The Truth about Privilege


And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one.

After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.  And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.  His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.  He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.  His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.  Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:  And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.  His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:  Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.  Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.

Matthew 25:15, 19-28

Do you ever wonder where your talents lie?  We all have them, but what are we doing with them?  Are we reaching our full potential?  Have we become satisfied with living a four talent life when we have been given a five talent ability level?  This can easily happen without us even knowing it.  Those who become great are those who are not afraid of greatness.  I wonder if we are afraid of greatness.  Are we afraid to leave our comfort zone and venture out far enough to reach our true potential?  And if so, why?  Why are we not able to go out on the limb, even if we know that’s where all the fruit is, to paraphrase Mark Twain.  Contrarily, why are some found so frequently dangling from these limbs and subsequently, gluttonously gathering up all of the fruit?

Over the past several years I’ve become fascinated by the factors that make us who we are.  I feel strongly that we have not come to this point in our lives by accident.  Rather, we have all followed a specific path that has led us here and not to someplace else.  For all of us, we have made this path and followed this path ourselves; however, many of us had a lot of help along the way from multiple forces (e.g., society, family, would-be girlfriends, credit card companies, etc.).  I believe that about half of my obsession has been fed by reading the fascinating works of pseudo-sociologist Malcolm Gladwell and the other half has been encouraged by my becoming re-acquainted with old friends.  Let’s start there.

I have lots of wildly successful friends.  In my graduating high school class, I have a friend who graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering who now is a marketing executive for Tazer (yeah, the home security people) after spending a few years at Honeywell where he oversaw the construction of parts that were used on the F-22 fighter jet.  I also have a friend that works as a civil engineer for a large firm, and another friend who works as an oral surgeon.  All of these young professionals are monetarily very successful.  They have nice homes, beautiful cars, and beautiful families.  They work 9 to 5, basically, some of them work only 3 or 4 days per week.  They don’t take their work home with them (often they cannot do so) and when they are not at work, often work is far from their minds as they are fully engaged in familial or recreational activities.  They work just one job.  Their spouses work if they choose (some do, some don’t), but if they choose to do so, it is by no means out of necessity.  Contrast that with myself.  I work 68 hours per week, Monday through Sunday, last time I clocked it.  I scrape by financially.  Money is always a worry.  Should I try to get another job? (Yeah right, with what time?)  Should my spouse go back to work?  How will we get these bills paid?  My job is always a worry.  Will I have enough students?  Will the College let me go?  Will the College go belly-up?  What can I do to increase enrollment?  How will I meet the demands placed on me by committees and other college service and still do a good job for my students?  And when I’m not worried about myself, I’m always worried about the students.  Will Johnny ever understand the subjunctive mood?  How can I explain it to him in a way that will help him understand?  I ALWAYS bring work home with me and work on it until all hours of the day or night (I’m blogging right now at 1:25am and I teach in the morning).

So, what’s the difference between my friends and me?  Why is my life seemingly so hard where their life is seemingly easy and luxurious?  What makes us the way we are?  Initially, we think, of course, as I often do, the deciding factor must be intellect.  Maybe my friends are just smarter.  They were better students in college and so, they were able to get through the tough medical and engineering programs that would eventually lead to this better life.  Although I think that this can be true, in this particular case, nothing could be further from the truth.  Take my friend who works for Tazer.  We sat right next to each other in a pre-calculus class.  I was getting A’s rather easily and he was okay with pulling high B’s and the occasional A.  He did well, but I did better.  There were times that he asked me to explain things and get together with him to study.  My civil engineering friend, who also needed a good portion of math, struggled mightily and never even took the same math classes that I took because he was about two years behind me.  My oral surgeon friend also struggled.  When it came to math, I far outpaced all of my friends, yet they are now serving in math/science related fields with great payouts and I’m teaching Spanish.  This doesn’t make any sense.

This math comparison between my friends and myself carries over into nearly every field of academic endeavor.  When it was all said and done, I graduated fifth in my class with a grade-point average well over 4.0 and I was in the running for valedictorian. Where did my currently wealthy friends end up in the class rankings?  So far below me that they didn’t even register.

(Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to toot my own horn {I hope you’ll see that this post is designed to be quite the opposite of that}, but school did come somewhat easily to me, and in some classes I had to work myself to exhaustion to succeed, but succeed I did—Now, just having graduating with my Ph.D., the last B I received was Mrs. Canty’s 7th grade pre-algebra class, and by the time semester grades came out, I had pushed it up to an A).

