“Everyone back home acts like I’m some kind of genius.”
“That’s because you are.”
I know that it is socially unacceptable for me to say this out loud, but I am smarter than a large portion of the population. It doesn’t make me better or worth more and it isn’t enough. If I were just as smart and lazy or just as smart and struggled with substances I wouldn’t be writing this. I’m not writing this to brag about myself. I’m writing this because that conversation above has happened, a lot. The thing is, my friends back home, my family, pick no bones about making sure that I understand that I have a gift that they don’t. The reason for this is that there is a danger in me not understanding that. The danger is that if I got to Stanford because of just hard work, or because I’m compliant in school, then the millions of other kids who didn’t were lazy and that’s just not true. I wasn’t really the most hard working kid in high school. I worked hard, but I also spent a lot of nights staring at the stars and writing graffiti on park signs. I know people who worked a lot harder than me and none of them went to Stanford.
It sounds nice to say that the most talented people got there only through hard work, but the problem with that is that it is both false and damaging to nearly everyone else. None of us can be everything. Working hard won’t make you 6’4”, it won’t make it possible for you to write A+ Stanford research papers in 5 hours, it won’t make it possible to paint the Mona Lisa. I will never be Richard Sherman. And that’s ok. Because we don’t need all of us to be Richard Sherman. We don’t need every human being to be me, and I suspect that if everyone was we wouldn’t get anything done and our houses would be gross. Some people have tremendous talent, and some people had a lot more help.
I think my most ferocious fights at Stanford were with the other first generation college students. Because they were so quick to put down the community they came from, they’d call them lazy and use themselves as examples, ignoring the fact that some of them had parents and home lives I could have only dreamed of (one of the stereotypes of the poor kids is that we ALL came from broken homes, that is in fact rarely the case), most of them had the opportunity to go to good schools, unlike the vast majority of the other poor kids in this country, some of them had raw intelligence and talent that far outstripped most people. But the thing that none of them had, was more work ethic than my sister, or my stepdad and it makes me want to fight people when they call my family and friends lazy.
But here’s the thing, we like this myth because it absolves us of responsibility as a community. I don’t want, and I couldn’t teach my students to be me. I want them to be them, I want them to work as hard as they can and to do their best. We need everyone. Absolutely everyone. And we won’t be done moving forward as a civilization until we start acting like that is true. But isn’t it so convenient for the people with power to hold me up and tell everyone else that they are just lazy? What a neat little trick that is. Instead of looking at the working conditions of teaching and how they were responsible for the destruction of my back, we can say I just wasn’t hard working enough to teach. Instead of looking at the millions of kids who fail and drop out of school and saying something has to change about the schools we say that something has to change about the kids. Instead of looking at poverty and saying we have to change the system we tell the people that it is their own fault. It allows people to take advantage of us because they can always find something to critique and then use people, like me, to not have to change the conditions.
We live in a culture of unimaginable cruelty. We tell the sick they are to blame for their suffering. We tell the poor it is their fault they don’t have enough to eat. We look at children as young as five and call them lazy. We tell women that they would be able to overcome violence and discrimination if only they fought their attackers harder. We always claim we believe in personal responsibility but the rules so blatantly apply differently for different people that it is almost comical. But the worst part is that we tell suffering people that they must endure with a smile on their face so that we may remain blissfully unaware of their pain and our responsibility. That’s what it meant when you said I was making people uncomfortable wasn’t it?
You should be uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable until everyone is free. That’s what is means to be a leader, and if I didn’t take responsibility for that, I would be no better than the people doing the oppressing. I’m not going to let you off that easy. If it is the last thing I do on this earth, I will be using that time and energy to make people so uncomfortable that they can’t just sit there and look the other way and comfort themselves with tall tales about people they have never known. As you take pleasure in judging someone’s history you don’t know, whose pain and suffering you can’t imagine, whose dreams you’ve never considered and whose deep connections to you that you are too blind to see, I’m going to be there fighting you.
You can use whatever words you want to use. Call me what you want to call me. Look at my brother and say what you want about him. Sit around posting your photos and being rude to the waitresses who serve you at dinner. You can do that because you live in a world that never confronts you. But, I’m not scared of confrontation. I’m confrontational. I’m a bitch who hates a bitch. And I can see you. And I know you and I know how ugly you are. And so long as I breathing, I’m going to keep telling you how ugly you are, because no resume can cover what you are up. I’m not going to let you take pleasure in hurting people. You can avoid me, but you can’t avoid the fact that I know exactly what you are. And I know exactly what the people in my community are. And I know who I am.
You threw everything you could at me to keep me down. And I keep getting back up.
And I know that sometimes what makes you uncomfortable is that you know that you couldn’t do what I did. That you know that maybe it means you aren’t that special. That you are one of us and you hate that. But that just makes me sad for you, because you will never know what it feels like to go home.
But anytime you are ready, Welcome Home.