The Broad is Back!

August 8, 2014

The End is Near

I am writing this with something of a heavy heart: this is one of my last The Broad is Back columns. Faithful readers won’t be shocked to learn that the Broad is going to be abroad again. After seven years back in the US, I’m leaving again for a job.

My heart is heavy because I don’t really want to leave. Once again, I’m being pushed to leave my family, my friends, the familiar, but I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. I don’t have much of a choice, because since I’ve been back in the US, I have not been able to find full time work. I’ve been working two, three, sometimes four jobs at a time trying to make ends meet. There have been a few “flush” times, but for the most part every year I’m back in the US I fall deeper and deeper into debt.

Luckily, much of that debt is to the National Bank of Mom, so the terms are easy and it doesn’t impact my credit rating. The only other debt I have is my student loans, another debacle facing Americans. Every time I have to get a low income payment adjustment or that double edged sword, the deferment, the interest added to my debt goes up and up and up. In fact, my debt is now twice what it was when I graduated, purely on fees and interest. I paid for years, but then hit a stretch, going on 10 years now, of financial difficulties. I could pay off the principle, but the interest and fees are killing me.

Full disclosure: I have to admit that I did get two job offers, both in the NYC area, where I am from and where I’d theoretically like to stay. Both offered salaries that would have meant my rent would have been over 50% of my gross income. A doctorate and experience were required for both, but neither was going to pay a living wage. I had to turn them both down for economic reasons.

The dean at one school, a publicly funded one, mind, actually admitted in the interview that their salaries were geared for people who were in a dual-income situation—someone’s spouse or partner. I had a teenager and a husband working on getting a visa with no promise of a work permit for at least nine months. That’s just bad policy. I should be paid what I’m worth and what my job is worth. I have a doctorate; fewer than 3% of Americans have that degree. Tells you what Americans value, doesn’t it? We say we value education, but we don’t. I didn’t go into teaching to be rich, but don’t insult me. If I can’t afford to house, feed and care for my family in a reasonable commuting distance, I can’t possibly take the position. This past year, I commuted 20 hours a week, so my idea of reasonable is rather generous.

Again to be frank, if I were offered a position at that salary now, I’d take it and moonlight. But why should I have to? My doctor keeps telling me that I am destroying my health working 60-80 hours a week. And I am, so this must change. But if I worked less, I’d be homeless.

So I applied to a position in Dubai, and three days later was given an interview. A few interviews later, I was offered the position with a salary and package that blows away anything I’ve been offered in the US. I won’t be anything like “rich,” because I’m still a humanities professor, but I’ll be able to pay bills and support my son.

To be brutally frank, I feel like I’m being exiled from my country. I’ve applied for US teaching positions all over America, so it’s not like I didn’t try. I’ve sent out over 300 applications in the past seven years, and actually had a number of interviews. I’ve been a sub a few times and a visiting professor, but nothing permanent. I’m an award winning professor with 25 years of experience and a PhD from a very highly regarded school. I’ve done scholarly work, as much as I can, while teaching seven to eight courses a term, usually 11 months a year. Believe me, every term, I turn down adjuncting work because I’m that good at what I do. That’s not hubris. It’s the truth.

Am I angry that I can’t get a full time position in this country? Of course I am. On some levels, I’d even say resentful of a system that is destroying higher education and taking advantage of people who have a vocation for teaching. I am not a nun! I’m not a missionary! This is a profession, but I’m certainly not being treated like a professional. I’m not alone in this. It’s a national disaster that I’ve written about many, many times.

But there’s no use crying for water from the moon.

I’m off to start another adventure. I’ve never lived in the Middle East before, and now that I’m reconciled to leaving behind my family and friends, I’m looking forward to new exploits. Nothing beats living somewhere for learning about the culture. And Dubai is a very international place, I hear, so I’m sure it will be exciting and vibrant.