If I had been given all the intellectual ability, the drive, the work ethic, and the desire to make a success of myself, and my friends, at least in some measure, lacked these gifts, why did the race of life turn out the way it did?  Why have those with so few of the “needed endowments for success” surpassed me, with all the gifts that I was given, so easily?  The answer is that there is so much more to success than intellect and work ethic.

Gladwell talks about the Lewis Terman experiments.  Terman felt that intellect was the key factor for determining success.  He figured that if he could find and track every genius in California, he would be able to predict the future leaders of America.  Turns out, in school, he was right.  The geniuses typically did well in school.  For Terman’s kids, school came laughingly easy.  They skated by and outshone their peers.  However, just like my friends and me, scholastic success did not spill over into real-world success.  Terman’s test was longitudinal.  He followed all of his geniuses as they moved into careers, married, had kids and then even when they had grandkids.  He was shocked when many of his geniuses turned out to be, by most standards, failures.  Some were unemployed, some worked menial jobs, and some even became criminals.  A few did rise to the top and excel in all that they did, but no more than chance.  As Terman considered all the factors that he tracked regarding the make-up of his geniuses, only one factor was an accurate predictor of success and surprisingly it wasn’t intellect.

Family background made all the difference.  As it turned out, only the geniuses that boasted a successful family background (i.e., parents who were rich and successful) became rich and successful in their own right.  A child’s upbringing was a much more powerful variable for predicting future success than any other factor–more important than intellect, work ethic–everything.  Terman’s students who saw success every single day in the lives of their parents and extended family had the self-confidence and audacity to go right after and obtain success in their own lives.  Even the brightest of geniuses who didn’t have a model for success at home did little more with their lives than aim for goals that were far too low.

So, what about my friends?  The aerospace engineer had a mother who worked at a university and saw academic achievement every single day.  He also had older siblings who graduated from universities and a father who graduated from college in engineering and later in mathematics.  The oral surgeon grew up affluent, with an OBGYN father who was famously successful.  The civil engineer had two parents who were educators and one successful entrepreneurial stepfather, all of whom encouraged success through education from day one.  Contrast that with my upbringing.  I shared a tiny bedroom with my four brothers in the country back hills of Prescott.  My parents never attended college.  My father was a plumber who worked out of town during the week and caught up on sleep nearly all weekend.  My mother was a stay at home mom and later a postal worker when ends didn’t meet.  I was loved, but the idea of me becoming a surgeon was about as far from my mind as a Mars landing.  I’d heard about the possibility of working your way through community college and some even said that you might complete a bachelor’s degree without any debt.  I simply wanted to get through school and get a mid-paying job without accumulating too much debt that I couldn’t pay off.  I was largely successful at achieving this objective.

Our country has programs to help people like me, especially if I were born with a different ethnic background and/or sex.  We are told that someone like me can’t possibly hope to compete with the likes of my friends.  We are told that if you were born in the inner-city, you cannot possibly get out.  The statistics show that you will end up a drug dealer because those are the models that you see.  But, despite my own life (actually, because of my own life), I don’t believe that.  The statistics tell a lot about trends, but let’s not talk about trends, let’s talk about people.

I may have been born into abject poverty, and I may not have had the confidence that I needed to compete with my friends, but my life was not all bad.  I was given a great measure of love and faith, and a desire to be the best me I could be.  My parents gave me that, along with a lot of encouragement, as best they knew how to give.  I slowly, over time, began to gain confidence and realize what the “best me” really meant.  In college, my abilities and work ethic were encouraged by kind and caring professors.  They saw goodness and aptitude in me and challenged me to take those skills further.  These skills took me all the way to a terminal degree from a top-tier university in my field of study.  Sure, my workload and earnings pale in comparison to those of my friends, and perhaps if I would have been blessed with more savvy parents who knew the inner workings of the university system, like my friends, I might have been something more than a Spanish professor at a rural mid-sized community college in north-central Arizona, but I think I did alright for an obscure boy who grew up spiking his hair into a flat-top alongside his four brothers in our trailer’s tiny bathroom.

But, despite the 68 hour work week, late nights, and paltry pay, I love my life.  I love academic freedom, interaction with students, and the creativity of my job.  I love the opportunity to research whatever I want and contribute to my field of inquiry.  I also love the creativity that comes with time off.  I don’t feel bad at all taking off the second school is out, because I know how hard we work when we’re in session.  68 hour work weeks, 2 am grading sessions, office hours with lines of students.  It’s brutal, but the summers and their incredible ability to free up the creativity of the mind make it all worth it.  Sure, I’m not driving around a brand new Affinity or Lexus like my friends (still driving the 1988 Nissan pickup like I did in grad school), but I turned out alright.

