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January 14, 2006

Privilege

“These people are smart, strong people.  They know how to
build shelter in the snow, and we need to keep the channels open so we
can keep funneling resources to them during the winter.  We can’t
let them survive the earthquake only to die in the winter.” 

Thus spoke a surfer-turned-aid-worker in Pakistan, where the first
snowfall piled four feet of snow in the region where thousands were
left homeless by a recent earthquake.  This hardy soul is going to
stick out the winter to make sure that someone’s there to push aid
workers to keep persisting in the harsh mountain climate.  Rock
on, dude.  Anecdotes like this make me smile inside.

I’m getting more and more excited about my math teaching
position.  I still haven’t started teaching yet, but I’ve gotten
several good workbooks for my future students and am recording random
ideas that pop into my head for making my class fun and relevant.

I’m learning some appalling statistics in the literature and training
manuals I’ve been reading for CfL (The Center for Literacy, my
employer).  For example, 1/4 of U.S. adults are not functionally
literate, meaning they have severe difficulty performing basic literacy
tasks such as reading food labels and credit card bills.  Also,
the average high school graduate in our country functions at a basic
literacy level, meaning they can perform only simple literacy tasks;
and the average graduate student
performs only at an intermediate level, meaning they can perform
“somewhat challenging” literacy tasks.  Only 13% of U.S. citizens
read at a proficient level, or a level at which they can perform
challenging and complicated literacy tasks.  Appalling–but not
surprising.

I continue to be saddened, angered, and motivated (usually in that
order) by the tired, sullen, overworked Philadelphians I see on the
trolleys and subways as I make my way to and from work.  As I
wrote to one of my former professors yesterday, it’s like we have two
different rivers running through our country:  one is fairly calm,
with a few boulders and rapids here and there but for the most part
smooth sailing; the other is murky, polluted, and scattered with
obstacles that make even the simplest maneuvers difficult, or at least
worrisome.  What most of us don’t realize is that the latter is
the norm for one third of U.S. citizens.  One third
of U.S. citizens don’t make a living wage, meaning their budgets are so
tight that if one thing throws them off–for example, a needed car
repair or an unexpected health care cost–the rest of their payments,
including housing and food, becomes in jeopardy.  Our country does
a good job of masking poverty, so most of us sailing in the former
river fail to recognize the situation for what it is; so, too, do many
of the people trying to navigate the latter river, for the illusion of
upward mobility is deceptively strong in the United States.

It infuriates me to know that a majority of U.S. citizens live their
lives with constant stress and worry over making enough money to pay
their bills and feed their families, let alone pay for health care and
retirement.  The stress shows on so many of the faces I see
daily.  Tired bodies slouched on the plastic seats of the
trolleys; eyes staring off while thoughts wander to the welfare office,
the work place, the space between the mattress and the sheets where the
month’s money is tucked away, mind calculating down to the penny the
cost of every expense that must be paid, eliminating carefully each
expense that isn’t absolutely necessary.  New shoes for little
Lakesha?  No.  New notebook for Quintez?  Not this
month.  First dentist appointment for Tashmarie?  That will
have to wait another year or two–or three or four, or more.

I am amazed at how easy my life is.  I have so many options, so
many possibilities.  Life isn’t like this for most people–in
fact, it’s only like this for 5% of the people on this planet. 
Those of us that make up that 5% are not Scott-free, though (Is that
the correct expression?  I’ve only heard it spoken, but never seen
it written.).  We, too, have a burden upon us:  the burden of
managing the resources that we control in a way that benefits all human
beings.  We have the knowledge, the skills, the access, and the time–even
though we may not think we do–to make a big difference in how our
world is run.  We have privilige, and with privilege comes not
just pleasure, but also great responsibility.

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