I grew up very poor. There was sometimes not enough to eat. I lived in an environment that put me at risk for poor outcomes in a lot of ways, but I'm a pretty resilient person and had the advantage (which I would say was natured and nurtured) of being bright and curious. My father got a college degree when I was in middle school. My mom got an associate's earlier than that, though she was often unwell and couldn't do much with it. When I heard about scholarships that would get me through college if I taught when I got out, I jumped on that. Though we were poor, I did mostly okay in school (some bumps in the road, especially when my mom was sick) and my teachers assumed and talked to me about their assumptions that I would go to college. My parents took it for granted that I would go to college, although they never saved and wouldn't have money to pay for it. But I'd seen my parents do it, I'd seen other people who look like me do it, and we've made great progress on the feminism front so that girls like me who graduated high school in the year 2000 didn't have to be exceptions to the rule to apply and gain admittance to a university. Much of my adult life has been focused on moving from poverty to the middle class, and education has been my primary leg up.
When I started teaching (which, oh my god, was eight years ago, which is when I started posting on INTPC), I was working in southeastern NC with mostly poor Black kids. I grew up as poor as many of my students, so I felt like I could relate to them and be an example of a poor person who made it out of poverty.
I had really good intentions, and I wasn't wrong that education could provide them a way out--and there are opportunities that specifically target kids of color to aid class mobility. It was really, really frustrating to be at the front of a room full of bright but poor kids of color, many (most!) of whom did not take to my pleading with them to change their lives with college. I didn't get it. *I* was poor. *I* worked hard, and *I* changed my life.
This is where it's easy for me to fall to the "bootstraps" fallacy. What I didn't see at the time was the intersections of identity. Yes. I grew up poor, and I changed my life. I did work hard, and I think I deserve some kudos for having the initiative to do that. But there IS a difference between being poor but having examples in my life of other people in my community and personal life who took this route and had success with it (which had to do with my whiteness) and being poor and having NO examples that looked like me to aspire to. I had the advantage, the privilege, of the assumption that class mobility through education was accessible to me. Many of my Black students did not have this advantage, and I didn't serve them as well as I wish I had because I couldn't see the difference between me and them, which was that I had reason to believe I could do it and they (quite frankly) did not. Poverty and race was an intersection point for them that compounded the difficulty of attaining class mobility.
This does not let anyone off the hook, but I don't think we can understate how important something like community and family role models are, and what a privilege they can be. Privilege usually works way under the surface like this. And it DOES NOT MEAN that you or I don't deserve what we have--we've worked for it. And it DOES NOT MEAN that things were easy for us--they weren't for me, and it sounds like they weren't for you. But there may have been ways, because of certain aspects of our identity, that we had a slight (or great) edge.
This also doesn't let those Black kids off the hook--I *did* try to direct them to a better life, and a lot of them, especially the boys (maybe we're coming around to gender again), opted for crime and danger instead because that was the example of success that they had more immediate access to, maybe. And they are accountable for those decisions... but when we see such a widespread problem (like young black men in prison) I think we do have to ask questions about what systemic elements are (or were ever) in place that lead to the likelihood of those decisions. Things change, but just because things are better doesn't mean that certain earlier policies (like redlining of neighborhoods, like the fucked up stuff that went on with the GI Bill in the 40s and 50s) don't have repercussions waaaaayyyyy into the present.
Hmm. This turned into a ramble, and not necessarily a supercoherent one. Meh.