In the United States, there is no shortage of belief in the possible, or case of the nearly 43 million people living in poverty, the seemingly impossible. The idea is that through hard work, ambition and dogged persistence, all people can overcome where they began in life to enjoy middle-class success—a home, steady income, a healthy family and a comfortable retirement. According to this narrative, when individuals fail to attain this level of success, it is because they did not try hard enough.
The truth is that only about 4 percent of those born into poverty, or in the bottom 20 percent of Americans economically, will ever make it to the top fifth of income earners in the U.S. Poverty rates are highest among blacks, Latinos and households headed by women. What this tells me is that poverty is not arbitrary, which would mean that everyone has as good a shot at being impoverished as they have at being middle-class; rather, it is exacting. Those who are the most vulnerable, who are most likely to be marginalized in the labor market or in the economy, or who have been on the receiving end of historical racial and gender discrimination in most, if not all, of the systems and institutions in our society, these people are most likely to be poor. This is no coincidence.
Since I left my childhood community more than two decades ago, very little has changed about the way it looks and feels and the individuals and families who still live there. In fact, I would argue that things have gotten progressively worse. The inequality gap, measured not only by income but by access to opportunity and resources as well, has become a chasm far too wide to cross for most people living in poverty, including many in my old neighborhood.
Poverty cannot be defined solely by the lack of income or material wealth. It is also characterized by a severe lack of access to opportunities, resources and vital networks, which, taken together, make it nearly impossible for individuals and entire generations of families to escape. Over time, individuals living in poverty learn to negotiate these systems. They adapt, make do, go without, rationalize or internalize the limitations of the structures that are failing them in bulk. They, too, have come to believe that they are the problem.
Middle-class and upper-income individuals and families have a different set of rules that govern their lives and that speak to their capabilities and aspirations. By “rules,” I mean practices that allow individuals to succeed in any given society. For the most part, the rules that govern our many systems—from the education system to the criminal legal system—are invisible to most poor people. These rules can be as simple as knowing that you must take the SAT to apply to a four-year institution, knowing how to prepare a résumé and dress for a job interview, or knowing where to go to access information that can help one gain citizenship status or obtain a loan for the purchase of a new home.
Success and opportunity in the United States are shaped much less by hard work, intelligence or aspirational drive than by the conditions under which individuals are able to pursue success and opportunity, the social capital gained through personal connections and the mastery of the institutional and structural rules of engagement in our society. Individual effort, determination and possibilities are only part of the equation.
In his poignant and insightful book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, David K. Shipler observes that “an exit from poverty is not like showing your passport and crossing a frontier. There is a broad strip of contested territory between destitution and comfort, and the passage is not the same distance for everyone.”
Born Bright takes place in that contested territory and seeks to illuminate the sheer fortitude it takes to navigate systems and structures designed for the success of a few rather than the many. Stated differently, the poor girl in me wants to explain why everyone does not make it out.
My grandmother and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment across town, away from the family house. I was the only grandchild without parents present. We lived like housemates. She worked nights and slept during the day while I was at school. During the evenings, I worked full-time at the food court and took the bus home after my shift. We rarely saw one another.
In every way, I was responsible for myself. There was no one to tell me what to do, when to wake up, to go to school or finish my homework. I had a routine and I followed it religiously. I was determined not to become sidetracked or return to California. There were no second chances.
Valley High was similar to the other high schools I had attended. They all ran on the same tracking system. All the middle-class white and Asian kids were in Advanced Placement classes. Most of the black and Latino kids were in remedial classes. Because of the way I dressed—baggy jeans, large bangle earrings and sneakers—it was assumed that I belonged there too. My teachers were shocked when I entered the room and took a seat. When I first arrived at school and handed my schedule to the Advanced Placement government teacher, for example, his first question, which he asked without skipping a beat, was whether I was in the wrong class. Embarrassed, I assured him that I belonged there.
My counselor, Mr. Dent, a squirrelly white man, was different from the one at San Bernardino High. When I visited him, he had very little to say and never spoke to me about college. He only verified that my courses from my old school would transfer and that I would graduate on time. “Can I please speak to Ms. Bowman?” The school receptionist put me on hold. The classical music they played while I waited had become familiar.
“She’s not available right now. Can you give her a call back a little later?” She sounded annoyed. I’m sure it was Ms. Lyle, who barely had time to look up from her magazine to acknowledge us when we visited the front office.
It was the middle of the school day. I was using the pay phone across the street from Valley High. I had been calling Ms. Bowman for the past few weeks with no success.
College was the topic of discussion in my classes. Everyone was applying, retaking the SAT and talking about where they hoped to go. They had their top choices and their safety schools. They spoke with such authority and certainty.
I had tried attending a local college fair to get a better sense of the application process. I had taken the morning off from work to attend and caught several buses to get there. When I arrived, I was overwhelmed. I did not know how to sort through all the information on the tables or what criteria I should be using to decide which schools would be a good fit for me. The school representatives, while eager to help, grew annoyed with my lack of understanding of the process and my seemingly rudimentary questions. I did not know what a major was or what I planned to study. I was unfamiliar with the financial aid and application deadlines. I realized in that moment that I knew very little about going to college and all it would take to get there. I needed more guidance, some help.
