Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The One Thing I'm Thankful For

     I'm not a big fan of Thanksgiving. I don't like watching football on TV. It's usually too cold to do anything outside. And there's something that strikes me as a little weird about a holiday focused entirely on stuffing as much food into our mouths as humanly possible. Plus, I try at all costs to avoid traveling around the Thanksgiving holiday, when flying or driving bring on not just the usual anxieties but outright, full-fledged panic.

     But there's nothing wrong with taking a day to count our blessings, to be thankful for what we have, rather than complaining about what we don't have, or feeling envy for what others might have. And after spending the last year and a half volunteering to help kids at our local community college, I can wrap up all my thank-yous into one big package:  I am thankful that I was born into the American middle class.

     Saturday Night Live and satirists of all stripes have a field day making fun of the middle class -- how bland we are, how boring, how conformist, how white and pasty we are, how earnest we are in our ticky-tacky houses, etc.

     But I volunteer at our local community college, helping mostly underprivileged kids learn how to read and write and analyze and organize and think about things. A few of the students I see are middle-class kids who typically exhibit some kind of mild learning disability. But most of the kids are people of color who live in the poorer sections of our county, and who come from the American underclass. Many originally came from another country, and English is their second language. Some were born here; but their parents speak Spanish or something else at home.

     A few of the students are women in their late 30s or early 40s, who have come back to school to get their degree. They are grandmothers. They live with their daughters and their grandchildren. One of my favorite students is Mary, who writes children's stories for her creative writing class. Her command of grammar is very basic and extremely flawed. Yet she comes up with simple but charming, and often very imaginative, stories based on the exploits of her own grandchildren.

     What strikes me about these students -- whether they're black or white or something in between -- is that they all grew up under challenging circumstances. Probably some of them have suffered discrimination. But the real common denominator is that their parents are poor, or near poor. They were not read to as little children. They did not go to enriching nursery schools. They grew up in apartments, and their backyards were the streets. They went to marginal public schools, and their attendance was sometimes interrupted for one reason for another.

     In short, these students, who range in age from 18 up to about 45, did not benefit from a middle-class upbringing, with good local schools, private music lessons, soccer camp and SAT preparation courses. And yet, their clear ambition is to struggle their way to get a better education, which will lead to a better job, which will eventually help them achieve the much-ridiculed, but also much-sought-after middle-class lifestyle . . . aka the American Dream.

     Maybe there are some "welfare cheats" and "welfare moms" out there who play the system and plan to live on the dole for the rest of their lives. But not these kids. I have enormous respect for my students -- especially (as I remember my own unsuccessful attempts to learn a foreign language) those for whom English is a second, or sometimes third or fourth language. But all these students have hope; they have ambition; and they also have a road ahead of them that I don't think I could have successfully struggled through when I was a young man.

     All of these people are trying hard. Some of them will go on to four-year colleges and careers in business or computers or social services. Some will be disappointed. But all of them deserve our respect, our support and our encouragement. 

     On this Thanksgiving, I give thanks that my road was an easier one, that I was lucky enough to be born into the middle class, and not the underclass. And so, especially now, I wish them the very best.

    

15 comments:

Meryl Baer said...

Amen. I taught many of those students years ago at a business school...Happy Thanksgiving.

Anonymous said...

Middle class what middle class, there really is no middle class anymore..When I graduated from high school I had to go to California to get a college education I sweated 3 jobs and lived with my elderly grandma who was nearing 90..At least junior college was darn near free and I got money to go to the state college from an organization of Latinos and Hispanics..Boom Reagan got to be the Governor there went the finest public colleges and state univesitites to you know what in a handbag, only the wealthy can afford even a state college education in the state where I reside, Washington which is cheaper than many places..The most a person can hope for if both their parents work and make anything is a grant and if they are lucky a student loan that is tiny in comparison to the grants they use to give out, if you are a minority it is different you could snag some help but not much with all the republicans making it only possible for their rich cohorts kids to get their alma maters, here one can go to junior college in high schools and graduate from high school one day and the weeked from the junior college. that is what our only child did so she did not have to worry about 4 years of college, her high school teacher paid for used books and a dumb gal drove her almost daily she barely graduated from the high school and wasted her time at the junior college..We don't understand people not urging their kids to get the AA degree while in high school when one is a junior in high school one has only to take the 2 classes to graduate from a high school in Washington freeing up the rest of the day for classes one only has to pay for books but most are either low costs or free thru a special program their tuition is free, wow whee thus saving about $15,000 a year io student debt that is $30,000 for the two last years which is manageable by working for the university and getting in and out..NO MIDDLE CLASS ANYMORE...I say duke it out and get in and out of any college and keep going until one graduates, something will come up to let you get in and graduate if it takes more time so be it, the degree will open doors, without it one of our daughters teachers told her years after she taught her basically a high school education is worthless and a BS just like a high school degree!

