I had a head start. I learned to read when I was two years old. In kindergarten, when the rest of the kids were learning to count, I was figuring out multiplication. I was always in the accelerated classes; in third grade I went across the hall to the fourth grade class for math. I was in sixth grade before I met anything in school that wasn’t easy. And I’m of the opinion that this permanently stunted my work ethic.
I was a sophomore in high school when friends started joking that I had senioritis. I openly scoffed at the idea of doing math homework, while many of my classmates stayed after school on a regular basis to receive help. My grades sagged to B’s when they could have been B+’s or A’s, but, as I was so fond of saying at the time, whatevs. I never bothered studying for exams, be they AP or SAT, and routinely got the best scores in class. On the basis of those scores I am here at Boston University. It helps significantly that I have parents willing and able to cover the cost of attending BU.
I don’t mean to come off as a braggart. There are disadvantages to being me. I share my story to illustrate this fact: efforts don’t always correlate with results. My high school classmates who put so much more time and effort into their academics than I are currently attending fine schools in Upstate New York, but if my lazy ass got into BU, surely the Ivy League would have been a reward commensurate with their efforts. And of course there are kids from less fortunate school districts who now go to community colleges when their effort is worthy of Harvard. All I did was win the genetic lottery, to the extent a 5’9″ guy with anxiety issues can do so.
As an American, I am keenly attuned to the unfairness of this. We are taught from a young age that America is a country where effort is rewarded, and where anything is possible if you merely work hard enough. That’s the American Dream, no? And maybe it’s still a reality. News outlets love doing profiles of second-generation immigrants who now own companies worth millions. That sort of thing happens here in a way that it doesn’t in so many other countries. But research suggests that Americans born into the bottom fifth of incomes are more likely to stay in the bottom fifth as adults than Canadians or western Europeans born into the same circumstances. In America, wealthy kids who don’t go to college are more likely to be wealthy adults than poor kids who attend college.
Life is a relay race; our starting position is determined by the generations before us, and we have no control over who those people are. Some people have to work harder than others to reach the same goals, and sometimes even their best isn’t enough. If we can acknowledge that basic fact, can we do something about it? Or is the idea of the American Dream a velleity, something that we want but are unwilling to work towards?