"For me," Canada said, "the big question in America is: Are we going to try to make this country a true meritocracy? Or will we forever have a class of people in America who essentially won't be able to compete, because the game is fixed against them? [...] There's no way that is good conscience we can allow poverty to remain the dividing line between success and failure in this country, where if you're born poor in a community like this one [Harlem], you stay poor. We have to even that out. We ought to give these kids a chance."
-Geoffrey Canada, as quoted in Paul Tough's Whatever It Takes. Emphasis mine.
Confession: I have a little bit of what might be called survivor's guilt, or something akin to it. Statistically, kids like me -- Latinos, children of immigrants, and immigrants themselves -- have a higher drop-out rate than any other group (17%, while white youth are at about 6%, and Latinos make up 40% of all drop-outs). Those who do finish high school are still less likely to attend college, and those who do are less likely again to finish in four years, if they finish at all. Meanwhile, here I sit four days from having my Master's Degree conferred and a month away from working for a university (and not in the dining hall). I've spent a lot of time pondering the fortunate happenstance of my upbringing, the features of my childhood that planted me squarely on the road to higher education.
As far as I can tell, it was pure, unthinking luck on my part. I happened to have the father I have, to live the places I lived, to have certain opportunities plop themselves in front of me. I spent most of my childhood, nomadic though it was, in middle-class white neighborhoods, and I got all the perks that come with that. I am where I am now largely, maybe primarily, because I got lucky as a kid. Other kids not so different from me are struggling because they lived in a different neighborhood and got a different education.
Second confession, related to the first: that hits me as incredibly unfair, and it sticks in my craw.
There is much debate on why the poor are poor. I'm leaving that debate aside for now, because it is entirely irrelevant to my point: no one in their right mind or with a mustard seed of compassion is going to blame a third grader if she can't read. No one can possibly blame the five year old from a working class family because he starts kindergarten already at a disadvantage compared to his middle class peers. You might be able to place responsibility for an adult's situation in life on the adult because, of course, choices have consequences and people do make some truly terrible choices.
The thing is, there are a lot of kids out there suffering the consequences of someone else's choices. A lot of these kids aren't squandering their opportunities, they don't have opportunities. That's not okay.
This reality distracts me during faculty meetings and catches my wandering thoughts when I drive down the road. I high-jack conversations at parties to talk about it. It's why I'm moving up to Notre Dame and passing on any of several possibilities to stay in Texas near my family (with whom, as you must know if you've read this at all, I am totally obsessed). Because the piece of dirt a child lives on should not determine what is and is not available to her. As a human being, and especially as a Catholic, there is no way I can sit comfortably in my good fortune when so many children in my own country are effectively being denied a decent education.
Because every kid should at least have a chance.