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.