The speech was given for the Baccalaureate service for those graduating from Harvard University in 2012. It's entitled “The updraft of inexplicable luck.” It contains everything in it that I believe about the nature of privilege, the fallacy of meritocracy, and the purpose of higher education. It even ends with a baseball metaphor.
I’m neither religious nor of the Ivy Leagues. Part of what I will say today will make it clear that in some ways, I could never be either of those things. But if there is anything that I think of when I think of my life, it is this: I think of the nature, the mystery, the miracle really, of luck.
We are such a nation of optimists that we assume that “luck,” by its very definition, is good, if we choose to believe in it at all. Many of us shun the idea of luck, believing that we control our destinies, and that within that control, lies power. Others see luck everywhere, in every aspect of life. Luck can be good or bad. You have to be willing to do something with your luck, something positive with the good, or more importantly, something positive with the bad. But the biggest mistake we can make is in thinking that it isn’t there.
I could look back on various things that have happened and wonder about my bad luck. Sometimes I do that. My body has taken more beatings than it deserves. I have faced death too many times. But that is not the theme that I return to over and over again in this blog, in my daydreams, in my stories. I come back to what I called in a previous post “the penultimate level of suffering.” The suffering I’ve endured that stopped short of the next wave, that those more unlucky than I had to face. The almost-paralysis. The threat of brain damage. The cancer that hasn’t yet returned, as far as I know. The heart damage that was only temporary. The assaults I evaded. The fact of my sitting here.
I have been told time and again that I am a fighter, that I am scrappy, that I am stubborn. The implication is that these personality traits explain how I escaped worse fates. But with such pronouncements, I am left to wonder what personality traits led to those things happening in the first place. And I reject that idea, and I go back to luck. Or life, or shit happens, or whatever you’d like to call it. If I do not deserve the bad things that have happened, I contend that I also do not deserve the good things. None of us does, not really.
It’s true that you have to have the good stuff, as this speech contends. Sandy Koufax was right about that. But it is also true that there are forces throughout your life that you cannot control that enable you to have that good stuff in the first place. Because without someone supporting your stuff, you are likely to just let it go.
When I hear young people talk about what they want out of life, their goals and dreams, I find myself wanting to give some kind of advice that I am in no place to give. I want to tell them to not want grand things, because it is through the expectation of greatness that entitlement rears its ugly head, it is by focusing on your own specialness that you overlook how special it is to have any choices at all. Expecting great things can make you ignore the greatness of ordinary things.
But I cannot say that, I cannot give that advice, without people thinking that I believe in selling yourself short. That's not it at all, but I acknowledge that my way of seeing things is not necessarily the right way. It's just my perspective on youth, for better or worse. For example, I did not choose a college based on what was “a good fit” for me. I really didn’t think I would go to college at all, not until I showed up and moved in. In “choosing,” I followed the money, the scholarship, the generosity of a faceless CEO who bankrolled almost my entire education at Macalester College in the mid to late nineties. I graduated with little to any idea of what I wanted to do with my life, outside of an itching desire to work in the field of social justice in some fashion.
But mostly, I wanted to graduate. I had a purely singular focus, to graduate from college at age 21 never having been married or pregnant. It is that focus that kept me living 400 miles away from my boyfriend for four years, that helped me shape the ice queen reputation I had solidly built for myself by the end of my sophomore year, that enabled me to ignore those who thought I was crazy when I volunteered for 8 am shifts at work on the weekend, that kept me mostly sober. Maybe that was the wrong way to go through college, but it was the only way I knew how. I double-majored not out of some desire to overachieve but because I knew those four years of my life would be the last, really the only, that I would get to spend just reading and thinking about interesting things, and I couldn’t decide what to read or think about more, so I decided not to choose.
Macalester was such a little liberal bastion of thought, something that should have been so perfect for me, and yet, I still didn’t fit in. I did so well in college, and yet…I don’t know that I belonged there. I found my people, my wonderful college tribe, and there are those I am still close with today. But truthfully, I would have found my people anywhere. Perhaps I could have saved myself $12,000 worth of student loans (that is nothing by today’s standards!) and gone to the University of Illinois-Champaign, an excellent choice, instead. With the scholarship they offered me, I could have gone there for $900 a year.
But I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could move to another state and be on my own and thrive, and then I did it, and the world opened up to me as the freedom to have a low-paying job, the decision to take a second job so that I could live alone for seven years, the joy of being responsible for myself, became the next phase of my goal. My goals were always positioned in the negative: not getting pregnant, not being unemployed, not being in a dysfunctional relationship, not selling out. Some call this the curse of low expectations, of seeing the glass as half empty. I disagree.
