you ever disparaged a person poorer than you? Have you ever set the
example to your children that the clothes they wear indicate something
about the quality of person they are? That your family is better because
its richer? Have you ever elevated your opinion of someone, once you realized
how rich they were? Or lowered it when you realized how poor they were? Do
you judge by appearances?
Then this story is for you.
it, trailer girl." That's what one perfect son and classmate
said to Wendy Williams, 13, of Dixon, Illinois, as he yanked his thumb and
demanded that she give up her seat on the bus for him. Criticized for where
she lives, how she dresses, and that her family can't afford expensive but
common orthodontia to correct her overbite (the other students have nicknamed
her "Rabbit"), this young student at Ronald Reagan High School
moves in a world of three-car garages, sports utility vehicles, designer
clothes and wealth that is as obvious as the smug faces of the empowered
and self-indulgent solipsists who taunt and mock her. And yet she goes on.
And in Ronald Reagan High School where every extra-curricular activity
is a pay-as-you-go event, and where if you don't have unlimited discretionary
pocket-fulls, you are always on the outside looking in, she is actually
doing well. But still it must be lonely for a young girl. "I told this
girl: 'That's a really awesome shirt. Where did you get it?'" Wendy
said. She knew it was way out of her price range, but she wanted to join
in the small talk. "And she looked at me and laughed, and said, 'Why
would YOU want to know?'" Wendy smiles, but purses her lips to hide
her slight overbite. Her large brown-eyes and her intelligent soft-spoken
nature come through like lightning bolts. Her mother asks, "Do you
know what it's like to have your daughter come home from school and say,
'Mom, the kids say my clothes are tacky.' And to watch her walk off with
her head hanging down?" And the sad part is that this isn't the inner
city where it's a hard scrabble test of survival everyday. No, this is America
at its best: the affluent suburbs. Where we would hope, in this town of
successful people, that some relief from the overbearing burden of seeking
life's bare neccessities has turned young minds to the higher orbits of caring
about and helping others.
Wendy's father earns $9 per hour as a welder. Her mother is a part time
cook for Head Start. But Wendy goes to the same public high as children
from families that earn $300,000 and more. (That's what Wendy's folks will
earn in in aggregate in 7.5 years, if all goes well.) And, while we applaud
the fact that American public schools educates the rich and poor alike, this
to things, this tawdry lauding one's good fortune over others less fortunate
is not a good thing at all. All of this is in the home town of Ronald Reagan,
a poor boy who grew up to be President Of The United States. Wendy probably
wonders why she can't have all of the things the other kids have. Instead
of lifting the less fortunate up and encouraging them, are we embarrassing
them, and demeaning them, in a system clearly that was designed to help
them most of all?
This sort of elitism is also seen in the rush for "higher standards"
and better standardized test scores in the public schools. It creeps in
when communities evaluate these performance benchmarks and discover that
less affluent (and less educated) homes produce lower scores than the educated
and wealthier homes. It creeps in when communities realize that a higher
percentage of girls taking the tests also lowers the averages (because of
centuries of gender inequity), at the higher grade levels. It creeps in when
the disabled and learning-challenged members of a school district are properly
to participate in college
tests, because this also lowers the scores for the average. Finally, systems
that have the largest numbers taking the tests, also have lower scores.
But the elitists complain that this lower average scoring marks their school
system as "less competitive" and puts their advantaged and prodigal
children at a clear disadvantage: coming from such an inclusive system. Then
as the rigorous score-improvement systems start to kick in, suddenly fewer
fewer Special Ed kids, and fewer children from non-college families take
the test. In fact, in general, suddenly fewer students overall take the tests.
But now, the scores go up for the advantaged, and go down, or out, for the
People have forgotten what public education is. Besides being the crown
jewel of American democracy (no other country has what we have in terms
of universal education), and despite the undeniable proof that the top 20%
of American public student out score, out invent, and out succeed EVERY
OTHER CATEGORY NATIONALLY AND INTERNATIONALLY, from SATs to GREs to overall
success in college and thereafter, people continue to try every way they
can to ruin it.
Wendy Williams's favorite quote is by Eleanor Roosevelt, "No one can
make you feel inferior without your consent." When Wendy gets off the
school bus each day after school, her family's trailer is the first stop.
On the way to school, it is the last stop. Each day she gets on last and
Her guidance counselor has told her that she should live up to her ideals
and pursue her goals. In the end that will tell all. "Maybe when we
grow up, things will be different then," she says. And, despite the
abuse from her peers over her clothes, her home, her overbite, Wendy is
planning to take some advanced placement courses and wants to go to college.
She hopes to be a teacher. Her counselor says of Wendy, "She's going
to make it." But as Wendy struggles with unneccesary cruelty and ubiquitous
and casual elitism, it cannot be easy. But as a case in point: who will
emerge better of as a person? Those who mock her, or Wendy who rises above
it, overcomes the assault on her self esteem and finds her worth in something
other than money and materialism and appearances?
She's already teaching us every day.