And for that matter, the four brothers I shared that bedroom with did too.  I have the gambit.  I have a brother who became a structural engineer, a brother who became an oral surgeon, a brother who became a manufacturing engineer, and a brother who became a diesel mechanic, and me, the Spanish prof.  All of them make good salaries and live happy, productive lives.  Take that Terman!

Do I believe that we are influenced heavily by our surroundings and upbringing?  Yes!  Maybe I could have been rolling hard in the Lexus along with my friends if I didn’t have to learn about FAFSA from the bathroom wall in college (I had to learn so many things from that darn bathroom wall).  But, do I buy into the fact that we are DETERMINED by our surroundings and that we can’t escape them.  No way!  In our country, with all of our technology and resources, I simply refuse to believe that students, I don’t care who you are, cannot be successful.  Even the most poverty-stricken individual, given a desire to change and find something better, can work toward a Greyhound ticket that will lead them to a community college somewhere and eventually to a nursing program, or welding program, or RAD Tech program and subsequently, to a better life.  This ability lies within every American’s (and currently, many immigrants’) power.  It can be done!  My brothers and I are living proof.

white privilege

White privilege, of course, is real.  There are tacit and even evil advantages for some, but a real life of stability is a possibility for every single person in this fine country.  That’s what makes this country great.  I feel that everyone should travel outside the US to be able to appreciate this, even if that travel is just via Google Earth from your local public library.  I was walking next to my good friend in Argentina and we knocked at a shabby looking house made of a few pallets and sheets.  Finding no one home, shamefully, I made a disparaging comment about the brutal living conditions.  My friend, a native argentine said, “Hey man, my house looks just like this one.”  The US has opportunities a-plenty.  My argentine friend, even with an education, an amazing upbringing, and a lot of luck will be very unlikely to escape poverty in his home country.  In Argentina, poverty finds you, no matter where you hide and no matter how good you are.  In America, if we appreciate the amazing opportunities that we’ve been given, success lies within our grasp.

I see this appreciation and lack of appreciation among our YC students.  Some of my students ARE those few who escaped a brutal inner-city life.  Not many, but I have seen it, even here at little Yavapai College.  These students truly value the opportunity that they have to study and they make the most of it.  I see myself in them.  I try to encourage them, especially the bright ones. I try to remind them that they can do it and they can dream big and that they should not be afraid of greatness.  They’ll tell me, “I want to be a nurse” and I’ll ask, “why not be a doctor?  You can do it.  The people who become doctors are no smarter than you.  Aim high.  Go for it!”  Some of them believe me, and they do go for it, and they struggle, but some power through and they come back and thank me.”  I’m glad that I was a part of their journey.

Maybe that’s my talent.  Maybe that’s what I’ve been given.  The good Lord may have only given me one or two talents, but maybe I can multiply those by helping others see that they have been given not one or two, but that they’ve been given five talents!  Maybe this way, they and I will all one day hear the sweet words . . .

Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.


4 thoughts on “The Truth about Privilege

  1. Hey, at least you get free books for blogging !

    Here are words that strengthen my resolve and bring peace when such voices dog me:
    The supreme good is like water,
    which nourishes all things without trying to.
    It is content with the low places that people disdain.
    Thus it is like the Tao.

    In dwelling, live close to the ground.
    In thinking, keep to the simple.
    In conflict, be fair and generous.
    In governing, don’t try to control.
    In work, do what you enjoy.
    In family life, be completely present.

    When you are content to be simply yourself
    and don’t compare or compete,
    everybody will respect you.

    Tao te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation

  2. Hi Curtis, I agree with you that one of our greatest blessings as faculty members is in encouraging our students to aim higher than they have dared to dream. Well done, good and faithful servant.

  3. I always leave your posts energized. The story, the purpose. The relationship to educational settings. Always awesome. Thank you.

    You are the one who wanders. And when faced with that unknown you are brave and willing. To continue with the Mark Twain and “out on a limb,” a favorite line about these moments of drive and challenge we all find comes from Zorba the Greek. A wonderful tale about finding and wonder. About finding strength of heart, somewhere, within us all.

    “Some men — the more intrepid ones — reach the edge of the leaf. From there we stretch out, gazing into chaos. We tremble. We guess what a frightening abyss lies beneath us. In the distance we can hear the noise of the other leaves of the tremendous tree, we feel the sap rising from the root of our leaf and our hearts swell. Bent thus over the awe-inspiring abyss, with all our bodies and all our souls, we tremble with terror. From that moment begins. . . the great danger, Zorba. Some grow dizzy and delirious, others are afraid; they try to find an answer to strengthen their hearts, and they say: ‘God’! Others again, from the edge of the leaf, look over the precipice calmly and bravely and say: ‘I like it.’!”

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