At a glance, the fact that my dad worked as a ramp agent for the airlines before I had, and that he’d worked in security before both my brother had and I do now, seemed highly coincidental, even a little flattering–the ability to bond with our estranged father over shared experiences in employment. My relationship with my dad, specifically, even began to grow once I’d placed my foot where he had once walked. But soon, the kindred atmosphere of this path began to fade, and what was left was a clear line of sight: the fact that my brother and I are following a path not unlike that of our father was not by chance, and the fact that we’d worked under the same job titles, even within the same company, was hardly coincidental.
I grew up in a city. Not the kind with skyscrapers, taxi cabs, and police officers walking a beat, but the kind where an entire population lived beyond the census and buses were packed liked cans of sardines during rush hour. Nevertheless, opportunity still seemed available to the children of the working class, perhaps even the lower- to middle-class children such as myself. If I played my cards right, I would get into school, find a way to pay for it, and land myself a house in a quiet neighborhood one day with modern appliances and all. Something happened, though. Before I met my senior year of high school, I lost all drive to be much more than a high school graduate, and even then, I’d made the mark only by inches. I figured I was having a crisis of discipline, and upon graduation, I followed my brother into the U.S. Army.
Little changed for me while I was in the army. I’d gained a certain tolerance for obedience, but beyond this, I’d hardly learned the discipline I felt was needed to achieve success in the real world, as we called it. I pushed on, scraping through the final year of my contract much as I had my senior year of high school. I exited with no new (or at least, true) aspirations, a high school diploma, and shortly thereafter, a vocational degree as a ‘Wind Turbine Technician’ – a career that seemed promising so long as I didn’t mind leaving my family for months on end and believed falling to my death was an acceptable risk of employment. I passed on this opportunity and decided to try film school, but after a few months, I found myself struggling to enjoy much more than the idea of being a filmmaker.
This is when I found a job as a ramp agent with Southwest Airlines. I was ecstatic: a job that let me burn off the extra energy that came with being in my early 20s; a job that provided health benefits and 401(K) match program; a job that even let me fly for free with discounted hotel prices. The pay seemed meager, but there were plenty of folks working for less. Plus, I was union, so I’d figured this was about the best an emerging member of the working-class could get. I figured I’d stick with the gig until my back broke or they bought me out. Nevertheless, I didn’t plan on leaving. After a year or so, I began to grow anxious. I’d piqued a new interest in reading, specifically with the goal of making sense of the world around me. When I found I needed a deeper understanding, I enrolled in school, at a community college in Seattle where I was now living just outside of.
School seemed to be the answer for me. I moved in with my aunt who let me stay rent free, quit the job I’d thought I’d never leave and began pursuing the dream of a PhD in sociology. For the first year, I pressed hard. I’d developed relationships with a few professors I particularly admired, and even began organizing as a member of the Black Student Union on campus. For once, things were looking just as I’d planned (this may have been the first, and only time I ever had a genuine plan). Yet again, something happened.
I quickly began to lose confidence in myself the more I understood the society in which I was living in. How could I contribute anything, not just to the field of sociology, but to the struggles I now found myself aligned with? This line of questioning contradicted everything I’d come to understand, that the individual plays as great a role in any society as the society itself plays within any individual. From this line of reasoning, the answer to my question was, and remains, obvious: my contribution must not be greater than which I can give, but which only I can give. Do what you can, give when you can. But what can I do? And what do I have to give?
And so, I find myself having dropped out of my final quarter of school, unsure as to whether my promises to finish in the fall are genuine or simply just an attempt to spare myself a sense of disappointment – which has plagued much of my life unmemorable.
But whether they be genuine or not, I sense this theme of disappointment has played a much larger role in my life than my series of failures would have you believe.
I sense disappointment, or the fear of disappointing, has played and continues to play a controlling role in the lives of many people like myself–that is, working, present or formerly, middle and lower-class folks like myself.
I wonder if the disappointment I’ve grown accustomed to, as I imagine many others have, has less to do with our own failures as much as it has to do with something we were taught about ourselves. When we look at each other as numbers, it comes as no surprise that very few of us surpass the class status our parents have held. Today, it is even less surprising when a great number of us fall beneath it. And yet, while my brother and I lead lives not much more than that of our father’s, we’re disappointed nonetheless.
I question whether that disappointment reflects something more than my own failures. Could it be that, more than the belief that I’ve failed to do better for myself, I’ve proven that I’m no more than the rest of the working-class or poor? Does disappointment, the way I feel it today, do nothing more than confirm within us that greatest fear? That fear that is only ours, and hardly our own creation. Does disappointment encourage us to really achieve more? And how can we seek anything more than our lot if it has always been our fault for remaining here? While I’m certain that many of the failures I’ve seen have been my own, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s been my foot at the gas with another’s hand on the wheel.