“Hello, Ms. Bowman. It’s Pumpkin—I mean Chataquoa.” I had finally gotten through to her. “I need your help. I am trying to figure out where to apply to school.” The other end of the line was silent. “Hello.”
I hoped that she remembered me. Ms. Bowman was the special education teacher at San Bernardino High and a graduate of West Virginia State, a historically black college in Charleston, West Virginia. On campus, she had developed a reputation for getting black kids into college. She saw it as her duty to help us, those of us she could.
“Where have you been?” She was shocked to hear my voice.
“I moved to Las Vegas to live with my grandmother.” I tried to make it sound as normal as possible, like going to the dentist or taking a morning shower. Ms. Bowman did not probe. I could tell she was barely paying attention. She dropped the telephone on the table to scold a student who had gotten out of his seat. It sounded like a madhouse there.
“Where should I apply?” I cut to the chase when she got back on the line. I knew I only had a few minutes before she would have to go.
“Apply to Howard,” she advised. “Send your application to the attention of Tawanna Banks in admissions. I have to go.”
“Mr. Dent, I’m going to apply to Howard University in Washington, D.C.”
He paused and cocked his head to the side. He looked puzzled. This was not the reaction I was expecting. I was hoping he would offer some advice on completing the application or talk about other students he had known who had gone there.
“That’s a really hard school to get into. They turn away more than half of the students that apply.” The deep lines gathered at the center of his forehead and his furrowed eyebrows told me he thought that I was reaching for too much. He walked past me to the row of mailboxes. He pulled out a stack of large envelopes from his cubby. “Well, I guess it doesn’t hurt to apply,” he conceded.
Besides Mr. Dent, my grandmother was the only person I told about my application and that I planned to go to college. It was a secret. I could not stomach the backlash, the judgment or having to defend my decision to leave the neighborhood. My lunch table friends were having trouble passing the high school exit exams required to graduate, and I did not want to seem as though I was bragging.
“I got accepted to Howard,” I said, almost boastfully.
It was Saturday. I was still in my work uniform and my face was oily from the shift. My black sun visor was covered in splatters and I smelled like fried food.
“You did?” my cousin Katrina asked. “You’re so smart, Pumpkin.”
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere.” It was Key-Key, my aunt Dina’s husband. He was such a dick. What did he mean? Sure, I was. “How you gon’ pay for it?” he demanded to know. His face was smug and his lips were pursed.
Good question. Before then, I had never thought about how I would afford to pay for college. I assumed I would get loans or grants like I had read about in the brochures. Seeing an opening, he kept going. “You gon’ be right here with us. Watch and see.”
“Can I please speak to Ms. Bowman?”
“She’s not available.”
“You told me to call back today at this time. I’ll hold until she becomes available.”
“We cannot tie up the phone lines. You waited yesterday and people complained about not being able to get through to us,” the receptionist said testily. “OK,” I said, deflated. “I’ll call back later.”
Ms. Bowman was my only hope. She had gotten me into Howard, and I was sure she would know what to do next.
I lost sleep worrying about how I would get to Howard. When I did sleep, my dreams were filled with anxiety and panic. In the dreams, I would plead for help from financial aid officers, college officials or anyone who would listen. Each time, I was denied assistance.
The weeks passed and time grew short. “Ms. Bowman, you have to help me.” It was after the first class of the day and I was standing in her door. I charged in the direction of her desk. She was startled. “What are you doing here?”
It all spilled out in one long breath. “Ms. Bowman, you have to help me,” I repeated. “I got into Howard, but I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it. I don’t have any money.”
My eyes were pleading, begging. She let out a deep sigh. She wasn’t expecting me. I was supposed to be in a high school four hours away.
“Step outside. I’ll call you back in a minute.”
I did not want to leave. I wanted to stay and force her to answer me—how was I going to pay for college? After a few moments, I turned and headed toward the hallway. The building was as dank as I remembered. I paced the corridor and listened to the civics lesson being delivered in the classroom across the hall. I wished she would hurry. I was on a schedule.
After about 20 minutes, she motioned with her long acrylic fingernails for me to come back inside. I rolled my eyes and let out a long sigh. Finally, I thought to myself.
“I just spoke with Clarence Lee, the dean of Arts and Sciences at Howard University.”
My breath was trapped inside my body.
“You have a full merit scholarship to Howard,” she announced regally.
“For real!” is all I could manage to get out. I could not believe it.
She nodded. The expression on her face remained unchanged.
“They’ll send you more information with your financial aid packet,” she said. I was bursting with happiness. Undeterred by her stateliness, I rushed her body, throwing my arms around her neck. My scrawny arms might have just made it around her full body. She patted my back.
By noon, I was on the bus back to Las Vegas. I had to work the night shift. I did not make any stops along the way, even to home. I had gotten what I had come for.
C. Nicole Mason is the executive director of the Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest at The New York Women’s Foundation. Her writing and commentary have appeared in major newspapers and outlets including MSNBC, CNN, The Nation, Essence magazine and numerous NPR affiliates.
From Born Bright by C. Nicole Mason. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.