Every so often some event comes along and turns everything you thought you knew upside down.
I’m talking about those times when a new experience tells you, in a very personal way, that there are limits to what you were certain was the truth.
I’ll give you two examples:
- On one side, the belief that anything is possible if only you try hard enough.
- On the other, the belief that, even with the best effort, the thing you hope for is out of reach.
First, take the following self-made man:
He came from an all-white world, but one of hard times, hard knocks, and hard lessons. Work was something that was required from an early age because the family needed money. His dad had two jobs, while the mom held down the home fortress, stretching food to make sure that no one starved, mending clothes because not enough dollars were available for new ones; and besides, things were used until they fell apart, not tossed away simply because fashion required a different “look” or a shinier, crisper, less frayed exterior.
This young man saw a few people in his hardscrabble Pennsylvania steel mill neighborhood — friends and others either a bit older or younger — give up on life and turn to alcohol or drugs. But most of his contemporaries learned to make a living, even if nothing very fancy or prestigious.
The mill seemed a likely destination for this boy too, just as it was for many of his buddies. Yet after a long period as a mediocre student, he alone found a way to go to college and surprised himself by being accepted into a fine graduate school, working to pay his own tuition.
Then, looking up at career goals that seemed unreachable, he took a deep breath and started ascending, never hesitating for fear that he would asphyxiate as the air thinned at the top; afraid, too, that like Icarus of the Greek myth, he might fly close to the sun and fall because his feathered wax wings, like the cheap clothes he wore, would give way.
But he did make it on the wings he had fashioned for himself, with little help from anyone. And eventually made lots of money with it. He married a beauty, had two eager and active children, came to live in a tony suburb and hung out with people who had also made it, many of whom had gone to the best schools from the beginning. Some of these men, of course, were “…born on third base and thought they’d hit a triple,” to quote Tom Harkin. No matter, he was proud to be among them.
What the man in question believed was not that he had succeeded because of great talent, since he remembered that for much of his early schooling he had been a mediocre student. Rather, he recollected the moment in his late teens when he resolved to do better and let nothing stop him.
This, he told himself — a relentless drive that would not be denied — was the secret of his success.
This, he came to believe, was what would lead any “average” person (as he thought himself to be) to that success.
And this rule, he was certain, would apply to his children too.
But as they reached their teens, the life he had imagined for his children began to look as far away as the top of his own career ladder had seemed when, as a younger man, he’d stood at the bottom.
No amount of urging from mom and dad closed the distance. No amount of “tough love” on one side or encouragement from him and his wife on the other seemed to get them nearer to anything that looked like the future he had imagined for them. No amount of tutoring created the academic excellence that the adult couple so valued and that the children had been taught was so important.
What happened to his kids could have happened to anyone’s children. Genetics and biology had trumped tutoring, encouragement, insistence, and a good home life. Both teens were afflicted with some combination of biologically based mental health issues and learning problems. The details don’t really matter. Take your pick from Depression, Mania, Borderline Personality Disorder, ADHD, Dyslexia, Executive Functioning Problems, and any other emotional or academic hurdle you care to name.
The point is that, despite the parents’ best efforts — despite all the advantages of money and books and cultural opportunities and a nice neighborhood and outside help for school work and therapy and medication — the kids had major problems that were persistent.
The man struggled with his children’s struggles. Moreover, the pain and perplexity in his kids seemed to fly in the face of his view of life, that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” and triumph. He’d lived that way for so long, it had never occurred to him that his own children might frustrate his view of things.
Until they began to have major emotional and academic problems, he’d viewed society’s failures as not having tried hard enough.
For him, just as for his kids, the question became: now what?
It was hard to let go of a principle that had served him so well for so long. It was hard to live in the echo-chamber world of all those with lots of money and lots of things and fancy cars and impressive titles and think that he’d been wrong to believe in a just world where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Oh, sure, he’d always made a few exceptions to this rule, but only for those who were accident victims or had terrible illnesses. Instead, he’d thought people should be able to overcome almost anything: poverty, indifferent parenting, poor schools, and the like.
