The Meritocracy Is a Lie
I’m standing in the third grade lunch line. My rural school rests on a large field surrounded by woods beside a creek (or a “crick” where I’m from) and a winding road. I’m trying my best to be invisible, to avoid chatting with the girls in line behind me because I know I’ll have to say out loud to the lunch lady that I get free lunches.
That my parents have sent in the forms to prove that they can’t afford the $2.00 for my meal. And I know that if a friend behind me notices, they will ask me about it.
And once again — day after day — I will have to admit that I am poor.
I’m not the only student who gets free lunches, but I feel alone. Singled out. For some reason, my parents never think to pack my lunch. Probably because they know I can get it for free, and free is good. Free is helpful.
Saving 20 dollars a week — between my brother and me — means 80 dollars a month. That’s a lot in our family. My dad runs a landscaping business, but doesn’t have much of a head for business and it never takes off.
I get good grades through elementary school. I’m told if I work hard enough, I can be anything I want to be. So I work my ass off.
But I’m also incredibly lucky.
First off, my learning style matched how schools teach. This isn’t the case for all students.
When I’m in seventh grade, my mom learns of a college scholarship called 21st Century Scholars. If you were poor enough and good enough at school, you could make your way through college without many student loans.
It’s lucky that my mom hears about the scholarship program early enough enroll us — because of her work schedule, she doesn’t attend many parent meetings.
My mom then gets a job as United Airlines receptionist in an office an hour’s drive away in Indianapolis. She works the junk shifts. Yet that job provides the whole family with reduced fare tickets. With the help of credit cards, we are able to travel to Hawaii — for $75 for 4 tickets — and Alaska. These trips inject me with the travel bug. Soon United changes its policy and the flights become free. We fly from the Midwest to my aunt’s house in California on a whim.
My mom is also big into sweepstakes, and she wins a trip for two to New York City. She and I stay in the St. Regis and are treated to a dinner at the Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center. I’m amazed that we can walk down the street to buy milk — I am in love. I pledge that I will move to a city as soon as I turn 18.
I get accepted into a state university—a good one that happens to be 30 minutes from my home. I’m paid to go to school. I receive a check for $3500 a semester, and between that and my part-time job at a local sandwich joint, I’m comfortable for the first time in my life.
My love of languages leads me to choose an Italian minor, and the only study abroad program in Italy that is covered by my scholarship happens to be my dream program — it’s the only one taught completely in Italian. Another program that my friend is attending in Ghana is also covered. So I study abroad twice. My flights to both countries are free. I learn a second language.
Because of my scholarship, I graduate with only $5,000 in student loans. A modern-day steal.
I open a savings account with the money I receive from scholarships. This gives enough padding for me to plan to move to a city, to Washington, D.C., without having a job lined up. But the real kicker, the real lucky break, is that my aunt connects me with extended relatives who live just outside of D.C. They have a basement apartment in their house that they rent to friends and family in need.
When I call to ask how much rent they want for the apartment, my great aunt says, “It’s free. No rent. You’re family.” As soon as I hang up, I collapse to the floor and sob with joy.
I stay with them for 7 months while I get on my feet. Without their generosity, I don’t know if I could have managed. I get a job in a coffee shop, and then another stroke of luck appears — I find a room in D.C. in a good house for $500 a month.
This price is unheard of in the city. Most people I know are paying over $1,000 for the same thing. It is a nice house, too. Built in the early 1900s, with roommates from all over the world who teach me about good cheese and how to cook meat Argentinian style.
I live there for over two years, adding to my savings account after landing an office job at an international think tank. My boss likes my study abroad experience and the fact that I’m the only American living in my house, so he hires me.
The salary is not great, but it feels like a fortune. My mom says I’m making more than she has ever made in her life. The benefits, however, are outstanding — the organization begins a retirement account for me that I would have never managed on my own.
The company also gives me $9,000 in tuition reimbursement while I get a Master’s degree in creative writing. My work schedule is flexible and allows me to fly to Maine twice a year to fulfill the requirements of a low residency program. In Maine, I make amazing writer friends.
I meet a man who intrigues me. So much so that we stay together for four years and then get married. He works as a computer programmer and has a good salary. After we get married, I’m able to quit my job and focus on what I truly want to do — write.
I open a freelance writing business. My husband supports me. He buys me flowers the day I officially launch my professional website. Not all husbands would do this. Again I am lucky.
Hard work played a part of my growth. Of my success in making it out of the class I was born into. Of my “climbing the economic ladder” or becoming “socially mobile,” as people say. If I had not worked at keeping my grades up, I would not be where I am.
And yet if I hadn’t learned by sitting down and reading, I wouldn’t have done well in school.
If I hadn’t done well in school, I would have lost my scholarship and graduated with thousands more in debt. Then I would have been afraid to take a risk like moving to D.C.
If my relatives hadn’t lived close to D.C. and offered me a rent-free apartment, I might have been forced to move away.
If my mom hadn’t gotten the crappy job at United, I would have rarely traveled.
If I hadn’t stayed in D.C. or traveled, I wouldn’t have gotten the think tank job. And I wouldn’t have met many amazing and influential people — including Jon Stewart and John Kerry.
If I hadn’t found an affordable place to rent, I wouldn’t have been able to save money. And then I wouldn’t have felt comfortable starting graduate school. It would have taken me 10 extra years to learn everything about writing that I did while getting my MFA.
And if I hadn’t gotten my MFA, I wouldn’t be perched in a trendy coffee shop today in Rockville, Maryland writing this essay.
The United States is not a meritocracy. What if I had not been born white? My story would likely look quite different.
For me, it was mostly about lucky breaks, and the courage to grab onto opportunities when they landed in front of me.
In order to climb the ladder, you need to be handed some rungs along the way. Otherwise, you’re left holding a pole in both hands without any way up.