Despite living in the proverbial Land of Opportunity, we are not all on equal playing fields.
Life isn’t always fair and, for some, it will never be fair.
I observed this pretty early.
The summer between seventh and eighth grade, my parents moved me and my younger sister from private to public school in my hometown of DeLand, Florida.
Speaking from experience, the middle school years can be especially tough for adolescent girls. Probably tougher than high school. Already trying to figure out who I was and navigate my way through the world, I was now faced with starting from scratch at a new school where I didn’t know a soul.
I was terrified and didn’t want to be “The New Girl.”
Fortunately, the first day of eighth grade was a success, mainly because I met a girl named Michelle in homeroom.
Introduced herself, acquainted me to other classmates, and made me feel at home. By lunchtime, we were already exchanging notes in class (we had three together!) and talking about which boys we thought were cute and how we hope we didn’t have to “dress out” in P.E. since it was just the first day.
Michelle and I instantly became best friends.
Michelle had tons of amazing qualities. She was smart (way smarter than me) and easily caught on to complicated algebraic equations I could never understand, even if I was armed with a fancy calculator.
She wanted to be a doctor when she grew up.
Not only was Michelle hilarious, but she was also socially gifted and could easily navigate a conversation with a diverse array of groups.
Everyone knew and liked Michelle.
As the year progressed, I started seeing things that were unusual.
One of five children, Michelle’s parents were divorced and her mother had sole custody of all of them. Michelle’s mom had a medical condition that precluded her from working and she was on disability. Michelle’s dad lived in Ohio.
Michelle didn’t have a landline at her house. Her mother couldn’t afford one and these were the days before cellular phones, so if I needed her to call me, she would have to walk to the convenience store near her house and call from a pay phone.
She routinely came to school wearing clothes that were either stained or were what she wore the day before.
Her shoes had holes in them, exposing her equally-holed socks.
While Michelle was open to going to other peoples’ houses (the logistics had to be planned days in advance because of the phone situation), she was guarded about having anyone come home with her.
My first glimpse into her housing situation came one day in English when a boy, who happened to be one of her neighbors, embarrassed her in front of the entire class by loudly declaring that her house was “disgusting.”
Like a scene from a movie, Michelle literally ran out of the classroom hysterical.
Apparently what her neighbor said had struck a nerve.
(I subsequently saw her house when my parents drove her home from school one day. It was a two-story yellow dilapidated wood frame house with a wrap-around front porch littered with trash, clothing, and old furniture. Michelle’s family was poor beyond comprehension. Not long after, the house was condemned by the local government as unfit for human occupancy.)
As time went on, Michelle confessed that her mother was mentally and physically abusive. The stains on her clothes were usually remnants of food and beverages Michelle’s mother would sinisterly throw on Michelle and her siblings as they left for school. Through tears, Michelle confided that her mother routinely said unthinkable things to her.
I should have had an abortion when I was pregnant with you.
You’re garbage, so eat this garbage off the floor.
I wish you were dead.
There were many times when Michelle would come to school with bruises and her face would be swollen from crying.
Sometimes she would tell the truth about what prompted the tears, and other times she would make excuses.
Toward the end of the school year, Michelle moved to Ohio to live with her dad. Though I was broken hearted for losing my best friend, Michelle’s relocation was for the best.
Eventually, life got in the way and Michelle and I lost touch.
For whatever reason, Michelle returned to live with her mother our junior year of high school. By that time, I had a new group of friends with similar interests and backgrounds as me.
While I tried to include Michelle in my established life and friendship circle, we had too many differences. My friends and I were active in student government, honors societies, and preparing for college. Michelle was interested in skipping class and smoking in the school bathrooms.
One summer when I was home from college, I took a part time job hostessing at a restaurant. To my surprise, Michelle was also working there as a waitress.
Like our middle school days, Michelle showed me the ropes and got me acquainted with the staff.
I remembered why I had been instantly attracted to her charisma and sense of humor so many years before.
As the weeks went on, Michelle and I were able to catch up on happenings of the last few years. She dropped out of high school when she got pregnant following a one-night stand. The State declared her an unfit mother and took the child away. She was arrested on multiple drug-related and prostitution charges (she claimed she was set up). She had been in several abusive relationships and was living with a man two decades her senior in the outskirts of town.
She thought she might be pregnant.
Michelle still had a lot of animosity over the strained relationship with her mother. The physical and mental abuse never stopped and was driven primarily by her mother’s own self-loathing, which she projected onto her children. All of Michelle’s brothers and sisters had significant emotional and developmental problems.
Michelle told me that her mother was addicted to crack cocaine and living in a shed behind a friend’s house.
The type of shed someone would use to store things like ladders, paint, and lawn equipment.
Michelle was having a hard time and we again lost touch after I returned to college when summer was over.
Fast forward fifteen years.
My knowledge about Michelle’s whereabouts is limited to digging around on the Internet.
Michelle has had four children taken away from her and has been incarcerated more times than I can count. She’s been hooked on drugs and her once beautiful smile has fallen victim to addictions like nicotine and methamphetamine. According to one family member, Michelle has significant problems with depression and has been Baker Acted multiple times.
Michelle was good and smart and kind and ambitious.
Based on her upbringing, Michelle never stood a chance.
There is a school of thought that in America, the land of opportunities, everyone has an equal chance to learn, lead, and to be successful.
“All you have to do is work really, really hard and success will naturally come!”
A belief that we are all on the same playing field with the same opportunities.
It’s not true.
We are not all on the same playing field.
Kids whose parents are doing drugs and physically abusing them are not on the same playing field as kids who come from a loving, stable household.
Kids whose parents mentally torture them are not on the same playing field as kids whose parents are ready and able to provide emotional support.
Kids whose parents live in and perpetuate an environment of cyclical poverty are not on the same playing field as kids whose parents provide basic needs such as food, shelter, electricity and clothing. (Let alone the kids of parents who are able to provide the lavish comforts of country clubs, exotic vacations, and prestigious boarding schools.)
Kids whose parents don’t care what they are doing and who they were hanging out with are not on the same playing field as kids whose parents observe their friendships and hold them responsible for making wise decisions.
Kids whose parents show no interest in academic success are not on the same playing field as kids whose parents help them do their homework and hold them accountable when they earn poor grades.
The playing fields aren’t always even and this disparity makes a huge difference in the long run.
Michelle is proof of that. Based on her upbringing and short of a miracle, she never stood a chance of being the doctor she wanted to be.
She never stood a chance at much of anything.
All of us know a Michelle. I have known and observed many Michelles, both personally and in my career. If the dice were rolled differently and I was born into a different family, I could have been a Michelle. So could you.
Sure, there are always outliers. The people who overcome unimaginable adversity and go on to be contributing members of society.
But that is not the norm.
In the United States, 21% of all children live below the federal poverty line. Nearly 700,000 are abused annually. More than 8 million children live with at least one parent who’s addicted to alcohol or drugs.
Persistently poor children are 13% less likely to finish high school and 43% less likely to complete college as their peers.
If you have parents who care about you and met your basic needs, then you’re lucky.
Does this mean that kids who come from families that are intact and financially responsible should be punished for things they cannot control?
But it does mean that we should want to see disadvantaged kids succeed, even if it means they are receiving assistance or special privileges to push them along the way.
It does mean that before we judge someone’s outcome, we should seek to understand the bigger picture of how they got there to begin with.
It does mean that we feel sincere compassion and empathy for other peoples’ unfortunate circumstances.