The Broad is Back is a reference to my original blog, A Broad Abroad. I will be starting A Broad Abroad Again in order to record my adventures overseas, and I look forward to seeing you there. I will post the link when it’s up and running!

I came back to a very different America, and sadly, more and more I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Sometimes it’s easier to feel like that when I truly am the stranger.

Thanks for your time and your faithful reading!

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September 2, 2013

A Call for Labor

Because today is Labor Day, I want to make a plea for those who would labor in this country but who can’t. I want to make a plea to bring manufacturing back to America.

We keep saying the jobs of the future are in technology. Many of them are. And factories don’t need as many people as they used to before robotics. But because Americans want to buy cheap, cheap, cheap, we’ve taken bread out of our neighbors’ mouths.  And hurt the country in the long run.

Why should a company pay a living American wage to a craftsman or a worker when work can be done in a developing country by someone with no union, no laws protecting workers? I may be thought naive because I’m going to answer, “it’s the right thing to do.”

Our country prospered when our working class prospered. When a “working man” or in many cases a working woman, could support a family with an honest wage. I hear many people blaming the unions. Hogwash. Unions got you a weekend and safe working conditions. Unions make sure you’re compensated if you’re injured at work.  Is there corruption in unions? Yes. Is there anywhere humans are that does not have corruption? No. Unions, churches, governments, corporations. It’s humans who are corrupt, not unions.

Since I’ve been back in America, I’ve gone through countless small appliances, clocks. chairs, the list can go on and on. Things break. They just stop working. I’m not saying one country or another is doing shoddy work, and I often think, in my paranoid moments, that companies do it on purpose to up their bottom line. But I know I would rather pay more for something that will last than keep throwing things in the trash. Living in a disposable world is wrong on so many levels.

But I’ve started to look at labels very carefully. I’m buying more things built in Germany, Switzerland and England because I want better quality. Yes, I’m paying more, but in the long run, I am sure I will save money.  I would rather buy things made in America in order to support my fellow Americans. But I can not find them!

I’ve said it before, more than once. If a clever person opened a factory here and made kitchen appliances, he or she would make a mint. Yes, I would pay twice as much for an American made toaster. I did it already for an English made one.

Not everybody wants to go to college.  Not everybody wants to work in an office. I’ve never worked in a factory, but I’ve worked in a factory lunch counter. It was not pleasant. It was hard work. But it was 9-5 with a regular and good paycheck.  The more skilled workers got paid more, which makes sense, but they had jobs. Now the jobs are gone.

Don’t tell me that working for a subpar wage with no health care or retirement benefits at a big box store is less stressful or easier on people.

My late father-in-law was a machinist in a mill. He and my mother-in-law raised nine kids on his paycheck. It was tight. Very tight. He supplemented his income with providing much of his own food with gardening, hunting and fishing, but his children were fed, educated and went on to good lives. But there’s no mill anymore for any of them to work in. The area they live in has been hit hard economically, and not just in this century. Things were getting bleak there in the 80s and they’ve never truly bounced back.

There are only so many tech jobs that can open up.

We’re being sold the story that we live in a service economy. That the jobs have moved overseas and there’s no getting them back. Why not? Prices will go up if people get paid a living wage. Americans have to say well, I will pay $6 for quality that will last instead of $1 at the dollar store. I’m no stranger to dollar stores. But how many times have I thrown out things in a matter of months and then had to replace it?  That’s false economy.

I feel like I’m on a soapbox right now. There are so many issues that are part of this problem. But I know there are people who want jobs and we keep telling them: “There are none. Learn a new skill.”  We have the factories, shuttered, many being turned into luxury housing for those in the professions. Housing is good. But so are jobs. Why repurpose a factory into housing when we could reopen it and start bringing in jobs?

I’m not an economist, so what the hell do I know? I read, though. I know history, though.  We see what happened to Detroit. We’re at a crossroads. Time to start a revolution in thinking about this country. Americans have to wrest America back from corporations and governments, local, state and federal, that pander to their needs.

