Americans build on what is handed to them. The Horatio Alger story of rags-to-riches is a myth. Almost not one does that. People born rich become richer. People who claim they were born “middle class” went to private schools and do better, sometimes than their parents. Most often in American today, being born poor predicts a life of poverty. Merit has almost nothing to do with it. Good people who are kind to small animals and children, attend regular religious services, do favors without even being asked, and pay their taxes, are poor in the United States.
I figured this out a long time ago. We cannot be whatever we want to be—not all of it and not all at once. It’s another of the great lies that if we tried we could have anything we want.
In our lives we will make hard choices about family or career, risky job or safe choice, more money or more interesting co-workers? Sometimes we might even make the wrong choice, but more often there will be the details of accident that make all the difference. Our parents’ marriage or divorce or choice to have neither; the randomness of who interviewed just before us turning the mood in the room sour; the moment we paused and turned right instead of left. And that is not all.
Unless we have the money for the private education—forget charter schools, we are competing with schools demanding the tuition of a private university—and test prep and parents who can afford to bride their way in, not to mention the legacies who gain them a few extra points on that entrance calculation—there is no level playing field.
“And if you’re a high school senior lucky enough to have won this genetic and demographic lottery yourself and thus improved your admissions odds some, keep this in mind: You may have earned the grades and the scores to put you in the running, but you are also the beneficiary of enormous, unearned economic privilege.”—TNYT
Over the years, I have written recommendations for students who went on to graduate from high-prestige schools such as Yale, Brandeis, Brown, Reed, Stanford, Duke, University of Chicago, and Pepperdine, not to mention the Naval Academy and Quantico. They are painters and doctors, nurses, engineers, college professors, “drug pushers” for Merck, private pilots for famous New York Senators, and Department Heads for major city governments. They have died of cancer in their 30s and in car accidents and by suicide, and some survived those catastrophes. They have married both badly and well. Some of them came from families below the poverty line, and some others from considerably above it. Three were Gates Millennial Scholars, several won Ford Fellowships, and perhaps a few graduated without any college debt at all. Some of them are so widely admired for their general goodness that no one would question their right to good lives. And some have lied snd cheated right along and still found happiness.
Nothing in life, and certainly not in American society, is certain.
The students from well-off families have an easier time. I know we are supposed to pretend that everyone has problems. Even Cheryl Strayed warns not to assume other people’s lives are easier than our own. How about the other way around?
Truly, if that student’s parents are addicted to drugs, he is from a single-parent family struggling to get by on a minimum wage job, or a parent or sibling dies while she was in high school? There is suicide or rape or life-changing illness? I think it’s only right to assume that student had a harder time than I did.
I went without dental care for some of my childhood. We had powered milk and Kool-Aide and margarine, only rarely real milk, and never soda or butter growing up. Sometimes my parents borrowed a couple of hundred dollars from my grandmother to get by through an emergency, sometimes my mom hid from the paper boy because she did not have the few dollars she owed him that week. I never had a steady allowance as a child, never took lessons after school like most of my friends, and never took the Ski Bus because there was no money for things like that.
My family was not poor. After all, I had a grandmother who could load us $200, but we were close enough to poverty that I could guess about it, and my husband comes from generational poverty. Most of my life with Gary and working with students has been an education in inequity.
It is a splendid splinter of optimism to tell a child they “can be anything you want.” The back side of that promise is the bleeding when it’s plucked—the sense of failure when they do not measure up to “anything they want.” Many of my students have lived lives that warned them about dreaming too high.
But while I argue that “anything” is unrealistic, most of my students underestimate their power. They can be more, have more, achieve more.
We are a country, a society eager to punish failure. We are less happy to help correct mistakes than we are to see them penalized.
Just every now and again—compassion, empathy, understanding. Being rich might mean a great deal of hard work, earned success. But poverty is not personal failure. It might just be a misstep, a life devoted to care. It might want no more than not judging. Success is more than affluence. A meaningful life is not judged by paychecks and net worth.
And then Swedish Greta Thunberg has been nominated for her activism regarding climate change, a 16 year old with Aspergers. She might do anything.
Next month there will be rhubarb, but I think I have berries in the freezer. It’s Pi Day, 3/14. I’m going to bake a pie. [It’s blackberry, not cast in stone, and we each want our slice.]