The second day of NCBI training went much like the first in terms of schedule (although we got out earlier). In terms of activities, we focused on coalition-building rather than community building. We learned how to appropriately and usefully interrupt when someone is using racial slur or other derogatory comments, we learned how to create a useful and forward-moving dialog and how to find common ground with others on opposite sides of a controversial and strongly felt position, and a few of us were specifically asked to share stories about when we faced discrimination as part of a group we identified with. I heard a lot of stories that made me furious and sad at the same time – grants purposefully sabotaged and otherwise held up because they would benefit African-American arts and artists rather than the traditional “white” arts, people divested of their voice in spiritual communities because of their sex even though they were by far better skilled and better educated than those in power, folks spending hours convincing their children that yes, something wrong had taken place and no, they weren’t crazy to feel that it had and that it mattered even though no one else seemed to notice or care.
I was one of those asked to share a time when I was discriminated against based on a group I associated myself with, which was being poor. I spoke of a time when a rather large opportunity had been within my grasp but was blocked from me merely because of my financial state. In early high school, I was one of three kids in our school to receive letters from Duke University to apply for early acceptance based on a qualifying test (I don’t remember, but I’m assuming there would have been some sort of scholarships attached to pay for schooling).
Fortunately, I was a good enough student and test-taker that I would have been able to take the test and do well. Unfortunately, taking the test involved a $300 fee. It might as well have been a million dollars, as they say. Our family was a single parent, three child household living far enough below the poverty line to be seriously scary. Every month brought a choice between which bills were going to get partially paid and which were going to be skipped. If we hadn’t had a garden, there would have been times we would might not have been able to eat, or gotten by on the barest minimum. There was simply no way we could have raised even $30, let alone $300.
In the end, I ended up with an AA from a local and solid, but hardly household-name-level, community college, which took me until just a few years ago to complete and pay for, mostly with the help of my first Americorps ed award. This was not entirely a money thing, but more of a making a living taking precedence over schooling thing. If I could have raised the test fee, though, I very likely would have had one or more degrees from the very prestigious Duke University by now and my life would have taken a very different path than it has. Spending those years outside of my own poverty class level would have exposed me to cultural variety, resources and lifestyle options that I missed out on for years. Being known as someone who was courted for early admission and who was smart enough to get it and do something with it would have resulted in others seeing me in a far different light than my current background as a poor kid turned washed-up dancer turned still-poor idealistic world-saver with few, if any, “real-word credentials.” And let’s face facts: Duke University is a name that opens any number of doors that Twin Rivers Community College simply doesn’t.
Would that other life have been better? Who knows. But I do know that I would have been exposed to a lot of contacts, opportunities and a quality of education that I have not been and quite likely never will be, at a time when it would have been most effective in changing my life and my outlook on life – when I was young enough to still handle a full college workload and the accompanying life changes without other concerns such as family, work or the general physical and mental slow-downs that come with getting older. There’s no way to turn back that particular clock. Even if I applied and got accepted on a full scholarship next year, I am far older, busier and have other priorities that would prevent me from being able to get the same value out of the education and experience as I would have had when I was all young and SpongeBobby (absorbent and porous, albeit green rather than yellow).
Am I bitter? Yeah, sure, sometimes. There’s simply no telling how differently my life could have turned out had I been able to take advantage of that opportunity. Of course, I realize that my current life path has resulted in some pretty cool experiences and whatnot on its own. I’m not oblivious to my current blessings. But still…sometimes I wonder where I would be today if it would have worked out. And sometimes I wonder how many kids today are missing out on those same sorts of opportunities for lack of a testing fee or club dues or an admissions ticket.
Life turns on these pivotal points. But as with all directional change, delta vee is dependent on a trajectory-changing push. My life hit a vital pivot and the inertia of poverty ensured that my direction continued past it almost unchanged. Here’s hoping that never happens to another child.
By the way, if you ever want a real glimpse into what being poor really means to people, check out the Being Poor post written by one of my favorite authors and the overwhelming outpouring of support and comments it received – enough, in fact, that the writer opened a new comments thread after approaching almost 350 comments in the original. The link to that second thread is in the last comment on the page, and that comments thread was also stopped at about 300, which gives you an idea of just how resonant the topic was and is. It became an online phenomenon when it hit the blogosphere and several important and respected publications (such as the Chicago Tribune), both print and virtual, have reprinted it for their own readers. It still circulates steadily and continues to generate discussion wherever it lands. [Note: there are a lot of trackbacks to scan through before you even get to the comments.]