Learning, the process of education, is bound to change a person.
This is what we want, right? We want to grow, to gain, to earn, to expand.
Funny thing. You don’t always get to select the ways this impact will occur. You crack open the book, peer under the cover, read the content. And then, your view is changed.
Case in point: privilege.
I have never thought of myself as a person of privilege. Well…I have, in terms of the place I was born on the planet, which pretty much insures that I have a place to sleep, food to eat, and some sort of family life. When I was little, I was aware that running through grass was a pleasure not afforded to everyone. I thought about grass that grows up between blacktop cracks and dandelions that sprout between the sidewalk, the only nature of “city people.” I’m not sure that I thought cities had trees.
But privileged? No.
My first home was a trailer, but we soon moved to a small ranch house in front of the town graveyard near the reservoir. I ran around in flip flops. I went to 4-H camp for cooking and sewing. I hung out at the farm on which my mom grew up. I went to church, then to Sunday dinner, with beef and noodles, mashed potatoes, bread and butter, and pie for dessert. I learned how to milk a cow, bale hay, and put up corn. This is the pretty side.
My grandparents on my father’s side did not come with such a bucolic story line. My dad’s father had VD. He worked on the railroad. Somehow, as a child, I was expected to know that a rail-hand’s ways led to wandering.
Walking home from cheer leading tryouts in fifth grade (I did not make the team, as I was woefully tall and awkward), my mom found me on my sidewalk route and picked me up. She was crying. My dad had been called in by the neighbor’s teenage daughters for watching them through binoculars. Not privileged. More like white trash.
At one point, my dad and his brothers had a physical fight at my grandma’s home one summer which led to years of their not speaking. On this side, my grandfather died young. My dad’s mom went on to marry two more times, one to a hard-drinking veteran who, now that I think back, was probably abusive. The other man was a factory worker with the nickname “Red.” Together, their idea of financial investments were Franklin Mint plates and horrid dolls, which overfilled their trailer.
Cumbered by cat-eye glasses, an overly tall and heavy build, and awkward social skills, by my family’s second move in two years – during the tragically dramatic seventh and eighth grades – I was far away from the farm. I waded into the exotic land of Cleveland and beyond to the professional suburbs of Jackson. I was gasping, out of water. Privileged? Try telling that to a crying adolescent girl.
So much of the way we see ourselves begins its definition in our childhood. Had you told me that the sheer fact that I was white made me special, I would have had no clue. There were race riots somewhere in a dark place called Detroit, with people called Black Panthers, but I thought it was because they were angry, violent people. I imagined their dandelions, pushing up through cement cracks. Did lack of grass make people mad? Crazed?
Now, this notion of privilege is pushing its way off the pages of text. I peer at it, as if I’m looking up from underneath at the surface of a sidewalk puddle. It shimmers and wrinkles. It distorts my view.
The climate of the campus in Ann Arbor makes me think differently about myself. There are people here who don’t want to know me, because they are minorities, different ethnicities, other socio-economic backgrounds. I used to want to travel globally. I thought a smile would open doors. Make friendships. Naive to think that people would rush to meet me, but this is what I thought. I also thought, and somehow still think, that which unites us is greater than what divides.
My youngest daughter used to vent her frustration at her older siblings by stating, in a scathing voice, “You don’t even know my life.” She was maybe three years old and precocious. Is this what we are all trying to say, at any age?
I peer up at this veneer, these days, of privilege. Too late to close the book. Education is a trip beyond your borders where growth seeps in, grass shooting up through the pavement.