April 28, 2013

Sick in America

Today’s blog started off as a posting for my “crunchy granola” blog when I realized I was about to step up onto a soap box, so perhaps it was best to transfer those thoughts there.

I’m sick. Have been all week, but yesterday it blossomed into a full blown fever with the cold medicine commercial symptoms. I keep telling myself it’s allergies, and it actually might be, but I am unwell no matter what the cause.

So I did something unprecedented and stayed in bed all day.

I didn’t want to. I had a set of things I needed to accomplish today. I had grading to do and job applications to fill out and cleaning, and well, you all know the weekend drill. And I only have one day weekends this term as I teach on Saturdays.

But I did myself a favor and listened to the voice of reason that does live in my head. Usually I ignore it, but this time, I realized it would be better to “sacrifice” today so that I can knock this thing out of me.

And today was the best day to “sacrifice” because I don’t teach today. I can’t miss a class! Not for mere illness.

Sometimes we need to rest, and that’s all there is to it. And that’s something that many Americans don’t do very well. We don’t “do” sick days or resting or vacation for that matter.

And this is where I realized that I was getting to the soapbox.  I do have one sick day a term when I teach. If I had to miss more, I’m sure I could, but I wouldn’t get paid for them. But I’m too frightened of getting the boot to dare to try.

Like many Americans, I work in an atmosphere of fear. If I get sick or need time, this might impact my employment.  And too many Americans are afraid to take the day off, so we go to work sick, spreading illness and annoying co-workers in one fell swoop.

Years ago, I remember reading an article in a women’s magazine: how to dress when you’re ill and have to work. Apparently wearing green offsets the red nose and eyes and makes us look healthier.  But why is this even information in my head?

Why is work so all important in this country? Why do so many people live in fear of taking a sick day?

This country is broken, and I’m wondering what needs to be done to fix it.

Obviously, I can’t fix it now. I’m in bed with a fever. And I’m taking a sick day.

September 30, 2012

Still a Girl Scout at heart

I was explaining my theory of teaching for a class I was taking, and I stopped and laughed at myself. I sounded like a Girl Scout.

I was a Girl Scout, from Brownies to Seniors, 1968-1977. For the most part, I loved it. My leaders, Mrs. Bechtler, Mrs. Wind, Mrs Tormey, Carol Kumpost (a young woman who led my Cadette/Senior troop–we daringly got to call her Carol) all contributed to the woman I am today.  The skills I learned, the values that were upheld, are things I still use.

I spent summers at Camp Ludington, a Girl Scout camp, learning to macrame, tie dye, canoe, swim, save lives, cook on an open fire, recognize stars in the sky, get along with strangers.  These are some of the best memories of my young life.

So much of the person I am today comes from the Girl Scouts.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the pledge, and it was different.  So thanks to the internet, I found the one of the 60s.

On my honor, I will try to do my duty to God and my country, to help other people at all times, and to obey the Girl Scout laws.

Here are the laws:

I will do my best:
– to be honest
– to be fair
– to help where I am needed
– to be cheerful
– to be friendly and considerate
– to be a sister to every Girl Scout
– to respect authority
– to use resources wisely
– to protect and improve the world around me
– to show respect for myself and others through my words and actions.

OK, so I’m not overly good at the respecting authority thing, but I pay attention to authority. I question it. And it if’s righteous, I respect it.  And I admit, I show respect to authority in most situations.  I’m a Girl Scout.

And other Girl Scouts being my sister has been replaced with other women are my sisters. Men are my brothers. Or nieces and nephews when it comes to students. We’re in it together.

I think it’s a good list. I do believe in God, so doing my duty to God and my country works for me.  I do my duty every day by teaching.  And for me duty is a good word, a fine word, not a harsh word at all.   It’s difficult, but good. See? It’s the Girl Scout in me.

