Friday, July 08, 2011

Office Hours

I don’t want to leave that last post up any longer, so I’m posting this just to have something else up top.

Last night, we received a phone call from some friends asking us to be the guardians of their children should anything happen to them. We agreed. It seems as though we might be everyone’s go-to people for guardianship. We’ve told all of them that we agree, but they are not allowed to fly on the same plan as any of these other people, and that if any of the other people for whom we are guardians pass away, we need to pass on the opportunity to be your children’s guardians. So anyway, here’s the tally of what would happen if all our friends and family died on the same day.

  • We have two kids of our own.
  • We are guardians for my sister’s daughter (my niece).
  • My husband’s sister’s sons (my nephews).
  • My own (half) siblings (one almost-18 year old boy, and two girls).
  • The children I mentioned in my last post, a boy and a girl (and we went ahead and said we’d be the guardians because we do think we’d do a good job, even if it meant rearranging our lives and maybe having a full-time SAHP…mostly because we think those kids are worth it).
  • And the two daughters of my husband’s best friend.
  • (Plus I begged my BFF to let me be her son’s guardian because he is adorable and I want him, but I don’t think she’s going to let me. Maybe I can just borrow his cheeks. I think his cheeks could light my house for a week.) 
Obviously, we won’t wind up with all 12 kids. I assume we are the choice because we have a very stable life. There is not a lot of drama in our household, which would be an excellent thing for children who were already undergoing such upheaval. We also live in an excellent school district. So, all-in-all let’s just hope all of our friends and family live long and happy lives.


 **Abrupt topic change**

I’ve been trying to keep up in the blogosphere with all the talk about NCLB, Affirmative Action, white privilege, and standardized testing, etc. Obviously, as a libertarian, I am not comfortable with anything other than a strict meritocracy. But I keep hearing how the deck is stacked against some kids. I want to tell you why that’s probably true, but I still call bullshit.

My parents were teenagers when they got married and had my sister. Shortly thereafter, I came along. My parents divorced. I grew up in a racially diverse area in an inner-ring suburb on the south side of Chicago.  The suburb was a mix of small single family homes and rentals.  It was very blue collar middle class.  Most of the dads worked in factories and the moms stayed home or did clerical work.  We were, at times, what is now known as “food insecure”. By the time we moved when I was in 7th grade to an area with purportedly better schools, my suburb was majority minority (which is a phrase that doesn’t make sense…it was majority non-white).

Fast-forward: I went to college. I was the first person in my family to go to what I call “sleep-away” college. Plenty of people in the family had taken some courses at the local community college, and some had even finished 4-year degrees at commuter colleges, but I was the first person to go to college. And I didn’t go to just any college. I went to a fancy-pants elite college.

I was one of the only people at college I knew there whose parents were divorced, one of only a few receiving a Pell Grant and a Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant. I always assumed college students were struggling and cheap (and eating ramen). Everything I knew about college I learned from watching TV and movies like Animal House and Simpsons episodes.

I was way out of my league. But I am white. There were plenty of under-represented minorities there, and they got to go to the college 6 weeks before school started to take classes on study skills, learn to use the library, interact with faculty, explore different majors, and familiarize themselves with the workings of college. Some of them came from families with other college graduates. Some of their parents even went to college.

I’ve long thought that racial preferences and programs don’t really address the real problem with student achievement and the minority achievement gap. I would bet that the achievement gap is based on socio-economic status and educational attainment of the parents. It probably just so happens that in America that is often confounded with race.

So, everything I knew about college I knew from TV. I thought that there was a way things were supposed to be in college, and I tried to make my college experience seem like what I thought it should be like. I thought I should be drinking (I never drank in HS). I thought there should be partying (though I am not much of a partier). I thought we’d all be poor and scraping by, eating cheap food and wearing the same clothes we’d had for years. I was so wrong about all of it. I don’t recall ever having seen a TV show or movie where the kids were bright, studied all the time at college, got internships, and did laundry on Friday nights.  Even on Beverly Hills 90210, the kids had money during college, but they weren't studying all the time.

If you’d ever been exposed to college before, you might know what office hours are. I had no idea. At the beginning of all my classes, the professors would write their office hours up on the blackboard (or pass them out on the syllabus). I would dutifully write them down in my binder (which was the same binder I had used for a class last year and had removed the papers from because I didn’t have $3 to spend on a new binder…and death to the professor who required that homework be done on green engineering paper which was $6). So I would write these office hours down, but I didn’t know what they were. Why did he tell us when he’d be in his office or lab? Why would I care? I just had no idea. I never went to office hours during my entire college career.