But then there was the fact that his kids (who had everything) didn’t seem to be able to “overcome.” It made him angry, sometimes at them, sometimes at himself; and depressed; and sleepless. He was caught between his desire to push them harder and his desire to hold them and weep.
With therapy and time, things changed. He began to put less weight on the importance of achievement, status, and material success. His tendency to blame some of those in our society who struggle to make their way diminished, and he was more open to considering the possibility that sometimes (more often than he had previously thought) the law of the jungle that prevails in the “free market” did not give everyone a fair shake.
And he became a volunteer, giving his time away to tutor kids in an inner city school (time for which his clients would have paid hundreds of dollars). His world of black and white became grayer.
The change had consequences. He was a more sympathetic father. He was more accepting of his own limitations and of the frailty of life — the frank difficulty of some people in some conditions to “overcome.”
Now he didn’t feel quite right living where he lived anymore, hobnobbing with society’s winners, some of whom had simply had the good luck to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth. He moved to a more economically and ethnically diverse neighborhood.
His life had changed along with his view of the world.
And now let’s look at an inner city Chicago high school for the other “belief changing” setting:
My old high school.
In the 11 years that the Mather High School Class of 1964/65 (my graduating class) has been giving college scholarships to Mather seniors — over $100,000 worth — we have learned a few things about the lives of the kids at this public institution, part of the world of “have-nots.”
Its student body has gone from being almost all-Jewish, as it was when we attended, to becoming a “multi-ethnic stew” according to the Chicago Tribune’s Charles Storch.
Like us, many of them come from families not far removed from a life across the ocean.
Like us, they have lived in the modest dwellings that we used to inhabit in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
And like us, many come from humble economic backgrounds, though they are much more financially stressed than we ever were.
But unlike us, those students who aspire to a higher education are seen as peculiar by many of their classmates. Indeed, they are often asked why they work so hard at school and why they want to go to college, and not just by their peers.
Many of the parents of these teens are so busy trying to make ends meet that it is difficult to give attention or appreciation to what their kids are trying to achieve. Often the parents have only a vague idea of what college might be and what it can lead to.
The students, like their parents, come from a world of hard-knocks, where things go wrong more often than they go right; where being unable to pay your bills and being out of work are “normal.”
The kids come from homes where, at a tender age, they have talked to collection-agents on the phone, where they don’t expect anything but hand-me-down clothing, and where a fancy dinner is something they can only dream about.
Our class is a largely successful group that has given these kids a good deal of money in the form of scholarships, for which these children are very grateful.
But we have discovered that the money gives them something more.
The kids have told us that the idea that a group of educated and successful people are willing to give them money is almost unimaginable. And that it means to them that the future to which they aspire (and which few around them seem to fully appreciate) is really possible.
In those circumstances, the Zeolite Scholarship not only validates their dreams, but it says something that many of them have heard all too little in their short lives;
“We believe in you. What you’ve hoped for is not out of reach.”
So what do we have in these two examples?
1. A man who didn’t see himself except in the qualities he admired in successful others, until fate laid him low and gave him insight into the humanity he shared with the less fortunate.
2. A bunch of kids who couldn’t imagine that they shared anything with a group of much older, more prosperous and ethnically different adults, until those same adults told them that they did and staked their money on the truth of it.
My friends and I do see ourselves in them and, by so doing, cause some of them to see themselves in us.
We shared a neighborhood and now, some of these kids have come to embrace our sense of “possibility.”
If you have been lucky and successful in life, I hope that you will consider “paying forward” your own good fortune to these talented and needy children.
Tax-deductible checks made out to the Zeolite Scholarship Fund may be sent to:
Zeolite Scholarship Fund
c/o Jeff Carren
515 N. State Street, Suite 2800
Chicago, IL 60654
The top image is a poster called We Can Do It! from Westinghouse, associated with the World War II icon “Rosie the Riveter.” The pictured woman is actually Geraldine Doyle (1924-2010). The poster is the work of J. Howard Miller and was used by the War Production Co-ordinating Committee. The painting that follows is called Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Hans Bol (1534-1593). The third image is sourced from graduatesyorkshire.com/ The fourth picture is Icarus, painted by Hendrick Goltzius in 1588, followed by Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper, done in 1898. All but the third image are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.