A lot of people attack the Girl Scouts lately for being too liberal.  I don’t have a daughter, so my only contact with Girl Scouts has been buying cookies from friends’ daughters.  So I checked out their page,

Here’s the new pledge and laws:

The Girl Scout Promise

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

The Girl Scout Law

I will do my best to be
honest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
considerate and caring,
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do,
and to
respect myself and others,
respect authority,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place, and
be a sister to every Girl Scout.

No more duty. Not a “PC” word.  The badges are different, but then the world these girls are preparing for is different. Still wish they said duty, but that’s me.  But girls who learn to live by these laws will be stronger girls for it.

Doesn’t seem overly godless as God’s still in the pledge. But what do I know? I think I’m pretty conservative because I still believe in duty, but when I take those online tests, I come out so far liberal I’m falling off the left of the page.

But duty, responsibility, these are words that are at the heart of liberalism. Of course, I’m an 18th century scholar, so for me liberalism is the belief in liberty and equality. And at the heart of both of those ideals is responsibility. We must be responsible for ourselves and we do have a responsibility to help others. Not to cripple them, marginalize them, or disempower them, but to give them the tools they need to be free.

These are thoughts that have been coming up for me in my teaching lately. I feel it is my duty, responsibility, choose your word, to make sure my students have the tools they need to succeed in a hard world. No one out there is going to think they are special or give credit for trying. No one is going to cut them slack.  I sometimes think I’m too hard nosed. Other days I think I’m too lax.

But now I can remember that I’m a Girl Scout. I will do my best, and as long as I’m striving, I’m on the right track.

May 5, 2011

We live in interesting times

After I had gone to bed on Sunday, I got a text message. Grumbling at inconsiderate students, I decided it would be best to check it since I was mostly awake.

“Osama bin Laden is dead. Prez about to speak” read the text from my sister.

I immediately put on the computer and the TV and called my son out to watch.  And history unfolded itself in front of my eyes for the second time in a weekend, but this was much more somber news.  I’ve been meaning to write about it since it happened, but I have no time. I work 70 hours a week, sometimes more. Leaves little time for thinking much less writing.

So many emotions. I teach many vets and active service people, so my first thoughts went to them. Maybe they weren’t part of the raid, but they played their roles in the War on Terror.  I have students who are in Afghanistan, so of course I worry but my overwhelming emotion was pride–I’m proud to be their teacher because they are the best. All of them have volunteered to face a danger most of us cannot conceive of ever facing, and while they are at it, they earn their college degree.

I watched the president’s speech. I liked it. I followed Twitter. I was disgusted by tasteless jokes and impressed by deep thoughts that can be conveyed in 140 characters. The talking heads came on right after the speech, and I pretty much tuned them out. The 24/7 news cycle has destroyed thought in this country, at least, probably elsewhere, as well.  

Because I live in NYC, local news programs had many of the WTC victim’s family members. Each one spoke movingly. Almost all said this was a time for somber reflection not jubilation, a sentiment I share.  I watched till 1AM, but since I get up at 6, I soon had to force myself to bed.

The next morning, reaction in my classroom was mixed. Relief, joy, fear, disinterest, disbelief.  As a whole, I think that matched the rest of the country.

Today President Obama came to NYC to visit Ground Zero. He also visited a fire station in my neighborhood that lost every man on duty that morning.

All week I’ve been wanting to write, but now when I’ve carved out a little time to do so, nothing is coming. Sitting here I realize I feel numb, and I don’t know why. I think in part it’s attributable to this being the last two weeks of classes, so work has become intense. I’m tired from a year of teaching, exhausted from having to work three jobs to survive. I’ve come to the conclusion that while it’s a good sense of closure for the families that bin Laden is dead, I’m far more concerned with America’s crumbling economy and wealth inequity, and to be honest, my own state of underemployment for the past three years.

I have two students facing eviction next week–just in time for finals. Many of my students have just learned that due to budget cuts they won’t be able to finish their degrees on time.  They are more real to me than someone a half a world away.

