Jeremiah was twelve years old, and in the seventh grade. He stood on a grassy mound outside his private middle school, waiting for his mom to drive up in her luxury sedan so he could get into the back seat (he wasn’t quite heavy enough for the front airbag). He was the only twelve-year-old in the pickup area; he had just finished math club, where all the other kids were in the eighth grade and thirteen or fourteen years old. Almost everyone’s mom had already come to pick them up. Jeremiah let the heavy backpack full of textbooks drop from his aching shoulders and he sat down on the grass. He sighed in boredom, picking blades one by one and tossing them into the wind beneath the clear blue North Carolina sky.
Tomorrow he had an essay due for his literature class. He was a grade ahead in two subjects – literature and math. He read at a college level at home. The essay had been completed two weeks ago, the evening it was assigned. But now he was considering whether he wanted to submit it at all. He could easily rewrite it. He could do it tonight and still have time to do everything else on his agenda: play with his friend Toby, build the fort they had been planning, write at least two pages of his new novel, watch an episode of Home Improvement, and read for a half hour before bed. Oh, and finish the other homework. It was hardly even worth mentioning. It was easy.
Why rewrite the essay? Well…it was primarily because of what Jennifer said in math club tonight. Jennifer, fourteen and in the eighth grade, was in his literature class. The assignment was to write your origin story, acknowledging your privilege. Jennifer had said she was excited to read his, because she knew that he would say something that would challenge the status quo — something that would really highlight the struggle against privilege in our society. She had said that his would be a game-changer. She was flirting with him, he knew. But even if they shared some aspects of their past, her “activism” frankly made her unattractive to him. He had been taught a different way.
But still…was it right to aggravate her with what he had actually written? Was it right to stir up controversy? Her narrative was not only what she believed, but what the school was teaching, as well. So many were taught or encouraged to feel guilty for their privilege. And a select few were singled out, exempted from such encouragement, because it was assumed that their struggles were much worse than what anyone else could have felt in their life. None of this was every overtly discussed, but Jeremiah was no dummy. It was plain to see that’s what was going on.
His mom finally arrived. She was late because she couldn’t leave until the repair man left, who had been fixing the Sub-Zero refrigerator in their kitchen. Jeremiah went home that evening and quickly finished his homework. He went out to play with his friend Toby, and the two of them rode their bikes down the street of their nice, safe neighborhood to a construction site, where they stole some wood out of a dumpster. No one called the police on them. Jeremiah wasn’t sure if anyone actually saw them, but if they did, they probably didn’t care that two boys had stolen the wood. They transported the materials to the side of a small stream and proceeded to use Jeremiah’s dad’s tools to poorly construct a fort. It wasn’t long before the sad, leaning fort collapsed, and Jeremiah jumped out of the way and fell into the stream!
Wet and cold, he said goodbye to Toby and made his way back to his 5000 square foot house, where he snuck in (so as not to be questioned about why he was soaking wet) and took a shower in his private bathroom, attached to his room. He was clean and warm for a delicious dinner, which the family ate without his dad. His dad was working downtown, of course. He was an executive, and had very long hours. Jeremiah was able to fit in everything he planned, including writing three pages of his new novel on his personal computer in his room. He watched his favorite show on DVD in his room as well, and then read for a half hour before getting ready for bed. But then he remembered! The essay! Well…his parents had taught him that it was extremely important to his academic success for him to be strict with his bedtime. And so, having been taught to be responsible, he put himself to bed without rewriting the essay. The class would just have to deal with his unexpected stance on the issue. It would be surprising. He had been relatively silent about everything until now. He didn’t even know what spurned him to write such a controversial essay. But he did. And they would all read it tomorrow, when all 9 of them in the advanced 8th grade literature class in his little private school sat in a circle and discussed their origins and privilege.
“Where did I come from? My blood cells die every 120 days or so. Various other tissues are replaced continuously. So in that sense I came from not too long ago. But the substance in this body lived in the Earth long before it lived in me. Part of me was in a Native American over four centuries ago, who hunted game, and rode a horse, and lived in a hut. Part of me was a fish 2000 years ago. A cave man. A dinosaur. Dust roaming through space. Who am I? I am made of the dust of the earth.
Over 70 years ago my grandfather was in Auschwitz. A small boy caught up in a large war, he did what he had to. He fought others. He told me once he killed another boy over some bread. It stayed with him for his entire life. He’s a quiet man. He walks with a limp. I don’t know why. I see the tattoo on his arm when he doesn’t realize his sleeve doesn’t cover it all the way as he carves the Thanksgiving turkey. He drank too much at one time, but doesn’t drink anymore. He has a bad liver because of it. He knows some choices were bad ones, but he also knows he’s made some good ones. He found love. He stayed with his love even when they fought and fought and talked about divorce. He had a kid. My dad. He taught my dad that no matter what the world does to you, they can’t take away your will to survive. And so even before my dad got cancer, he made sure that we had a way to survive. He bought life insurance. He worked really hard. He was building a life for us, before he ever knew it might be threatened. We still have that life, and will always have that life, even if he dies, because he made good choices. Our privilege to live in our neighborhood, to go to our school, to eat good food, comes from his choices. I am Toby Rosen, my next door neighbor and best friend.
