Gratitude and the Middle Class
I am fortunate to be a middle class American. I was born one. My parents worked hard to be a part of that demographic. And they were content to be that. They were the children of immigrants. They had lived through the depression and the second world war. They were thankful to have a home, enough money to feed and clothe their kids well, and a family car to drive. They were tolerant about living in a one bathroom small cape cod style home with their six kids. It wasn’t always easy. I remember the arguments they had every month when they balanced the checkbook. Those were tense discussions. They continued even after the baby of the family was in school full time, when Mom got a job at a factory. She worked there for nearly a decade, until she had a stroke that ended her illustrious career setting up machines in a Northeast sweat shop. We were still lower end middle class, and that is what we knew.
There was never a lot of lofty talk in our home about any of us going to college, let alone an ivy league school like Yale, which was close enough to drive to. That stuff was for rich kids. Not that any of us kids showed any initiative to do such a thing. My brother Phil was smart enough and so was my sister Judy. Actually, we were probably all smart enough, it’s just that we didn’t think or talk that way in our family. It just didn’t seem to be in the realm of possibility for a family like ours. Our parents knew nothing about how to push the right choices for their kids curriculum and activities to make them attractive college material. I think once my Dad mentioned to me that I should go to school to be a Dental Hygenist, to which I replied–YUCK! Yeah, I was an idiot.
You see, my parents were not college educated. Dad never went to High School. He started working as a caddy at the golf course when he was fourteen, in 1929, to help his parents feed the family. Mom left school at sixteen after her mother died and ended up earning her diploma at “Night School.” While I’m sure they liked the idea of their kids going to college, they didn’t push us in that direction. I doubt they could have afforded it. They counseled us to work hard and to save money. I had a savings account when I was just a babysitting adolescent. I didn’t seriously consider going to college until I was in my mid twenties and tired of working retail for minimum wage. I was lucky that my young husband had learned a trade, on the job, (a practice we should revive),and had a really good gig as an aerospace machinist. So I went to school. Community College. I was doomed from the start. I knew nothing about how to maneuver through the system. I didn’t even know what an adviser was for. I picked a two year program, signed up, and diligently worked my way through two years of college maintaining a 3.8 GPA and graduating with honors. I never sat down and talked to the adviser for my program until I was graduating and needed her signature. Then she told me there were these classes and those that I could have taken at another college and applied to my credits to reach my goals–working in the travel industry–but it was too late. I was done. I was bewildered. Where was my adviser all that time? My Spanish teacher told me I was college material and should continue my schooling, but I was directionless and disappointed and felt like I just wanted to get out in the world and work. Thirty years later I wish I had listened to my Spanish teacher. There are so many exciting and lucrative careers I might have enjoyed with a better education. As it was, I worked a lot of secretarial and clerical type jobs, taught fitness classes part time and held a few retail positions before throwing in the towel and accepting my husbands invitation to stay home and take care of the farm for him. Never worked harder in my life, heh.
The reason I am telling you all this is because I know that people who are born into a certain class usually end up in that same economic class, or sliding into a lower one. And the lower you are down that ladder to begin with, the more you need people to push you to get beyond that place. You need encouragers. You need advisers. You need mentors. At the very least, you need role models. And if you don’t have those things, sometimes you don’t have any idea where, when or how to start. You find yourself doing what you know, which isn’t enough to get you anywhere. You can work as hard as or harder than someone who started out a little higher up the ladder than you, and still just maintain. Especially now.
I hear a lot of people disparaging the poor. “Get a job. Get an education. Work hard. I did and look at me.” But a lot of those people had a hand up. They had someone who pushed them in the right direction. They had people who knew how to work the system for them. They had educated parents who had high expectations and aspirations for their kids. They had money for an education. They had a loan to start a business. They had, at the very least, a mother like Ann Dunham, who encouraged and pushed her son, hard, to get educated, and whose son became our first black president. Some kids have none of that. And for them, the next rung on the ladder might as well be Mt. Everest.
Opportunity exists in America. It exists for everyone. But it is more available to those who have some privilege. Those who have an understanding of what opportunity is and how to access it. Those who have parents who are connected to, or at least plugged into, the system. Those who live in certain neighborhoods or work in certain industries. Those whose race or gender or sexual orientation do not exclude them in the eyes of small minded people.
If you have worked hard and managed to get up a rung or two or even three of the ladder, congratulations. I’m sure you’re proud of your accomplishment and rightly so! But please don’t assume that those below you have not worked hard also, maybe even harder, and not risen to your level. Two of the hardest working people I know, a couple in my family, are barely hanging on by their fingertips to that middle class status. If they worked any harder, they wouldn’t have any finger tips left to maintain that tenuous grasp. So it isn’t just about hard work. Sometimes there’s bad luck involved. Just as sometimes good fortune is due to a stroke of luck. And often times, there’s a helper out there you forgot about.
Never forget the people who helped you. If you think about it, you will recognize them. Never look down on the people at the bottom of the ladder who may seem ignorant but are most likely just uneducated. It’s tough down there.
And be grateful. Gratitude is our equalizer. It reminds us of our blessings but does not diminish our accomplishments. It helps us to see others clearly without any unfair assessments or smug comparisons. It increases our humanity and our humility. So yeah, always be grateful. It’s the stuff of greatness.