This is what I did after I wrote my piece yesterday: I helped my kids study for their spelling bee.
This may seem like a small thing, but it is an incredibly important building block. One of my daughters (yeah, the one who got her baby tooth capped yesterday) is – despite the fact that she’s very smart and very capable – very afraid of failure. She’s never failed. Therefore, she’s never really succeeded. She avoids competition, because she might lose. The spelling bee is a competition she is more likely to win, or at least do well in. It took me five days and a potentially expensive bribe to get her to agree.
But it’s worth it. Because the prize at the end of this is not winning a trophy or getting some refurbished electronic toy. The prize at the end of this is knowing that she can reach beyond her limits, and in doing so perhaps begin to discover something about herself she didn’t already know.
We talked a lot about that idea this past summer, as we watched “So You Think You Can Dance.” Yes, the dancers are marvelous. Yes, the choreography is (mostly) beautiful and intriguing. Yes, my daughters love dance. But what I kept pointing out was how much the dancers were changing as the competition wore on – how much they’d grown both as artists and as people. Each one of those dancers was continually asked to do something he or she didn’t think they could do. And then they did it anyway. And they did it well. You could see the confidence growing as if it were a material thing.
I’ve experienced that kind of growth. Yes, I, like my daughter, have passed things up because I didn’t think I was good enough or I didn’t want to fail – only to curse myself later. But I’ve also waded in – gotten up on that stage, sent in that story, came out, fell in love, had my heart torn apart. I started a business because I had to. I wrestled with the challenges as they came up. And I have succeeded way beyond what I had dreamed – even though I’m not rich by society’s definition.
I have learned tremendously through my failures and challenges. I am incredibly capable. I have that confidence. I want my daughters to have that confidence, too.
Now, being me, I can’t simply stop at my daughters. Every day, as I have to juggle more and more balls simply because of my marital and economic circumstances, I think of the people in the same sorts of situations who grew up without ever learning the exhilaration of succeeding beyond their dreams, who have never gained that confidence. I think of people who really have no dreams.
This is what kills me when I hear people saying that the poor are poor because they choose to be. That statement lacks realization that being poor means you have many more hoops to jump through – to arrange child care for your first AND second jobs; to get to the grocery store in between and schedule (if not cook) meals; to help your kids with life and homework; to keep the gas or electricity on. And to deal with the ever-present mortification, that whisper of “you’re worthless, you’re worthless,” every time you have to ask for help, or every time your lights get turned off because the electricity money went to repair your car so you could get to work - or every time you see your children give up. Being poor and single with kids is a constant challenge.
What happens to the people who never learned as kids or young adults to overcome challenges? What happens to the people who never gained that confidence? What do we do with a whole swath of the population that simply doesn’t know HOW to succeed, and who don’t have a hope of having a hope?
That’s a lot of what it means to be poor in this country. It’s not that people don’t choose to start a business, or get their PhD. It’s that those things are not even on their radar screens. Or if they are, the rest of their life is so overwhelming they simply can’t reach it.
Yes, we hear success stories – of some kid who grew up poor and ended up becoming a Supreme Court justice or an astronaut. But there’s an element in those stories that is always the same. There's always someone in the story who demanded more than societal expectations. There’s always somebody who taught them how to dream.
Despite those stories, there are people in this country who are so overwhelmed by what it takes just to get through one day that they have no hope of ever conquering it. They have no hope of making it better. They don’t know that they can.
So, every day I deal with those balls. And I look my daughters in the eye and I tell them they’re gonna enter the fuckin’ spelling bee whether they want to or not. And I go to work and I focus on making something wonderful. I focus on the future.
Because I can.