There is much to think about, of course, and for someone who sincerely cares about America, this numbness is a frightening, much more frightening than any terrorist threat.  

 I know I’m not saying anything of value here, but I couldn’t let this momentous event pass uncommented upon. I couldn’t come back in a few weeks and write about something without pausing to at least mention something so important here in America. 

Good riddance to bin Laden.

April 20, 2010

It’s a Crying Shame

A week or so ago, I was discussing a piece of literature with one of my classes, and I learned something totally unexpected.  No one in the class could come up with a working definition of “shame”.  We eventually managed to cobble something together by working backward from “being ashamed of yourself,” but the fact that they couldn’t even define the word shocked me. But then it made a problem I’ve been puzzling over in my job perfectly clear.

I have written many many times about changes I’ve seen in students since I returned to the States.  Most of, no, I would say all of them, are for the worse.  Students think nothing of telling me they haven’t done the homework, of plagiarizing half of their paper from internet sources, of skipping classes with impunity, of strolling in 30 minutes late, with headphones blaring, then getting tetchy with me when I call them on such rude behavior.

I would have died a thousand deaths before I admitted to a professor I hadn’t done my homework.  Well, frankly, I would have come up with a pretty good lie before I’d admit that I hadn’t looked at the syllabus.  But as lazy a student as I was, and I was, I almost always did my class preparation.  I would have been too ashamed of myself had I not upheld my part of the classroom contract.  I might not have put it into those words back then, but I knew my responsibilities and for the most part, I fulfilled them.

Nowadays? My students feel no shame.  Now I’m definitely not saying that I want students to live in shame, or worse, to wallow in shame.  But the penny finally dropped for me.  My students feel no shame because they don’t even know what the word is.

I realize that this is probably a simplistic view.  You don’t have to know what a word for an emotion is in order to experience the emotion, but I still think there’s something valid to be taken from this lesson.  So many parents don’t want their children to experience negative emotions.  We shield children from feeling guilt, shame, anxiety.  We wrap them in emotional cotton in order to protect their self-esteem. 

Nothing wrong with a healthy self-esteem, but shouldn’t it come from knowing you did a job well? Or at least correctly?  Is a self-esteem truly healthy that hasn’t been tested a bit? Am I that hopelessly old-fashioned that I think that learning needs not just rewards, but occasional punishment, especially at the college level. And shame really isn’t that bad of an emotion. I thought I knew what it was, but just in case, I looked it  up.  According to my friends at Merriam-Webster.com, it means: “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety”. 

Shouldn’t we be conscious of the fact we’ve done something wrong?   Isn’t that how we learn not to do wrong? We want to avoid the painful emotion.  It brings to mind a passage from one of my favorite books, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  In it, Elizabeth is talking with her father, Mr. Bennet.  Lydia has eloped with Wickham, and poor Mr. Bennet has realized his faults as a father and says to Elizabeth:

“Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”
“You must not be too severe upon yourself,” replied Elizabeth.
“You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”

Even the famously indolent Mr. Bennet realizes the importance of feeling the sting for our own mistakes.  Some of us might beat ourselves up a bit too much, but for most of us the feeling passes quickly.  I have long seen, though, that for many of my students, there is never so much as a mere prick of their conscience. And I see that as a problem.

I truly want the best for my students. I want them to succeed in life and be happy and healthy.  And a little dose of shame to keep them on the path to success–being too ashamed to skip homework, to ignore the teacher’s words, to cut class, to be consistently tardy–isn’t that a good thing?

Now many of my students do apologize for not doing the work or for these kinds of negative behaviors, but almost every one of those students are either older or an immigrant, usually from Asia, where teachers are still held in esteem, or Africa, where teachers are esteemed and education is so precious. But for too many of them, academic wrongdoing isn’t even seen as a wrong doing. 

