Walk the Line

James Spader“If your parents remained married when you were growing up, step forward.”

I stayed in place.

“If either of your parents had a college education, step forward.”

I stayed in place.

“If there were over 50 books in your house when you were growing up, step forward.”

I stayed in place.

The questions kept coming. The others around me kept moving. I kept staying…and smiling.

Then the questions changed.

“If you have a Masters, step forward.”

I stepped forward.

“If you have a PhD, step forward.”

I took another step forward. My smile went slack.

I no longer found the exercise to be enjoyable. I did not want to think of the privileges, assets and capabilities I possessed and others did not. I did not want to be reminded of the head start I may have had over others.  I did not want someone to point out that I was standing on the shoulders of those who have come before me.

I already had a narrative of my success. I am a self-made boot-strapping son of a bitch. I beat the odds by being disciplined, thinking about the future, and not eating the marshmallow. I was patient. I put in the hard work. I studied and studied and studied. I made the right choices when it counted. I reshuffled the deck of cards that were stacked against me.

I even had an imaginary foe.

He was tall, well-built, and had a lot of blonde hair. He was Ivy-League educated a fraternity member and on the Dean’s List. He drove a German luxury car. He spent his summers at the country club playing tennis. He lived somewhere in New England and excelled at Jeopardy. And, he loved, loved wearing J Crew and croakies.

He represented everything that threatened me. And, as a product of the 80’s, it’s probably no coincidence that he resembled James Spader in Pretty in Pink.

As ridiculous as it sounds, he played an important role in my life. Whenever I needed a jolt or a kick in the ass, we would meet to compete.

All of my battles with him had a familiar Tortoise and Hare story arc. I would drive to the arena in my Ford Truck with all of my imperfections – dyslexia, inadequate vocabulary, and tendency to use double negatives. He would show up perfect with his white teeth and unearned power and privilege. He would express surprise at my presence and with the blow of the whistle get off to a quick lead. I would struggle to keep up. But, I would keep showing up. We would inevitably run into some obstacles, a rough patch, or an incline.  I would put my head down and redouble my efforts. He would begin to wilt. He knew nothing of adversity. I did. I  would lean forward, press ahead, begin to pull even with him and….then my eyes would open.

These imaginary battles and my narrative were my fuel.

Then the next question came.

“If you grew up with two or more siblings, then take a step back.”

I did.

My smile returned. I looked out at all the other participants and thought “One Step. Only one #$%& step. Yet, here I am playing on your playground.”

So, where am I going with all of this?

I think it is fair to say that there are two dominant worldviews that guide our attempts to understand poverty:

  • Poor People are Poor because of Personal Choice
  • Poor People are Poor because of Other People

The former seeks an understanding of poverty in the choices that the poor have made: Do they take advantage of the opportunities that are present? Do they work hard? Do they plan for the future? The latter seeks an understanding of poverty in the role that others have had in creating another person’s poverty: disenfranchisement, segregation, colonialism. Of course, an accurate understanding will not be found in either alone. It is somewhere in their overlap.

However, I can understand why the former worldview is so tenacious. It’s intoxicating. If the poor are solely responsible for their own poverty, then we are solely responsible for our own success. To entertain the alternative worldview would be to entertain the possibility that others had a hand in our success.

I can imagine that this challenges a lot of personal narratives. And, we like our narratives. I know.

[Side Note: If you had an imaginary foe, I would love to learn about him or her.]

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