Stephen Hayes said...

A well-written and thought-provoking post. It's been a long time since I taught anyone anything but your post makes me think it might be time for me to get involved mentoring or volunteering again. Happy Thanksgiving.

DJan said...

I just read your post and the long comment as well. I have to agree that our world has become more polarized, with fewer and fewer of us getting the chance to excel. I blame it on population pressures as much as anything. When I graduated from high school, there were 180 million Americans. Now there are 317 million. And more and more young people are falling through the cracks. Thank you for all you do, Tom.

Olga Hebert said...

Nicely done post. I really do not understand those who rail on about welfare and food stamps and all the "free ride" perks that "they" get. I don't believe the complainers are ever likely to trade places so they can get all the marvelous benefits of poverty.

Linda Myers said...

Tomorrow I will meet my son's girlfriend. She moved to the States in February from Mexico. She is an engineer with an MBA and she has an impressive position with a major American business. Her prospects are good here. She came from a middle class Mexican family and had advantages similar to my own. Still, she's new to the States and English is her second language and she left her family to take this mob. I admire her. She has great courage.

Linda Myers said...

this JOB.

schmidleysscribblins.com said...

I have to laugh at people who say there is no Middle Class anymore. The Bourgesoie may have disappeared, but if the criteria for being Middle Class means you aren't on Medicaid, and no making a million or more...or worth that, and file income taxes every year, you are in the Middle Class. When the Middle Class stops paying taxes, we are all in trouble.

Thanks for being thankful Tom. It matters to me.

June said...

It's good to read a post like this, Tom. Thank you for it. Putting oneself into someone else's shoes is becoming a lost art. Most of the time we would find we prefer our own beat up ol' footwear.

gigihawaii said...

Happy Thanksgiving! I am now in the middle class, but wasn't before.

Anonymous said...

The middle class is gone either you have a decent job with benefits are you are just working..You cannot get anykind of assistance in Washington state unless you work it is called workfair, but at least the minimum wage come jan 1 2015 will be the highest in the nation at over $10.10 an hour more like $10.19 an hour, one can slave away but still get the EBT card for food and still have to work..You just don't get a big break and why should a person, work is not a bad word, paying taxes and paying bills is not a bad situation, living on the dole is another story..I ride a public bus and see many who ride all day long collect lots of benefits and do nothing but get off the bus in the late afternoon and drink and drug it fine life I say hell to the no..work brother & sister work..It is better than jamming up our jails and prison systems cause you are not contributing to anything living like that!

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! I hope your Thanksgiving was a good one no matter HOW you celebrated. And I think one of the best ways for any of us to celebrate is to take a little time like you did to remember that "my road was an easier one, that I was lucky to be born into the middle class, and not the underclass." So many of us take that for granted. And regardless of where any of us fall today, most of us live so much better than others around the world. Thanks for this thoughtful post. ~Kathy

Sheryl said...

How nice a reminder that it's not only important to count our own personal blessings, but to bestow blessings upon others, as you do with your volunteering.

Hauola said...

You are clearly thankful for what oftentimes a person may take for granted. And, your thankfulness is put into action in that you "pay it across and forward" in ways which make a difference in the lives of your students as they set out to have a better life for themselves and their families. Kudos to you Tom, I enjoyed your insightful perspective on thankfulness.

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