Eventually these students do get the punishment–they earn a D or an F for a class.  These grades lead to academic probation, to  getting cut from the more competitive degree programs the college offers, to repeating a course.  This adds time and money to their academic progress.  What a waste!  Wouldn’t it be better to have the tools you need to avoid these extreme scenarios? A little shame to keep you on the straight and narrow just makes more sense to me.

Just another little topic for me to worry about when teaching. Just another little lesson to add to the syllabus.  I’m supposed to be teaching college writing, and I am.  But like almost every other college professor I know, I’m also teaching life skills, which isn’t in my job description. And the fact that we are doing what parents and lower schools should have been doing, now that’s the crying shame.

March 29, 2010

Time for a Reset? Better than some of the options

In an earlier post I mentioned an article by Kurt Andersen.  I liked his piece so much that I checked out his website and found that he has recently published Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America“Values” can be a tricky word in America, as it can mean conservative Christianity.  I have nothing against conservative Christianity, per se, but those aren’t the values I see missing in America, but after reading the blurb on Amazon.com, I decided to read for myself.  And I’m very glad that I did.

While I didn’t agree with all Andersen had to say, I do recommend the book–more of a long essay, really–to anyone interested in the future of America.  The part that had me nodding my head in agreement was his argument that basically my generation of Americans needs to grow up on many levels.  He used the tale of the grasshopper and the ant.  The grasshopper plays all summer while the ant works hard preparing for the coming winter.  Andersen compares America of the past 30 years–since the Reagan years and just when my generation was coming of age–to the grasshopper.  And he points out that Americans used to be ants.  We’ve had cycles, and we needed that grasshopper streak in order to become what we’ve become, but it’s been dominant too long now.  As he put it, “it’s simply time to ratchet back our wild and crazy grasshopper side and get in touch with our inner ant” (20).

One thing Andersen hopes this crisis will do is bring back America’s pragmatism.  We’re not the only pragmatic people in the world, but once upon a time we were very good at it.  So good at it, in fact, that probably the most influential school of homegrown American philosophy was called Pragmatism, and was founded in the 19th century by Charles Sanders Peirce and followed by some of our more well known philosophers, William James and John Dewey.  On some levels, they took a national trait and codified it into a philosophical tool.

Another great 19th century American school of thought was Transcendentalism, and one of its major proponents, Ralph Waldo Emerson, is also cited in the book.  To be very reductionist, the Trancendentalists encouraged people to work hard, develop themselves to their highest state, and spare resources and live frugally and in harmony with nature.  Henry David Thoreau, another Transcendentalist, was Emerson’s good friend and neighbor and is today best known for living in his hut by Walden Pond, an early proponent of “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

Like many people, Andersen sees times of crisis as potential good.  As he says, “This is the end of the world as we’ve known it.  But it isn’t the end of the world” (17).  And some of the things in the world we’ve known haven’t been good.  Too few are in control of far too much; workers’ wages have not been increased at the same rate as the bosses’.  He gave some interesting statistics on this.  “An average American CEO has been getting paid several hundred times the salary of his average worker, a gap an order of magnitude longer than it was in the 1970s.  In Japan, the ratio is just eleven to one, and in Britain, twenty-two to one” (11).  America is a capitalist country, I get that.  But we’ve also given lip service to fairness and justice.

Andersen likened America at the beginning of the 21st century to the British Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.  While there was something in that, I must say that there are times when it reminds me much more of the Court of Versailles around 1785.  There was a very small ruling elite, sometimes giving lipservice to “the people,” but for the most part stuck in an Ancien Regime.  Back then, some were valiantly trying to bring the French government into a new era, but too many people were angry, hungry, jobless and frightened.  That was a recipe for disaster.  I’m not saying that there will be a violent and bloody revolution–21st century Americans aren’t that bloodthirsty towards their own kind–but I do think we’re heading for a major change and I fear it might be bumpier than we’d like.

Andersen’s book is short, only 72 pages long, but it gave me a lot to think about.  I post this to encourage you to have a read and have a think.

