(Because this veers into rant territory, parts of it might be incoherent. Apologies. Remember, this is my sketchbook.)
One of the other teachers sometimes wears a t-shirt from her university mediation group to school. I told her jokingly that I wished we could teach mediation, educate the kids on the idea of the BATNA. But later, I realized that I wasn't joking at all. I work with sixth graders, and historically, between the school transition and the puberty, sixth and seventh grades are prime time for jerkhood no matter where you are. The kids yell at each other. When they get angry about something, instead of just TELLING US, they act it out in weird passive-aggressive ways or blow up over some other, usually much smaller, incident. And it's ridiculous. I tell them all the time that if they would just speak nicely to each other, their detentions would probably go down by 50%. The root problems wouldn't go away, and there would still be times when a good holler was necessary, but the road to solving them would be a lot smoother and faster for everyone.
But even so, I like them (obviously), and I know they have the skills to act decently. It's a matter of practice.
The other night I went out with that same teacher in a group for her boyfriend's birthday. She introduced me to one of her other friends as follows: "This is Miss Eason. She thinks about privilege a lot." (This was a compliment. She'd heard me read one of my essays.)
She's right. I do. Because, over the last eight years, I've spent a lot of time working with those very same kids, mostly very poor, mostly minorities, and - often because of the behavior described above - every day you spend doing that is a hit from a boxing glove on a spring, one that's labeled "Privilege." BAM! You did not struggle with this. POW! You took this for granted. WHAM! This problem never even occurred to you. And, to add insult to injury, the rest of the world often sends the message of fault - that struggle is a result of error, that the punches you feel are all in your head.
Because these boxing metaphors are somewhat opaque, however, I'd rather share the best summation of privilege that I've read recently - a hard knock to the idea that everyone here has the same shot. It comes from this article (via my friend Veronica, a former teacher herself).
There’s no give in the finances of a low-wage family: no margin for error, no wiggle room to account for the inevitable vagaries of life. Each day is spent tiptoeing along the edge of a canyon, knowing that the slightest breeze could push you right in.
Things that seem fairly minor to middle-income families — an unexpected car repair, a high heating bill during a cold snap, a trip to the E.R. when little Connor breaks his arm — are cause for total panic, because there’s no cushion to absorb them. Pay for that car repair and now there’s not enough for the light bill; forgo the light bill and now there’s a late fee; pay for all that and now there’s not enough for the rent.
It takes almost nothing to start a real avalanche.
My head started to hurt. People sometimes say folks are poor because they make “bad decisions,” but she wasn’t doing anything wrong (and society needs nurse’s aides, after all, so it seems reasonable to hope you could be one without worrying about starving).
What’s more, I could think of many middle-income and well-off people who’d made “bad decisions” without spiraling into poverty; the difference was just that they’d had the resources to fix them. (They could afford counseling and medication for the depression that sparked the alcohol problem, pay off credit cards just by trimming back on vacations and eating out. They could go back for a second semester after partying and flunking out, because it hadn’t taken their entire life savings to get them there for the first.)
But she had no cushion. There could be no surprises. She could not make mistakes.
I was raised to believe in the power of perseverance to overcome obstacles. I saw it happen through my parents, two of the hardest-working people that I know - people who, truth be told, operated without a cushion for a good part of their adult lives. I was raised to believe that people naturally gravitate towards a market economy. And to be honest, I still do, in my own way.
But I can't handle anymore the inverse of that idea, that these life challenges always equal fault somehow, that privilege doesn't matter that much, that the market weeded you out. As though trauma can't be inherited; as though simply attending your local school is definitely enough to prepare you for the world; as though, if you have all your paperwork in order, your applications or your loans or your processes will definitely go through. As though emotions are illegitimate, or they play no role.
Here is life in America: we trade things with each other, because that is our natural impulse, but not everyone has access to roads, or is allowed to trade with everyone else. Your school might not prepare you for the world. Your culture might not be recognized as legitimate by other people, which is, in a way, the same thing as saying that you are not legitimate either. And the world will tell you that this is your fault, because on paper you had the same chance as everyone else. But paper is two-dimensional. It doesn't let anyone else in.
The Salon article above ends with a call to compassion. In their marvelous book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, the Catholic theologians Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison argue that compassion means "to suffer with" - to understand the experience of another before making these judgments or decisions. It's easy to write off compassion as a series of inefficient handouts, a pie-in-the-sky solution, instead of what it really means: changing the tenor of the argument, lowering the amount that we scream at each other. Trying to understand the vast systemic factors that inform the other person's viewpoint. Privilege is about not having to suffer unless we choose to do so, but making that choice - the choice to at least listen and understand - doesn't mean giving in as much as it means making the problems easier to handle, by everyone. We who have so many resources, can it really be so hard?