My grandfather — they called him Big Papa — died before I was born. He was an on-again, off-again logger who struggled to provide for his huge family. My grandmother — we called her Bigo — would become a mother for the first time in 1913 at the tender age of 15 years old. She would give birth for the final time in 1935. My father was their ninth child; two more would come after him.
They lived by eating what they could grow in a garden, hunt down in the woods of southeast Texas (deer, rabbits, quail, raccoons, squirrels, o’possums) and fish from the Trinity River.
Dad remembers his first soft drink (an orange Crush soda) his first restaurant steak, his first trip to “town” — Liberty, Texas — the county seat. It wasn’t many miles south of where he lived; he rode there on horseback.
And I have my own list: my first time to see a movie at a theater (1975 — my father took me to see The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. My mother believed seeing movies was a sin, an outgrowth of the charismatic church I grew up in.) I also remember my first stay in a hotel (Dallas, 1974) the first time to leave Texas (to go to Arkansas, 1976) and my first time to fly in an airplane (1985, from Dallas to Houston) when I was 23 years old.
I remember the laughter when I expressed my excitement about flying for the first time. I was working for Mercantile Bank in Dallas. I still recall the conversation in my cubicle that day. The recent college graduates (almost exclusively from the east coast) had been flying all their lives and had already traveled extensively.
I asked them to describe their first flight and their first time to leave the United States. None of them could do it. I asked them: why are you proud of doing something you can’t even remember?
But of course their laughter was rooted in a very real economic truth — travel is often an outgrowth of class privilege. A person considers travel an option because they’ve been exposed to family members or others who travel.
Few people traveled where I grew up in Hardin, Texas. No one had the money to do it and it simply wasn’t part of the conversation. My awareness of Travel Capital T wouldn’t come about until I was at Baylor, where I was suddenly dropped into the midst of great affluence.
It was my first time to be around people who spent hundreds of dollars on clothes in a single shopping trip. A guy in my dormitory was given a brand new Mercedes by his parents as his high school graduation gift. I had never met people who regularly flew across the country simply to ski.
I had never even seen a pair of skis.
That was more than 30 years ago. I couldn’t have imagined what my life would hold, even though I knew from a young age I would get out of my small town and live elsewhere. I didn’t know how — I’m not sure that I really knew why— but I intended to make it happen.
This story is going to seem off-track, but stay with me:
At the beginning of the semester, on the first day of class, I do a Getting To Know You exercise where we go around the room and students answer questions — names, hometowns, educational goals. But I also ask them to describe something using specifics. It’s the first of many exercises to help them recognize how concrete details create effective writing.
But a few years ago I decided to try something different. I asked them to name a country they would like to visit outside of the U.S. and why they wanted to go there.
Fully two-thirds of them couldn’t do it. And I remember my heartbreak (I didn’t show it that day) because I realized I had put them on the spot. I had lost sight of my own privilege and imagined “everyone” planned to travel.
These are a few of my students’ stories: a girl who had one pair of shoes for school, and kept them hidden in a box so they wouldn’t be stolen; a teenager from Mexico who had so little to eat he would go all day without food because his mother couldn’t make him a lunch, and he had no money to buy anything at his school. I’ve lost count of the students who describe a time in their lives when their family lived in a car, or a tent. Homelessness, whether temporary or chronic, happens all around us.
When I finally dismissed class, I wanted to cry. For them, yes… but also, in a way, because I had forgotten my own upbringing. I felt like such an asshole, asking them “what foreign country would they like to visit?” when their more immediate thoughts were whether they had money for rent, or to buy textbooks.
Tomorrow Bill and I board a flight in San Francisco and fly for twelve hours before landing at 10:30 Friday morning in Paris (my first trip to France.) After four weeks I’ll fly to Barcelona (my first trip to Spain) and then on to Morocco (another first) for a couple of weeks.
In these days — and now hours — before I travel I remember how fortunate I am to enjoy the things my current life provides. But it’s also bittersweet because my job guarantees my awareness of the people who struggle to meet their basic needs.
As the gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots grows ever wider, don’t lose sight of the struggles of others.
It’s easy to forget our privilege; it happens to me, I’m sure it happens to you.