Andersen, Kurt. Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America. New York: Random House, 2009.

July 7, 2009

If a Job’s Worth Doing…

When I was a child, my mother drummed this saying into my head: “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”

I was reminded of that today when I was writing for my other blog, Patchouli Haze, a place where I post affirmations and words of wisdom, among other things.  I’m going to do a little cross pollination and lift some of today’s post there for here.

If I gotta do what I gotta do, I’m gonna do it well with style and joy.

I don’t know if this is really an affirmation or more a rule to live by.  When I was growing up, I wanted to be a medical doctor.  My mother taught me that I would never make a good doctor if I couldn’t mop a floor well.

Her point was that if some jobs are beneath me, then all jobs are above me.  Job satisfaction comes not from having a great job, but from doing any job well.  If I do my job well, I can take pride in it and from that comes joy.

I was also taught: there are no small roles, only small actors.  This is an old chestnut for theater people which was a way of saying that people’s dignity comes not from their job titles, but from how well they do their jobs.  So not only was I never to look down on any job as “beneath me,” neither was I ever to look down on someone because of his or her job.  That was a total contradiction of every value in our home.  So a nice double-whammy of a lesson.

As I was writing this, I couldn’t help but think of the American society I’ve come home to.  What has happened to Americans’ work ethic?  I’ve written about this before in this column, but it’s something that bothers me more and more as time goes on.

Last summer I was looking for an apartment here in New York City, and I was amazed, no flabbergasted is a better word, at the level of “service” I received from people in “service” jobs.  Inept was the kindest thing I could say.  Rude and surly and downright mean spirited would be closer to the truth.

This was all the sadder to me as I had just read Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick with group of grad students doing a course on American Optimism.  We’ve all heard the phrase “a real Horatio Alger story,” but most of us these days have never read any of his books.  Alger wrote about poor boys who worked hard, worked well, remained cheerful and were ultimately rewarded, not with vast riches, but with a comfortable middle class life with warm water, warm beds, plentiful food and rewarding work.

The cheerfulness in the books was occasionally a little too relentless even for me, an eternal optimist, but Alger was trying to show his audience, working class boys and girls, and even the “street urchins” of his time, how hard work and dedication do pay off in this country.  They are part and parcel of the “American Dream”.

My students today tell me that the American Dream is dead.  There are no longer any opportunities for people no matter what they do.  I disagree.  Vehemently.  Every day I meet students who will succeed, who have succeeded against all odds.  The homeless shelter kids who are pulling straight A’s in my classes.  The war refugees flourishing in college while working “menial” jobs.

And pretty much I can tell you long before graduation who will make it and who won’t.  It’s not talent, not totally, nor is it family connections, really (though both help, of course).  It is attitude.  One of my amazingly successful graduates wasn’t the one who stood out academically in her class.  She was good, not great.  Now she’s a powerhouse in her chosen field, far out-succeeding some of her more academically successful classmates.  But she’s also one of the hardest workers I have ever met.  And she’s unfailingly positive in her outloook.

Those two qualities–hard work and positive attitude–are components of the American Dream that seem to be missing from too many of today’s youth.  Are they too spoilt by their parents?  Too dissillusioned?  I don’t know the answer.  All I know is that this rot is bringing down too many American kids.

And my outstanding student mentioned above? She’s an immigrant to these shores.  Is that why she still believes in the American Dream and follows it  for success?  I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I’ve met a few, sadly disproportionately few, non-immigrant students who still have faith in the Dream.  They usually don’t articulate it , but through their actions I can tell they were brought up with it.

So I continue to carry a spark of hope with all my despair.  The inept workers I’m meeting day to day? They are shooting themselves in the foot, I’m sure.  They will be passed over for jobs for harder workers, people with better attitudes, but someday they might realize they can help themselves.  But the high proportion of people like them are a drain, and that’s what worries me.

A worried optimist–now that’s funny!

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