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Relative Privilege

In some ways, it seemed that I had always felt poor, always knew that there was stuff that

others had that I didn’t. It took me longer to connect to my relative privilege. I did get my first glimmer in second grade as we were preparing to move to Great Neck. Jerry, my best friend in the projects, was jealous. In Jerry’s mind, we were moving to the country. There would be farms. There would be animals. It would be wonderful.

I could feel his jealousy, and I was shocked. I looked up to him. He was older, the best athlete, the most talented.

And I knew we weren’t moving to the country. We were moving to a suburb. I had been to the suburbs.

My parents had friends who had already moved to the first Levittown in Rosalyn, two towns away from Great Neck. We had been there to visit. We had stayed overnight. I had played in the streets of Levittown. But Jerry could only imagine farms. I had known that I had more toys, that Jerry liked to hang out in our apartment where there were lots of toys to play with. Somehow even as a little kid, I knew that I had more toys, not because we were rich, but because my parents thought that it was a priority for me to have toys.

But this time, I could feel his jealousy.

I sat in my father’s armchair while the movers were emptying our apartment and cried into my blue Maxwell House coffee can where I kept my marbles. The projects were the only home that I remembered. I never saw Jerry again.

My mother did, one day when I was in high school, when we were at Jones Beach. When we first moved to Great Neck, for the first five years when we lived in the apartment, we had gone often to Jones Beach during the summer when my mother was off on vacation. She would pack a picnic dinner; and when my father got home from work, we would drive to Jones Beach, play in the surf, picnic, and then watch an industrial softball league game. Very competitive. In those days, there were a lot of big plants on Long Island, -- Republic Aviation, Grumman. I remember Daddy pointing out to me one night as we were watching a game — there was a terrific pitcher — “That guy’s a ringer. There’s no way he works in the factory.” It was all fun.

After we moved into the house in 7th grade and had our own backyard and screened in porch and could barbecue without driving for an hour, we didn’t go to Jones Beach very often. But we were there one day in high school when my mother saw Jerry. She didn’t tell me until after we got home. She didn’t say it, but I knew. She didn’t want me to see him, to connect with him.

At home, she told me that she recognized him. “He’s a lot taller, wearing a black motor cycle jacket, his hair in a ducktail.” Did she say he was a “rock”? She might not have, but I knew that that was what she was thinking.

The “rocks” were the bad kids, the motorcycle boys, the kids who weren’t going to college. And then Mommy added, “That’s why we got you out of the projects.” I could hear the pride in her voice.

I knew they were making sacrifices so that they could give me advantages. Going to sleep-away camp, all those summers when their only vacation was coming up to visit me on Parents’ Day. I knew that they never visited me in college, never attended graduation because they couldn’t afford it. It was an unnecessary expense. They helped with tuition — I had a partial scholarship, partial work/study — and they paid my airfare and most of my incidental expenses. The pittance that I earned as a summer camp counselor didn’t go far. But I was more hurt than appreciative — if they weren’t so generous with the Peace Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, they could come to Carleton for the opening night of a play that I directed or in which I had a major role.

I knew there were plenty of people less fortunate than me, but I didn’t really feel it. Years later, I would hear Roshi Bernie make the distinction between realization and actualization. Realization for Bernie was a kind of intellectual understanding. Actualization is to really get it — to know it and feel it in your marrow.

I had some realization of privilege but no actualization. Nothing really in my gut.

I got it at Brookdale.

After a year in the outpatient clinic of the Community Mental Health Center, I had become the first real staff member in the Consultation and Education Division, one of the five key components of the Center. I was out there working in Brownsville as community organizer and having the time of my life, doing good and making a living.

My first day out in the community, the UFT shut down all the public schools in New York City in protest against community control. In three tiny experimental districts, local communities had been given oversight authority. The tiny Ocean Hill-Brownsville District was the fire point. Given the option of having some of the inherited teachers reassigned to other schools in the city, Ocean Hill-Brownsville had asked that a small number of racist teachers be re-assigned. In protest, the Union shut down every school in the city.

Nobody at Brookdale was telling me what I was supposed to be doing as the first employee of the Consultation and Education Division. Nobody knew. But I was supposed to make friends in the community. So I jumped in. I helped to re-open schools in Brownsville. I became very close with the education advocates from the Brownsville Community Council and with their board chair. I worked side-by-side with Jim Regan, one of a small group of Catholic priests who were doing grassroots work in Brownsville. Another member of the group, John Powis, was the chairperson of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville School Board. We crossed picket lines through barrages of racial slurs and got schools open.

I made a lot of friends in the community. I was able to help to resolve a potentially devastating confrontation between Brookdale and community leaders over emergency room services. Brookdale was impressed. I had started doing the community work while continuing to carry half a clinic case load. I was working way more than forty hours a week. They made my community assignment my full-time job. They hired a community psychologist and another social worker. We were all close. I was competitive. Particularly with the new social worker, Sid Lawson. Sid was older and more experienced than me. And African American. I had been there longer, but Sid got a promotion that I coveted.

I ranted to myself. I was much more articulate. I was a much better writer. If I was black, I would have gotten the promotion.

And then it hit me. I was more articulate and a better writer. I was much better educated. My parents had gotten me out of the projects and into the Great Neck school system at a time when Great Neck may have had the best school system in the country.

In those years, NYS offered Regents Scholarships, general scholarships and engineering scholarships to top graduates. Members of my high school class were offered more scholarships than any other high school in the State. In our class, there were eighteen Merit Scholarship Finalists. That may have been the most in the country. Somehow my parents, probably my mother, had managed to learn that Great Neck had the best public schools, and somehow they had managed to move me there, to give me these opportunities, these advantages.

That’s what got me to Carleton College. That’s how I ended up getting an elite education. I benefitted.

No surprise that I was articulate, that I sounded intelligent.

If I had been Black, I probably would have gotten the Brookdale promotion. But if I had been Black I almost certainly would not have gone to school in Great Neck and I would not have gone to Carleton. If my parents had pushed hard, I would have gotten the same education Sid got. Not a bad education, but not an elite education.

That was privilege.

It’s all relative. Poverty and privilege are always relative. There’s always someone who has less than you. There’s always someone who has more. I have not lived at either extreme, but relatively speaking, I have experienced both.

The trick, we would say in Zen, is to be able to hold the experience of both aspects at the same time.

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