When I became a vegetarian, my mother gave me a $200 gift card to a steakhouse. "Enjoy the salad," she said, giggling. She smiled slowly, and softly added: "I love you."
"I love you too, Mom."
The fall of my junior year of high school, my mother handed me this gift across a Thanksgiving table. It was encased within a hazelnut coffee-stained business envelope. It was a joke regarding my recent attempts at crunchy-granola-urban-hipsterdom, a quiet reminder that I did not quite fit in at the table. I placed the envelope across my lap and stared out the window at an Oklahoma suburb that I would only call home for a few days; I live with my father in New York, flying out to visit my mother and her family in Norman when I can.
I noticed the Waffle House across the street, the empty road, and a dark blue sky, every star completely visible.
The following Friday morning, I sat out in my mother's front lawn while my sister mowed the grass. We looked similar, awkward with our dirty-blonde hair and big shoulders, eyes different shades of the same blue. Her arms, built from hours of physical labor, were tan, almost stained by the sun, my skin pale and slightly pink. We talked about life, her boy troubles, her job.
"Maybe I would be a good chemical engineer." She sighed. "I think I would be good." And I think she would. But I know that in reality, she probably won't. She probably can't.
Normally, my Thanksgivings are hosted in Brooklyn brownstones, a 40-minute subway ride from my Manhattan apartment. They are gatherings of my Jewish, mostly liberal relatives, all laughing happily. Someone will complain about the teacher's union. An aunt will talk about her recent trip to Ethiopia; a family friend will discuss the most recent performance at Lincoln Center.
This November, my friends will all return from prestigious, mostly Ivy League, universities; we will drink Chai lattes and discuss the "work-hard-play-hard" culture rampant at our respective colleges, our prospects for working at that start-up this summer, and maybe the possibility of graduate school. We'll complain about OCR (On Campus Recruiting) skipping over majors in Philosophy for ones in Economics. We'll mention our experiments in our personal cultural revolutions: shopping at Williamsburg thrift stores, reading Marx, even experimenting with vegetarianism. Nothing seems beyond our reach.
And when we discuss our political affiliations, we will make grand sweeping statements about the problems related to class inequity in America. From our ivory towers, we’ll argue for access to higher education, forgetting the important difference between acknowledging privilege and the presumption of demanding action without needing it. Forgetting, that when our debates are over, we can go back to school. It's that sort of passive intellectual activism that never gets much done. Coffee-shop debates that never lead to policy change. Deciding everything is "problematic," and then proceeding through the rest of the day, unscathed. Never emotionally invested.
At my mother's dinner table, miles away, her husband, my half-sisters and brothers, will gather around a Walmart turkey. And, though five of my half-siblings are older than me, I am the first one to attend college. My sisters work management positions at grocery stores and Cracker Barrels. They tell me they are happy.
So when I think about the thing I am most thankful for this year, it is education. I am thankful I was raised with expectation, and ability, to attend college, equally important and vital to my pursuit of an undergraduate education. I am thankful that throughout my childhood, I was both subtly and explicitly reminded that school was the route to success. I am thankful for the vast opportunities I had, growing up in New York City and being able to attend the fantastic public high school and university I did. I am also thankful that my father constantly reminds me of his side of the family's working class routes.
But I can appreciate my travels to Oklahoma. Spending time with my mother's side of my family, I am reminded of smaller things. I footnote intimate moments and historical facts. I notice the chance to spend time with my siblings, the beauty of land without skyscrapers, and Native American casinos. In Oklahoma, I think about The Grapes of Wrath, discussions of colonialism, Manifest Destiny, Thomas Jefferson's "agrarian dream" for America. My perception of this place is inherently rooted in all ways I was taught to think about it, subtle romanticized American objectification.
In many ways, Oklahoma is gorgeous, and feels much more like the stereotype of America we should think of on Thanksgiving Day. But I wonder, if the beauty I find in it stems from an urban, upper-middle class advantage. I am only a guest to this side of America, a version I can leave whenever I want.
"I will get all eight of my children through high school," my mother tells me, "that's a lot more than you can say for a lot of people." She reminds me making it to the 12th grade in America can be hard. It is often really, really hard. I remember that she only had the opportunity to finish school well into her adult-life, while pregnant with me. As I jump on Facebook during a math lecture, bored to tears by a professor accomplished enough to have his own Wikipedia, my mother struggles under the weight of housing bills.
After getting diplomas, my siblings, to me, all seem stuck. Perhaps, it's naive, maybe even pretentious, of me to think that education is the only way to achieve. But when many college students talk about the need for college accessibility, we encounter a problem: the system is an atrocity, we say, but we are also still very thankful that it worked out for us.
My sisters have been out of high school for years, and have yet to save up enough money to enroll in community college and start working towards degrees. While I count in semesters, they count in paychecks. It's unfair. And it's not because I was smarter or worked harder, but rather that I was lucky enough to be raised with college as a fundamental expectation, not a “maybe,” “what if,” or “maybe later.”
And it's not like they, like countless others, do not "try." One of my sisters attended JobCorp, a government program meant to help students get their GEDs and provide basic vocational training. It is run by the U.S. Department of Labor, one of the agencies we discuss in our college political science courses. These are the programs we discuss with public policy professors, never imagining that we could ever need them.
My sister said she liked JobCorp. A couple months into it, she transferred from the culinary program to the one in carpentry. She has a certificate of some sort, but still works with a job in the food service industry with little likelihood for promotion.
Students at elite universities are often quick to say a blue-collar career isn't for them, but are happy to argue that we need to "increase" vocational programs since college "just isn't for everyone." But most of these students never once entertained the thought they wouldn't be receiving higher education.
But there is an attitude problem at colleges like my own that needs to be fixed. Here, we label ourselves as "intellectual" because we were always told we could and because we can.
And while I know the American Dream says working from the bottom, by your bootstraps, is the best road to success. But in reality, the do-it-all-by-yourself version of the American dream requires a lot of hope. Hoping is hard. Really, really hard.
This problem is two-fold: the uncertainty of college admissions is inherently intertwined with its expense. If you think you have already lost the financial collegiate game, the challenges involved with submitting a standout application and resume seem too much.
My own college application process was militant, exhausting, arbitrary, and needlessly expensive. There are the costs that arrive with SAT prep, college touring, extracurricular activities, A.P. courses. This, very quickly, can sometimes amount to tens of thousands of dollars. No, it's not hyperbole. A family friend works at a NY tutoring program that pays hundreds per hour. Parents will drop $6,000 for a summer mission trip in a Third World country. Even the tuition families will spend on private school to avoid the broken American public high school system.
This is not simply a high cost to compete, but an absurd barrier to entry.
This Thanksgiving, I hope to reflect on all the reasons I am very lucky.
I was lucky enough to not only being raised in a house where college was affordable, but also with a culture of college being affordable. My brothers and sisters on my mom's side were not, illuminating how education, wealth, happiness, and family can all be intimately related.
The financial and educational inequities in America are strange to consider when they are nestled right between you and your siblings. They become a lot more real, and a lot more humbling, when separated by a mere link on your family tree.
The differences in class, reflected by whom you invite, what you talk about, and even what you eat, feel a whole lot closer when they invade your Thanksgiving table.
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