Unsurprisingly, I was offered work-study as part of my financial aid package. Dutifully, within a few days of getting on campus, I got a job in my dorm sorting mail in the mailroom.  It was brutal work at the beginning of the year when many students had shipped large boxes to their dorms.  We would deliver the boxes to the dorm rooms (with no elevators and just a hand cart) so that the boxes would be waiting in the room when the students showed up.  Had I known anything, had a clue, or had parents who could guide me, I would have waited until the engineering department lab jobs were posted a few weeks later. It would have been easier work and given me a better resume. But I just didn’t know. By the time I figured out that lab jobs were cake and got you on the good side of professors, I had worked my way up to mail room supervisor and didn’t want to move to a lower-paying lab job. Money was tight and I had rent to pay and groceries to buy.

I never went to a library orientation. And for the record, during my entire 3 years at college, I never once checked a book out of the main library (I did check a book or two out of the engineering library, though). Last night, for the first time ever, I asked a librarian at my local library how the books were organized because I couldn’t find an Adult Biography. I’m 35 years old and still intimidated by all the knowledge I think I should already magically have and which I assume everyone else in the library has.

So clearly, I think there are obstacles to success for poor kids from the south side. I don’t, however, think those obstacles are greater for minority kids than they are for economically disadvantaged white kids, but maybe that’s just because I see what I had to overcome and think everyone else should be able to do so as well.


  1. What about the privilege you get when a professor looks at you and thinks you are just a little bit smarter than the person sitting next to you with an identical skin color? Then the professor gives you more challenges, is more likely to call on you in class, is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, is more likely to force you to answer a question rather than just giving you the answer. Racism and sexism still exist.

    They exist in small ways and each one by itself is next to nothing, but when they pile up you end up with a ton of feathers.

    I know from my experience that tall white men in my field don't have to work as hard as short white women to reach heights in my field. That causes people on the margin to opt out-- if they were identical but male, they wouldn't get sick of having to put in all those extra hours and all that extra effort because they wouldn't have to. I know that those problems are even worse for minorities than they are for me. The few racial minorities in my field are MUCH smarter and more hardworking than the average white person in my field precisely because to get to the same place they have to work much harder and be smarter. That shouldn't be. The distribution of intelligence and work should be the same in my field across races and genders, but it isn't. Blacks and hispanics who aren't far better than the average aren't represented in this field at all because of the discrimination against them. Small acts that build up.

    I overcame obstacles, I made it, I'm smarter and more hardworking than the average white guy in my field. That doesn't mean women and minorities don't need a leg up. What about the woman who is as smart as the average white guy, why shouldn't she have a chance too? Why should only superior women and minorities be allowed to succeed when average and below average white men are? Why do we always have to be above average?

  2. sorry, correction: identical background, different skin color

  3. See, I've been thinking and thinking about what to say, and I still am not sure I know. But here goes... I agree with the point you make about socioeconomic disadvantage. I came from a standard middle class background, and I still had a heck of a shock when I hit college and all those kids from snazzy prep schools. I definitely didn't really understand how things worked, and I'm sure that worked against me sometimes. There should have been resources to help you when you arrived at college. There were some there to help me, and boy, am I glad I found them.

    But I also think that the disadvantage faced by people who aren't white can't be explained completely by class. It is hard to see when you're white, just like it is hard for men to really see the extent of sexism. But I think it is there. One of my best friends in high school was African-American, and I remember having a conversation with her about the little obstacles that were in her way that weren't in my way. I think she was right about that. We both had to climb hard to get to where we are now, but I'm pretty sure she had to climb harder. (She is now a professor at a very good school, so some people might say she climbed higher, too- who knows?)

    But at the same time, I hate, really hate, the calling of "privilege!" on people, particularly people like you, who are honest about what you have faced and open to the consideration that you might be missing something. It feels like the opposite of the empathy we need to find out way to a more equal place.

    So thanks for the honest post.

  4. My fancypants college had the same sort of program prior to college starting that you describe, except it *also* included financially disadvantaged students of all races and those who went to rural or low-ranking high schools. I always thought that was a good idea, and the students who participated found it really helpful.

    And yeah, that green engineering paper- super expensive. Even now.