The waiter at the breakfast place learned to read about 15 years ago, at roughly the same time he stopped drinking. There was no need to learn reading when he was growing up with 19 brothers and sisters in Mexico. As far back as he can remember, life was a continuous pattern of work, eat, sleep, repeat. What use was reading in his world?
Today, two of his kids are in college and the third is thriving at a selective charter school. He’s hoping for a better life for them, and it looks like he has found a way to provide it. I can’t imagine he’s making a ton of money at the restaurant, or that he has a seriously plush second job, but somehow he has figured out how to make progress.
He has also figured out how to be satisfied, even happy, with far less than many people would consider to be the basics. I don’t know all the details of his existence, of course, or how much money he has, but it’s a good bet he has less than most people I know. He also appears to feel luckier than many of them, as well. I’ve seen this quite a bit with people who have started with nothing. Every bit of progress is more significant for them, building on a smaller base.
There might be an inspirational book in this guy’s story. At a minimum, I find his tale to be a reality check whenever a sense of self-made achievement comes over me. Sure, I’ve worked hard and achieved a few things in life, but I can’t help wondering where I’d be if I had been born in the same circumstances as my waiter.
I know a lot of people who talk about their humble beginnings, although humble is a relative term. I was born into a family with two parents who knew how to read and encouraged me to do well in school, go to college, etc. My dad's business went under and he ended up in bankruptcy court shortly before I was born, but he found another line of work and I was none the wiser, or poorer, for his misfortune. I grew up in a mostly safe neighborhood, although I did get beaten by some kids from St. Tim's because I was a Jew. No knives or guns involved, so even my victim-hood wasn't as severe as in other neighborhoods. I don't know if we were middle class or lower middle, but I had a head start over about 90% of the world.
Later, I met people who grew up in the suburbs, in (relatively) big homes on (relatively) big lots, people who went to overnight camp when they were kids and had been to Disneyland. They seemed really lucky to me, although they probably think of their childhoods as modest, too. You gotta love the United States, where 90% of the people think they are middle class and 99% think they grew up poor.
How far we go in life depends on both what we do and where we started, a reality that’s brought home to me in almost every conversation I have with an immigrant. Even people who are living very modest lives are likely to have come further from their starting points than I have from mine.
That doesn’t make me feel less positive about myself, but it does add important perspective to my worldview. It colors my thinking when I pass a beggar and I think about what it would take for him to get a job, an apartment, clothes or credit. It tempers my schadenfreude when an arrogant SOB falls on hard times.
Life is too complicated for simple conclusions about where a person is going or how they got to where they are. The combination of opportunities and challenges is too complex for facile judgments and simple phrases. Quite often, the biggest challenges are hidden in home life and family, beyond the veneer of visible assets. Still, some people clearly started out at the bottom and, just as clearly, I had more of a head start.
Of course, I started on third base because my grandparents took the risk to emigrate here and take a seat in the last row. Like the waiter from Mexico, they dug in and took the hits to pave the way for the next generation. It's no shame for his kids, or for me, to acknowledge we're riding on someone else's shoulders.