Looking for Balance?

Teeter Totter

I stood behind my toddler daughter on one end of the teeter-totter, holding it level with one hand and helping her straddle the seat with the other. At the other end stood another mom from the neighborhood, holding what she called a see-saw, as her daughter climbed to the seat. We worked together, teaching our girls about balance, showing them how to touch their feet gently so that the person on the other end wouldn’t be jolted into the air or knocked off the seat. That first day we two moms planted our feet firmly, ready to catch our children until they learned to balance themselves.

Over time the other mom and I were able to move away from our children to the park bench. It didn’t matter that she called it a see-saw, and I called it a teeter-totter. We took great pleasure in chatting and watching our children, patiently waiting for each other until both climbed aboard before setting the see-saw in motion. They learned balance.

That scene plays itself behind my eyes often these days as I watch politicians in Washington. Though both parties have landed hard on the political teeter-totter, knocked off by the party on the other end, they seem to have learned nothing about balance. Continue reading Looking for Balance?

A Majority Getting a Free Lunch?

Poor Kids

Today’s Washington Post reports that a majority, a whopping 51%, of our nation’s public school students now qualify for free and reduced meals. This does not, of course, include those children whose families live just enough above the poverty line not to qualify for government assistance.

I was one of those children in the second category. Continue reading A Majority Getting a Free Lunch?

Who Gets Addicted to Heroin?

Sibs--not used yet

Look at that face. It is the picture I see in my head when I think of my baby brother. It’s odd that I have a harder time picturing his face now—the man I hardly recognize as that child. For me, that sweet little boy, holding a puppy, and that serious little blonde boy on the right are the embodiment of the issues we face as Americans. They are my brothers—and the souls who remind me that behind all the political posturing are the very human faces of people in need.

I know this is not an unfamiliar story. But many of us don’t talk about the hurting and the broken ones in our families. I didn’t. For a long time I was embarrassed to admit to all the normal and successful people around me that I grew up in a family that society would have labeled “dysfunctional” had they known the truth of my childhood. My colleagues knew that I had worked my way through college, but for a long time none of them knew that my youngest siblings didn’t fare as well.

And then a strange thing happened. Somewhere along the way, when some of my colleagues became close friends, I began to share stories of my profound grief for my brothers. And I began to learn that while few of my colleagues grew up as poor as I did, many of them had family members that, in one way or another, hadn’t fared well either. Our stories are common, but most of them remain untold. Only when a celebrity like Philip Seymour Hoffman dies of a heroin overdose is our society reminded for a few weeks that it isn’t just the dregs of society who die after shooting up.

My middle brother, the chubby child who rarely frowned as he did in this picture, died in 2007 of a prescription drug overdose. As a child of poverty, he accumulated a mountain of debt for the two years he attended college. He took a job as a bartender—a place where his interest in people, his ready laugh, and his charming amiability would earn him a single night’s tips that amounted to more than my sister and I made in a week from our work-study jobs. But after he died, a friend of his who was also a bartender told me that in those days doing cocaine was an everyday part of the bar scene in their lives. My brother knew he needed to get his life in order and felt he couldn’t do it in a college town, so he quit school and joined the United States Army. For a while after he served, he had a good life, but when he lost his job at the beginning of the recession, his life spiraled out of control. His story, tragically, is an all-too-familiar one.

My youngest brother, the sweet-faced boy with the puppy, just got out of jail for the third time on charges related to his heroin addiction. He served 17 months for what is probably the lowest point of his life so far. As our mother lay in a nursing home, dying a slow death after a debilitating stroke, my baby brother took one of her checks, forged her name on it, and used the money, allegedly, to feed his addiction. (He maintains he used it on living expenses.) He finished his sentence in November and will be on a probation that requires him to be drug-tested for the foreseeable future. He tells my remaining two siblings and me that he’s clean and that he’s trying to find a job but that no one seems willing to hire an electrician’s helper who has a prison record like his. His story, sadly, is also a familiar one.

I have become more open about telling these stories, and sometimes it makes people uncomfortable. Poverty, abuse, homelessness, addiction—and most of the problems we face as a nation—are easier to ignore at an arm’s length, and I don’t blame people for wanting to distance themselves from my family’s reality. But if our leaders knew how many “normal,” “successful” people are affected by these issues, our nation might be in a very different place.

We need research into the genetics of addiction. We need support and therapy for children broken by abuse. Ultimately, the only way we will ever diminish the numbers of the abused and addicted is to stop treating them like criminals and to find ways to heal their broken bodies and wounded psyches. And as long as we as a nation tell ourselves that these people are to blame for their own problems, we will never make progress as a society in dealing with the issues that face us.

Please. Tell your stories.

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Adichie’s Single Story of West Virginia?

Poor KidsChimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” is my all-time favorite Ted Talk. As a middle class Nigerian whose professor once told her that her stories were not “authentically African” because the characters weren’t poor and starving, she shares with honesty and humor the stereotypes she had to overcome to be published in the United States. She concludes

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete….I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

Because I have admired Adichie for so long, I felt I’d been kicked in the gut when I got to Chapter 38 of her latest novel, Americanah. Continue reading Adichie’s Single Story of West Virginia?