the struggles of the past and the benefit of the present

Tonight at dinner, in the most offhand way (probably the best way to be reminded of important things), I realized how people like my dad struggling in the past have made my life so easy peasy and lucky in the future. My dad was talking about the time he cut himself in shop class and how he was scared he would look like his shop teacher, who had multiple stubby fingers. This isn’t a very extraordinary story, except that anyone who has met my father would probably laugh at the idea of him doing anything related to sawing, welding, or anything vocational. I asked my dad why he had taken shop class in high school, and he said it was his senior year and they wouldn’t let him take the Shakespeare class.

Why?

“That was for the college bound.”

My dad has a Master’s degree. He was certainly college bound, and what’s more, was already trilingual by his senior year of high school. And he took some French classes, so he knows a little bit of French in addition to English, Spanish, and Portuguese. And he was really excited to take the Shakespeare class (he went on to get two degrees in literature and be a teacher of English, Spanish, ESL, and history), because at his old school in New York he had been taking tons of classes in the classics, and that’s what he loved. But it was San Pedro, California, and it was 1968, and Chicanos were not college bound.

I don’t even think about stuff like that, and that’s kind of terrible. I went to a college prep school that, rather than consider a multiethnic, biracial girl not college bound, basically told me I was a failure if I gave up my Ivy League acceptances for a state school, which I did. That was wrong in other ways, but arguably it’s better to be told you’re failing for not shooting for the stars that have been offered to you than it is to be told that you don’t have a chance. 2007 was certainly a different high school time for me than 1968 was for my father. It’s not like I didn’t know I was lucky. I still wasn’t a member of the socioeconomic class that populated my school. But I had the parental support to go there, I had the “anonymous” financial support to go there, and none of my teachers–at least not to my face (except one time when one of my teachers accidentally told me that she hated Mexicans)–ever acted like it wasn’t completely appropriate for me to be a student there. I very often forget that there are lots of people who fought for the things I have to seem normal and less than extraordinary.

I know that’s still not the case for tons of other people like me. But education is still a slightly different place than the blatantly racist place my father came from. Now prejudices are institutionalized, subtle, or at least hidden out of embarrassment or fear of being seen as someone with prejudices. Is that luck?

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