The Struggle to Survive

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A new article about the myth of meritocracy really hit home for me this week. The article cites a newly published study in the journal of Child Development that suggests that young people of color who grow up believing in the American dream, show a decline in self esteem during middle school. This is one of those reports that I find validates things we already knew.

The myth of pulling yourself up by your booth straps to recognized success completely crumbled for me in grad school. In fact, I was surprised how hard this reality hit me since I assumed I had known the truth about meritocracy (and I even taught about meritocracy!).

I was an older graduate student. Coming out of the corporate world, I was different from my peers who had come back to school after about five years in the work force. I had finished my MA a decade earlier and so my learning curve was steep. I worked really hard–not just on my studies, but to keep some semblance of my personal life the same. I had the expenses of a grown professional: a mortgage, car insurance, and some credit card debt but I knew I needed to be flexible to the life of a grad student which meant being able to travel to collect research wherever and whenever I needed to. I was working 3-5 jobs at any given time, taking classes and trying to write papers for conferences and journals. Looking back now, I don’t know how I did it. I was puzzled by my peers who did not seem to work half as hard but seemed to experience double my success. How did they score these prestigious summer fellowships? How did they know about these international conferences? How did they find the time to write for (and revise) to get into all of these journals? I felt like I wasn’t working hard enough or possibly was working harder and not smarter. So I doubled down. I tried all measures of time saving strategies. I woke up at 5:30 every morning to write my dissertation for a half hour (at least) before starting my day. I worked a 9-5 and then taught classes during the week. On the weekends, I spent full work days in the library and then went home and did more work. I color coded my data, joined groups, talked to mentors and yet. . . I was falling behind.

It’s only when I did an informal inquiry into how my peers were doing it that I learn the truth. They were getting ahead because they started ahead. Their parents were doctors, lawyers, judges or professors. The research trips they joined were ones their parents (or their parents’ friends) sponsored. Their friends were journal editors. They were living in family sponsored apartments and so their income was their own. They spent less time writing and more time networking, attending conferences and events that I couldn’t afford, to make the connections that would ensure their success.

I remember one peer said that “I wasn’t playing the game right” when we were talking about how I could make more traction and I exploded in anger. It wasn’t that I wasn’t playing the game–it was that I didn’t even know that the game was being played. I knew my peers were ahead of me in some ways. They were younger. Had just finished school and so they had more recent experience with “doing school”. They knew how to use technology in supportive ways. Most of them read all their paperwork electronically while I was still wedded to paper. But I believed, if I worked hard enough I could catch up. I could bridge the gap. But the chasm was wider than I anticipated. My parents were immigrants with little social capital. They couldn’t help me in the ways that my peers parents’ helped them.

So I did what the journal suggests middle schoolers did. I disconnected. I disengaged socially and put my nose even closer to the grindstone.  Awareness of the unleveled playing field didn’t straighten things out, but they helped me prioritize and so I spent less time worrying about the how and the why and more time doing. I was academically resilient. But not all children respond to inequity the same way.

It also begs the question: once you find out that the system isn’t fair do you still try to play the game? What is the belief system that compels us forward if we chose to stay with it? What cost do we pay emotionally for doing so?  How do we go about participating when we know that even at our best effort–even at our fastest run–we are still way behind the goal post? And, as we dismantle the system–how do we as educators help young people stay encouraged and engaged despite the inequities that they will face? What do you think?

(P.S. For another look at that check out this episode of This American Life: Three Miles. It tells the story of two schools–three miles apart–that exist in totally different worlds and what happens when one student sees that the grass IS greener on the other side.)




  • Maia

    Dear Dr. Leslie,
    What a powerful reflection on an absolutely true and far too often unspoken reality. Thank you for giving voice to your experience – perhaps if we continue to resist the myth of meritocracy (in elementary school, middle school and beyond), we will do better in our support of our students and communities. And, I love your website!

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