I was catching up on some of my favorite blogs today and ran across a friend's entry that really bothered me for a lot of reasons. First of all, it demonstrates one of the divides many of the comfortable middle class don't realize is a divide, and second of all, it furthers the message that only appearance is a valid measure of worth. Here's the shortened version of the story:
About three years one of my friends wanted to move from a neighborhood that wasn't a good place to raise her daughter. It was a serious downgrade from a house to a tiny apartment but it was a safe middle-income neighborhood with a good school and she felt it was worth the sacrifice.
There hasn't been any money for extras. My friend is too proud to ever accept any kind of public assistance. She shops at garage sales and thrift stores for school clothes each year. Her daughter always had a lunch to bring, even when dinner was Top Ramen and a box of frozen vegetables. They've managed to squeeze by in three years with their power being turned off twice, and their phone once. They've survived. And they feel safe in their home.
But something happened the other day that sent my friend into a depression that she's having trouble shaking. As I said, they moved into a middle-income neighborhood, the kind of place where the standard of living is just a bit above what my friend raising her daughter alone can afford. It was fine until her daughter started middle school this year and became quiet and even sullen at times. At first my friend thought it was just the normal adjustment period of a new school, but then she began to understand it was more than that.
Her daughter who never asked for anything, who never complained about having to wear used clothing and live in a tiny apartment, came home one day and asked if she could have braces. Her daughter's teeth are not horrible by any means. She has the engaging grin of a young, pretty girl. But her teeth aren't perfect and now it's an issue all of a sudden.
It shouldn't matter but suddenly it's a big deal because all her classmates have braces. And being kids, they make fun of her lack of them. They tell her she will always have ugly crooked teeth if she doesn't get braces NOW! They make this lovely young girl feel ugly because her mother can't afford to have her teeth straightened until they resemble perfect little white picket fences.
It was heartbreaking for my friend to have to tell her daughter she can't afford to buy her braces. It was heartbreaking to watch the previously confident girl with perfect grades suddenly lose all confidence in herself. And it was especially heartbreaking for both of them to realize that no matter how smart a girl is, no matter how much she sacrifices along with her mother so they can both have a better life, she has just received her first lesson that she will go through life judged on her appearance.
There is nothing that can be done to fix this. My friend does not have the money and her daughter's classmates will never understand how something they take for granted--their perfect teeth, will one day be a symbol of class division to those who grew up in homes where braces were a luxury their families could not afford.
It is my sincere hope that by the time my friend's daughter goes to college, she will have learned her advantage in life is what lives inside her, not what others see and judge on the outside. But I also know she will never forget how she was judged by her classmates who simply didn't understand there were some things that not everyone could afford, and in many ways their very appearance was a privilege others didn't get a chance to have. This lack of understanding is just another brick in the wall that continues to divide the people in this country from each other.
My other issue today came after a discussion with a man who has several post-graduate degrees. He was a radical in college, always up on the latest world events, always engaged and aware of the issues. He went on to the professional career he always dreamed about. His entire adult life has been a comfortable one where he buys a new car each year, upgrades his home about every five years, travels, and has a secure retirement in his future.
But he hasn't read a book in years. He only reads the local Republican rag in his very Republican neighborhood and each year begins to sound more and more ridiculously conservative, spouting talking points that he would have laughed at just a few short years ago. He only uses the internet to check sports scores. He doesn't care enough about the rest of the world to even bother checking to see if it's still there.
The only thing he watches on television is sports. He hasn't even seen a movie in a couple years. He has no interest in anything but coming home from work, plopping himself in front of his TV and watching all the sporting events that dutifully recorded themselves while he was at work. And he smokes marijuana. Lots of marijuana. In his 50 some years of life, I don't think he's ever had a problem finding marijuana. After all, he's a respectable, white middle-class American. No cop has ever stopped him and harassed him for being high or getting high or trying to get high. He buys it from other white, middle class smokers like himself. There's no slumming needed to get his weed.
And yet, he refuses to vote for Obama because he's done nothing to legalize marijuana. Yup, that's his entire reason for not voting, even though nothing has yet to interfere in his desire to get high. He would rather stay home and risk a president getting elected whose religion won't even let him drink coffee, much less ignore people who want to smoke weed or drink, and he thinks there is no difference between the candidates. This is your one issue voter from the other side, folks. This is your no information voter. This is who will never go to the polls because he won't even educate himself on this one policy that he claims matters so much to him.
And no, I don't believe it's the weed that made him this way. I believe it was working to accumulate all the toys he feels he needs to have on hand to impress people who don't give a crap about him. I believe it's because he quit reading books. I believe it's because he watches nothing but sports. I believe it's because at heart he is a selfish, callous shit with hardly any friends. The weed is just something he uses to mute the tedious boredom his life long ago became. And it's all Obama's fault that weed isn't legal. He says this all the time as he's toking on the other end of the phone, as he talks about the great bud he scored, as he defines his life according to the sporting events he watched and how high he was.
The thing is there wasn't that much difference between him and my friend's daughter. They both had the same beginnings. They were both brilliant with a great future ahead of them. The only thing that got in the way were things like braces, and summer camp, and vacations, and cars. It divided him from them just as my friend's daughter is being divided from her life and theirs because of her imperfect teeth.
Neither of those are things I can do anything about. Both fall under the this is the way life is category. I can't say my daughter's friend will end up like this man just because of her teeth, but if there's one thing that can stifle her as a human being, it's that pain of realizing that no matter how smart she is, how educated she becomes, until she deals with that horrible pain of childhood, that pain of being excluded because of something beyond her control, her personal growth becomes stunted forever.