About a hundred fifty years ago my great, great grandmother traveled to America on a ship. She paid for her fare with her last coin, so she arrived with literally nothing but the clothes on her back. She was sixteen. Left behind her in Ireland were her parents and six brothers and sisters. She had worked since she was twelve, earning her fare. This was her dream. She arrived and immediately was quarantined. She had some kind of illness, we’re not sure what kind. She was finally let go, and she was given a new last name. She had nowhere to stay, but she had a lead that they were looking for a nurse at the hospital not far from the docks. She walked there. It was cold and raining, and her shoes were worn and old. She arrived sopping wet, asking the clerk for a job even though a sign said clearly “No Irish Need Apply.” She was, of course, denied. She found a job mopping floors in a bar. That was where she met her husband. He was also from Ireland – his family came when he was a little boy. He delivered ice to the bar every Tuesday and Friday. He could do a spot-on New York accent that made her laugh. One day, after they were married, he brought home a tattered anatomy book. He had saved up his pennies to buy it for her. She cried, she was so happy. She read it cover to cover, again and again. She got into nursing school. She worked and studied, and made time for little else. She became a nurse, and eventually became the head nurse at the very hospital she was denied employment. She retired, and raised her children comfortably as her husband kept working really hard, long hours. He eventually took over the ice company. Her daughter never knew the discrimination she knew. Their family never took part in the “activism” of other immigrants in their neighborhood. They just worked hard, and let their work speak for itself. My mother was able to go to college and become an executive because of what her grandmother sacrificed. My life is not struggle free, now that my ancestors have done these things. I have my own struggles, and my own disadvantages and privileges. It is up to me to make good choices – I have that responsibility and that duty, because I cannot prosper solely based on the choices that my parents made, and their legacy is in my hands. If I fail, my kids or theirs may end up right back where our family started. I am Kathleen McGuinness, the girl I sit next to in Sunday School.
I was born without legs. In the orphanage in China, they didn’t try to adopt me out. They assumed no one would want me. It was a man and woman from America who saw me by accident one day who rescued me. They are the only ones who ever wanted me, who didn’t take me out of obligation, who didn’t look at me as a burden. You might think that would make me bitter and emotionally stunted, that it would give me some kind of handicap, that no one wanted me until that point. I think that’s kind of funny. The important thing is not what happened before, but that someone wanted me eventually. And I still had a lot of struggle to overcome, but with their love, I was able to do it. I am doing very well. I’m homeschooled, and I am fourteen but I’ll be at the community college level soon. I use prosthetic legs, and I run and ride a bike and do all sorts of things. It’s because my parents made good financial choices that they were able to adopt me in the first place, and it’s because of those choices that I enjoy the life I lead now. It’s because of the sacrifice of those who fought for our freedom in America that I can live in such a place. It’s because of the genius of our Founding Fathers that in this land, even someone like me can have an equal shot at everything. I am Jack Harris, my neighbor from down the street.
I have my own origin story. My own challenges that I’ve personally overcome, and privileges I enjoy because of the struggle of my ancestors, and even the recent struggles of my parents. As I write this, my dad is coming home from an 85-hour week. That’s normal for him. He works hard so I can have what I have, and he had to overcome a lot of struggles to get where he is today. Some of those struggles are politicized. Some people think that they should be ashamed of the privileges they have. They think that because others don’t have those things now, that the have-not-nows can only achieve those things if those that have them now abdicate their privilege. Some people advocate for the privileged to be silent, others for the privileged to “educate themselves” about the experiences of the unprivileged. Learning about others is good. That is why I highlighted others’ stories here – not because I do not have a story of my own, but because it is no more impactful than those whose stories are not as politicized. But listening to other voices should not come at the cost of the voice of the “privileged.” Everyone deserves a voice. And if someone who is privileged knows something to be wrong, then it is their duty to stand up and say that it’s wrong, even if someone unprivileged is doing it, and even if they think they’re doing it for good reasons. No one is above anyone else.
We are all made of the same stuff. The same molecules make us up, and our cells regenerate throughout our lives. In that sense, we are all becoming brand new people all of the time. We are free to shed the baggage of our past, ignore the history that holds us down, and step forward on the paths we know definitely lead to success.
Everyone has privileges. Everyone benefits from the good choices of others, especially those in our own families. That isn’t wrong. That should be celebrated, because those privileges were earned! But everyone also has struggles. Who is to say that my struggle is harder or easier than yours? Who is to say that Kathleen McGuinness’ great great grandmother had it easier than Jack Harris, or the other way around? Not everything is easy to judge by looking at the surface. And who says we need to make that judgment at all?
Let’s stop talking about privilege, except to say that we are thankful for the privileges we have earned through generations of good choices and hard work. Let’s stop judging the value of certain struggles, except to say that struggles are necessary for us to become stronger. Struggles are made to be overcome! And let’s stop talking about origins, except to say that we are all of the same starstuff, and when we return to our Maker, we will all recognize one another as brothers and sisters. We are held back by nothing. I am freed by both the ephemeral nature of my body’s cells, and by the eternal nature of my soul.”