The glass might be half full, after all, but full of what? And who gets to drink it? Who owns the glass? If you believe in luck, you believe that the glass is both half full and half empty, and you recognize that if you are in the full half, you had better appreciate it, because the time for emptiness will soon be upon you. If you acknowledge luck, you can acknowledge that half is good enough, because most people get nothing. Most people don’t have glasses of their own, nor clean water to drink.
Gabe always says that he thinks that we are never going to make it big, or get high-powered jobs, because to us, what we have is good enough, and it isn’t clear in our minds how we would do better, or why we should. He is like me, someone who doesn’t know how to ask for a raise, or barter for a better deal. He is the person who rolls his eyes when people say “oh you went to Northwestern? What a great school!” He’s the kind of person I was destined to marry, so that we could watch football and make love when we should be doing something more productive.
After all, I work in a place that values PhDs from Ivy League schools, and I am just none of that. And my motivations for my strange career path are, indeed, kind of strange. I will always remember the stumbling speech I gave as I left my last job at a nonprofit think tank, where I somehow rose to the position of director of research, as my boss there once said “by sheer force of will.” I valued my time at that job very much, and learned a great deal. When I left, I had but one thing I wanted my colleagues to know about me. I said that I did not enter the field of social justice because I wanted to help people. I entered that field because I had been one of the people we set forth to help. I did not do it out of selflessness, but rather selfishness. I did it because I wanted to believe that when (not if) the shit hit the fan for me once again, systems and structures would be in place that would make it so it wouldn’t be so hard for me and my family. I said that that was what we should be striving for in the world of economic development. I will never forget the looks on their faces, as they understood something about me they had never realized.
They got a glimpse into my motivations, into my mind as I remembered my mom steeling herself when we would arrive at our three room apartment and see a letter from the bank, telling her she had overdrafted the account and charging her $35 she didn’t have. I also remember thinking that we were not in that position because we deserved it. I remember learning to talk about money, because people without money are not ashamed of the subject in the way that people with money are, as they try to believe that their comfort is borne of merit. I also remember thinking we were lucky, being in the position we were in. We had an apartment in a nice neighborhood. We had jobs. We had banks, and mail.
I think of this, and am reminded of a conversation I overheard among three teenage girls on the train recently. One was saying to the others that she didn’t want to get a job. She went on to say that her parents understood that they would be “sponsoring” her once she was 18, until she finished graduate school, that she refused to work during that time, because it was their job to support her. I sat there with my mouth literally agape. One of the girls nodded her head. The other said, well, I don’t know, I can’t imagine what it would be like not to work. I would be bored. My mom drove herself to Arizona when she was 17 and got a job and put herself through college, and she was the first person in her family to do that. So, in my family, we always work. The first girl just shrugged. I wanted to hug the girl talking about her mom. She understood the arc of her life not just from the context of her own experiences, but from the place her future held within the lives of others. She got the context, and she challenged her friend. She paid homage to the legacy of her mother, someone who had clearly gotten her message across.
As my mother did for me. But she was not the only one. If it is true that there is more than one way to live your life, you have to be lucky enough to have choices in the first place. And no one gets there alone. I have been chosen, at some point in my life, and I am in debt for that. People talk about teachers or coaches who influenced them or saw something in them that put them on the right path. I have had many positive influences, but one stands out—my dean in high school. This woman put the fear of God in students. Gang members were afraid of her. She had a high-paying position in a good school district and lived in a luxury apartment complex and wore perfectly put together outfits. I admired her when other people hated her. And I realize now that I am in debt to her, because of the things she did for me, when I was fighting a battle with myself and my circumstances and on the cliff’s edge of losing.
I was a very smart kid and a good student. I wasn’t a troublemaker. My first two years of high school, the worst thing I did was sneak off with my boyfriend in 9th grade after a field trip to make out in the hallway. Even when we got caught by the security guard, I felt only vaguely embarrassed that he had seen that boy’s hand up my shirt; I wasn’t worried that anything bad would happen to me. My junior year, things were difficult at home, and I had had some experiences the previous year and over the summer that made me suspicious and jaded. I was still a model kid in some ways, serving as vice president of my class, president of SADD, editing the literary magazine, earning A’s in honors classes. But there was some other stuff going on at the same time.
I began ditching class whenever Mr. S. would substitute, because I knew he had a thing for me based on things he told my boyfriend and my ex-boyfriend. I got caught, and the Dean demanded to know how I could have so many absences in one class and not the others. I challenged her with my youthful defiance, saying, when M. S. subs, I leave. I did not tell her why. She glared at me and I thought I was done for, headed for suspension.
