Friday, April 24, 2009

Determination and the achievable American Dream.

I read stories on the news all the time about how bad the economy is, how horrible single mothers have it, how necessary government intervention is to make sure people keep eating, and keep a roof over their heads. I hear about the inner cities, and how young black men are trapped by poverty. I hear how children are born into poverty and will continue the cycle.


When I was about six or so, my dad walked out on us. I wish to God he'd walked all the way out, but he didn't, and he and my mother spent the next six years in a vicious custody fight, one made all the worse by the facts that Dad didn't really want us and was only using the fight to hurt Mom, and that he was horribly was abusive to us.

I won't go into that.

What I will say is that, by some miracle, my mother regained physical custody of us, and managed to force Dad to start paying child support. $366 per month for two of us. She never reentered the work force, and still managed to make that tiny amount stretch to cover shelter, utilities, and clothing, while the government pitched in for food. Given that, legally, we were wards of the state, and that the state chose to treat Mom as an unpaid foster parent, that's the absolute least they could do. I've got a grudge, but have already covered it in Tuesday's post.

When I was twelve, Dad lost all rights to anything other than supervised visits for an hour per week. I began to see that there would, eventually, be a light at the end of the tunnel.

So, as a twelve-year-old, I sat down and thought about my situation, and about my future. I looked at my surroundings, and at my peers, and at their parents. I realized two things: one, my surroundings (my hometown and county) were toxic; and two, my peers' parents were living the same way their parents did, and my peers would likely follow suit.

I really didn't want that. I did not want to grow up to become my mother and put my children through the same thing I'd gone through. I did not want to stay in a town and county that knew what was going on, but turned a blind eye because my dad was one of the pillars of the community: a pastor that worked at a factory and a bowling alley, like everyone else, and that volunteered to coach kids in his spare time.

I decided, at twelve, that I was getting out as soon as I could. I assumed that, though I was small for my age (frequently mistaken for nine, or so), I'd grow, and I'd enlist in one of the branches in the armed forces. I was leaning toward the Navy, because I didn't think I'd be physically capable of being a Marine. At fifteen, I stood a whopping inch under five feet, was about 85-90 pounds (which made my dreams of serving my country dubious, but still just barely possible), and I hurt myself really bad in P.E. Blew out my right knee. Found out that none of my joints would have stood up under the abuse I'd have put them through in the military.

One road out turned out to have a bridge out sign square across it. That could have stopped me, gotten me to decide I couldn't get out, and decide that it was best to stick with the dependency I knew. I didn't, though. Determination picked me back up, dusted me back off, and set me back on my feet on the crossroads.

Okay, I thought. I'll just find another way out. Women have done it for centuries--I'll find someone from somewhere else and get married. That plan didn't pan out, either. I'm really glad it didn't. Getting married just to get away from what was never home would have been a very bad idea. It would have really made me no better than a whore--exchanging sex for financial and/or other considerations.

Determination, again, is what kept me going. I took what I thought of as a long shot: I went to college (met my best friend, who I later married, there). I hadn't thought I was smart enough. Turns out I was wrong. Really wrong--I went on for an MA in English, and coasted as much as I had through college. I was expecting both college and grad school to be harder than they were.

I teach college, now. I love the job, even on days I want to smack my head against something unyielding. My husband and I have no debt, and we own a home. No, we don't make a lot of money--in fact, we're considered working poor by the government, and got a unearned income refund--but we don't come up short, either.

In short, I have achieved the American Dream. How? The way it's always been achieved. Thought. Planning. Determination. Hard work. All of the above, along with a healthy dose of get back up and either keep going or change direction.

I'm not that special. I managed to get out of a bad situation mostly intact. I love teaching, so I can't say my sanity stayed intact, but still. I've got everything I ever really wanted.

And if I can do it, anyone can. All they need is to want to get out, to know they can, to plan their way out in workable steps, and to be flexible enough to change their plans. It may not be easy, but is that simple.

Anyone who says that it isn't that simple in the inner cities is racist.

1 comment:

  1. =)

    You are very right. I remember my boss telling me 3 years ago that 'making it' in life wasn't about being super-rich and having everything. He told me it was working hard, saving, and making smart decisions. He told me anyone could thrive if they just didn't make a wrong turn after another.

    I do think it is hard sometimes to not look at the news or other's crappy decisions and life and start to self-doubt. Is there really a better life out there? Can I avoid such mistakes? I think a lot of perseverance and attitude is what makes 2 similar situations have different outcomes. If people planned more, maybe saved more, didn't life each day like it was the last (or take out one payday loan to pay off the other each week) maybe life would have more possibilities and options.


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