Most children live for weekends, holidays, and summer break. Without the structure of public school, a place where I was fed a free hot lunch every weekday (and breakfast, too, for a time), I went hungry a lot of the time school wasn’t in session. At home I lived on rations of free government cheese, free government peanut butter, and potatoes. I was a child freeloader. I’m not being hyperbolic, Mitt. For years and years, I just took and took. I had to. School was my only comfort, my only enthusiasm in life. I was an only child, and because my mother was in an abusive marriage, she was both physically and mentally unavailable to care for me. She was, quite literally, a victim. And I guess I was, too. I know that’s not my fault. But it was my reality. School was my refuge, the place where I quickly discovered that I could get noticed and even rewarded if I studied hard and performed well for my teachers. Turns out, straight A’s trump warning signs: the teachers picture you getting everything you need when you work hard, perform well, give them what they want and more than they expect. The teachers loved me, Mitt. They challenged me and nurtured my potential; they gave me goals, a reason to look forward, a reason to achieve, to be. I didn’t have organized extracurricular activities like ballet or karate or gymnastics; I didn’t go on vacation; I didn’t have family home evening; and, sometimes, we went through periods of no power and no phone. These are the years I hijacked my mother’s clothing and tried to pass it off as my own, rolling up the legs to her terry-cloth jumpsuits and tying the arm ties as high as they would go. I would roll and fold all of her clothes until they fit, sort of. Because I was petite and undernourished, nothing really fit. Luckily, I was still able to wear many of the clothes at age ten that I wore at age seven, though they were too short and absolutely worn out. If my neglected self had been transported to the now, surely someone would have called the authorities. “She’s wearing her mother’s clothing,” a teacher from today might whisper through the phone lines to Child Protective Services. “There is a big rat in her hair.” But, honestly, because I was achieving, no one worried. I couldn’t depend on anyone—not a teacher, not a church, not a private charity to “save” me.
I recall feeling self-conscious about not having: I remember one school assignment where we were to record every speck of food we ate for a week so that we could all take part in a nutrition lesson. This is one instance where I must have been aware that how we lived, how we ate, how we didn’t eat, was abnormal. I only ate breakfast when it was served at school. Other mornings, I went without. Because of the school lunch program for the underserved, I always had a hot lunch during the week. And my dinnertime was irregular and usually consisted of inexpensive ingredients my mother would pick out from the discount grocer and pay for with food stamps. Mostly, we ate macaroni, canned tomatoes, discount and expired meats and breads, vegetables in dented cans. And there were always potatoes. So I didn’t seem impoverished or deprived in the meal-log my teachers would see and grade, I made up an elaborate week’s worth of eating. I remember going through my mother’s cookbooks and writing down dinners I wished we’d had. I clearly recall writing down lobster at one point. I’m sure my teachers got a giggle there.
The point is: public school saved me, Mitt. My teachers saved me. Government assistance saved me. My food, my inoculations, everything, came from the government. Fortitude, determination, and resilience also saved me. This is why I always knew I wanted to become what I most revered—a teacher. I achieved that. I have a PhD, in fact (thanks to Pell grants, subsidized loans, and fellowships). I don’t make much money, because I teach at-risk children (with money acquired from grants I wrote myself). But I’m living my dream. I feel like I’m making a difference. Maybe not to you, because I’m part of the 47%. But I’m making a difference to someone. And, rich or poor, everyone matters.
What if every American Dream isn’t to be wealthy? What if my American Dream is to be a teacher or a nun or a painter or a writer or a ballet dancer or an opera singer or a musician or a mechanic or a nanny or a hairdresser? I’m willing to bet, Mitt, that you have some paintings on the walls of your home. And I’m hoping you possess some great books. I imagine you have experienced live theater, maybe even opera. And surely you have some music you love. Perhaps you like to eat at restaurants. Most people who enrich this society—artists, musicians, dancers, writers, teachers, restaurant workers, social workers, and teachers—are part of that 47% you said you don’t care about. Would you care if all of those things you love, things created by the 47%, were removed from your house? Artless walls, bookless shelves, foodless refrigerator (farmers don’t make much, you know) . . . . Your house was probably built by the 47%. If the 47% fell off the Earth, we’d be in a sorry state of affairs.
We are all contributors to this country and to this world; several citizens of this country have dreams that aren’t necessarily fed by wanting to reach a higher tax bracket. This isn’t to say that wealth is inherently evil or bad or that it makes people greedy or immoral. The privileged members of the Kennedy family, for example, have advocated for the arts, the underserved, and the environment without demeaning those who haven’t had the same opportunities or who choose lives of poverty in order to chase their dreams. I know. I know. Who is supposed to pay for these dreams? All of us—the 100%. That’s not socialist thinking. It’s civilized thinking.
I want to, in closing, talk about the people you call “victims.” My question on that point is this: Are victims, true victims, not entitled to take part in democracy? In American life? Are they inhuman? Is it moral that the victims of our society—(adult and child) victims of domestic and sexual abuse, vets with mental trauma, those unmedicated for mental illness, the neglected, the disabled, et cetera—suffer without basic medical care? Without food? Is it okay that they die? A society is made up of all types of people—some poor because of their passions, some poor because of their fate. Is there nothing here for the lost, the needy, the rejected, the exiled, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? If not, we best remove the Statue of Liberty and in its place put a gigantic statue of a dollar sign.
Carissa Neff writes, edits, teaches, and busts her ass as a stay-at-home mother while her husband brings home the real bacon. She lives in the People’s Republic of Austin, Texas.