She did nothing. This is the woman who also glared at me when I told her I refused to go to the driver’s ed class taught by the guy who gave extra credit for wearing short skirts. I didn’t say this to the Dean, but I guess my message came through, because she put me in the other teacher’s class. Then, she got me a job at her luxury apartment complex when I was 16. My job was to look cute, deliver packages to wealthy men, and do some secretarial work. My job interview was a joke, as it was understood that if the Dean chose me, I deserved the job. She literally hand-picked me, as she had done for the girl before me. The Dean knew I needed the money, knew I would show up and be responsible, but still, hundreds of girls at our school could have used that job. It wasn’t hard, I could walk there from school, and it actually helped me when I went into the housing industry years later. I did so many things there; I learned how to plan events, I made deliveries, I answered phones and did paperwork and flirted when it was required.
I learned how to work. I had always worked, always found jobs here and there, babysat, did what was necessary. I had already started buying my own clothes and helping out with finances at home. But that job taught me what work was all about.
My Dean chose me, but why? When I started ditching all the time my senior year, why didn’t she punish me? She called me in and yelled at me, seemed absolutely beside herself with disappointment. I didn’t even try t o make an excuse for my absences from English class; in fact, I defied her again, telling her I was getting perfect grades in that class, so what was the problem? She looked at me and said My God Katy. Will you just graduate from high school? You are almost done, you are almost out of here. Just get out of here!
That was my fear, of course, that I would never get out of there. Not high school, but out of my life, my circumstances. I thought there was no way out, college scholarship be damned. I was 17, and needed someone to kick me in the ass and help me out, and she did it, in spite of me and everything I did. I tested her again when I brought in an ivory colored dress that I had bought for $35 at a thrift store to wear to graduation. Our gowns had to be white—no exceptions. I told her, this is the dress I’m wearing, and I waited for her response. Perhaps I thought she would stop me from graduating and the life I expected could just start right then. Instead, she looked at me, sighed, and signed a note giving me permission to wear it. She knew I didn’t have money to buy a fancy dress. But surely she also knew that I could have tried harder to find a secondhand dress in the right color.
She picked me, she chose me to save, out of all the kids she could have chosen, and my God there must have been so many who could have used saving. One of my childhood friends, a boy whom I dated in junior high, was chosen in another way. Our Dean punished him all the time. He deserved it, some would say—he was a goof-off, he took nothing seriously. He was suspended, put into detention over and over again. He was a boy I both liked and was annoyed by—he lied to his cousins and told them he had kissed me in eighth grade. He playfully punched me in the head every time he saw me. He called me Katy Cadillac.
He is now serving a 65 year prison sentence for the part he played in a murder/robbery gone wrong when we were 19.
Why did she choose me in one way and him in another? Did she see something in me that she saw in herself, some defiance, some strong will, some instinct for self preservation? Perhaps. Those glares that seemed so menacing at the time can be interpreted differently through the wisdom of age. Those looks said, I know you. I know what you are doing and I am not going to let you do it.
But she could have, and maybe things would have turned out quite differently for me if she hadn’t. I should find her and thank her for what she did for me, not just for the opportunities she gave me and the punishments she didn’t inflict, but for the example she gave of how to defy expectations. She chose me, yes. But she also chose herself. She was an African-American single mother of a son. Things could have been much different for her. She earned good money, was stern and quiet and glamorous, nothing to trifle with, and she chose me.
I had good stuff. But more importantly, I had luck, and people looking out for me. I was not, as my mother constantly reminded me throughout my childhood, a Jew in Nazi Germany. I eventually convinced my mother that that example was not always the appropriate one. Of course, in a way, it always was. Because there is no explanation for why we are able to enjoy our lives, while other people must suffer through theirs. And there is no reason that we should not be the ones suffering while others are happy.
Gabe said to me last night, "Kate, you really should have been knocked up as a teenager. And I should have been in jail." Of course, getting knocked up wouldn’t have been so bad; I would have been fine, and there are big advantages to having kids early. Anyway, I said no, Gabe, not jail—you shouldn’t be here at all. When we visited the commune Gabe lived in as a baby, I heard something from the woman who had spent 35 years wondering about him that will stick with me for the rest of my life. She told him what a beautiful family he had, and she pulled me aside. I expected to hear her say how pleased she was to see what Gabe was doing with his life and to say that it seemed I made him happy, or something to that effect. Instead she said:
“I can’t tell you how happy I am that Gabe grew up.”
And that’s it—therein lies the nature of luck. Some people make it out of unfortunate circumstances, but many do not. A past lover once called me “Molly Brown,” and claimed that I was unsinkable. That was before cancer, but enough things had already transpired to make the analogy stick. I have always thought that perhaps I wasn’t meant to grow up, or at this point, to grow old. So far, my luck has not run out. But it’s there all the same, lurking in the shadows or shining on the water’s edge, reminding me that I could have been someone else, somewhere else, in a different place with a different outcome, but for now, I am not. It is inexplicable, and all I can do is spend some portion of my life trying to explain that I understand that. And so, I do this. I write my thanks.