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On the Casual Conversations We Have About Other People’s Lives

My brother is an incredibly wise and gentle man. In response to the Trayvon situation, he said “and this is why the good have to die young.” My brother would know, we are sending him to die in January. I sobbed, reading that. I sobbed for the losses of our children sent to die in another man’s war. I sobbed because I knew that if my brother had been born into wealth, he would be just going to a regular job and watching his children grow as he guided them through their lives. On some level, he knows everyday that he may not get to see that. And that is what breaks my heart. That is what keeps me up at night. The bodies, faces of people who easily could have been the people I love, that never get to see adulthood. That never learn what it is to be able to assume life. To be able to assume peace. To be able to assume health. This is the biggest cultural gap between my privileged friends at Stanford and me. Violence is my norm. Hunger is my norm. Poverty is my norm. I feel that deeply in my bones, no matter how far I get from the poverty of my youth. I also know, it is the specter that haunts my brother, that haunts my friends, that will haunt my brother’s son, that haunts my boyfriend. As a woman, I am haunted by rape and domestic violence. Our men are haunted by death and war.

There are children who will never know what it is like to walk down the street and feel completely safe. There are children who will never know what it is like to not have to worry about food. There are children who will never know what it means to have medical care. My nephew, my beautiful nephew, didn’t have good health care for the first year of his life until my brother joined the military and as a result of that fact, his constant ear infections knocked out his hearing and now his speech is delayed. He is resilient, and he has many beautiful gifts and I have no doubt he will overcome that but I see no reason why he should have to. I remember talking to Vaden and telling them that I had whooping cough as a little girl. They said: “I thought we eradicated that in the United States.” I grew up 3 hours away from Stanford. Some days I fantasize about all of the things I could have accomplished if there had been no barriers for me, and then I feel like an enormous douchebag because I still got to go to Stanford and there are people I know whose gifts and talents were squandered, whose lives will be lost because they never had a shot.

I think about the arguments we had about sending in troops to various parts of the world and I think how casual those arguments were. Over salads, at house parties, in our dorms, it seemed like a casual thing to do. Our elite is so removed that they can casually talk about sending my brother to die over beers. I think about every conversation about education and how quickly and casually they devolved to blaming children for the problems they faced. And I see that my classmates, the elite, were happy to screw me over quite casually over salads. If we are a meritocracy then why can we casually give away the lives of others? Why can we choose to acquire more wealth on the backs of others?

The question comes up often: “How much money do they need?” How much is enough? Will it be enough when my brother is dead? I doubt it, how many other sons and brothers have been sent to die? Will it be enough when my friends know they have no hope of escaping and know that they can’t guarantee that they will live past their 18 birthday and know that in a court of law and in their schools that no one thinks of them as children and so they get on with their adult decisions? That is already happening, so I guess the answer is no. We’ve created a system where people arbitrarily determine the worth of human beings for personal gain and then blame people when, shocker, without the same resources, they can’t do the same things. I really thought that maybe this time that the death of Trayvon was going to be enough. I thought maybe we were getting better, I argued we were when my mom laughed at my naivete and when the verdict came back we both, in our need to be strong, held back anger and tears and ended the phone call with the words it could’ve been, followed by a list. And the next day I logged into a Facebook and I saw casual conversations about how the feeling of “safety” and “superiority” was more important than life, right next to all the Instagram photos of exotic travels.

I don’t blame my poor Stanford friends, many of them went into lucrative fields to make money or to be free for the first time in their lives, and even at Stanford, even with their Stanford degrees, they had less agency than the other kids on campus. I do want to say this, I went into teaching, despite the low pay for someone with my educational background, because I decided that I had enough and that no child’s life was worth my having extra comfort. None of my poor friends made that decision lightly, but most of the other kids at Stanford did it without a thought. They call me and my other working class teacher friends crazy for the choice we made, because their system validates that view so much that it is casual.

When will the lives and deaths of our sons, brothers, sisters, daughters, children, and neighbors matter enough that we can’t have casual conversations about it anymore? People get mad at me quite often for turning it into a personal choice, they tell me it isn’t fair, they tell me it is the structure, that we shouldn’t talk about individuals and personal responsibility because that might offend some people. But I can’t escape the fact that I know the people who built the system, and I know how they came to their decision. And I know it is painful for them to read this, and I know that the young people among them didn’t choose this, but if we don’t talk about it, if we don’t tell them it is a choice, if we don’t hold them accountable, nothing is going to change. Institutions, societies, they don’t spring up out of nowhere, people build them with every generation. When people tell you that we should only talk about the system and not people, they are taking away what is essentially good and powerful in humanity, and that is the ability to choose. I’ve had some amazing kids over the years, and I have watched how when empowered with the right information they want to be essentially good, no matter their background. When we take away that option from them, they feel helpless to resist a system they didn’t want to be part of in the first place, and over time, they become hardened and they give up, all of them. Rich or poor, this is what happens. But when you give them their agency they can make the small choices that lead to the bigger choices that cause social change. A friend once asked why I worked with children, and I said that it was because they were still willing to learn, he then asked if adults were just “f- up children” and I said no, “the adults f-up children”. We were both right. That is our responsibility as adults now, to maintain and protect their innocence and goodness at all costs, so they can do what we have been unable to do.

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