In a writing class a few years ago, students were discussing the argument that many people make about poverty, that there really shouldn’t be any … that if people would “get off their lazy asses and get a job and not accept welfare,” then they could support themselves and they wouldn’t be poor. The students stated– with the firm conviction of those who had ever had never been impoverished– that those in poverty could just stop being that way if they really wanted to.
We had a talk about logical fallacies. But what I wanted to do was bring out Hasbros, “The Game of Life” and let them have a turn at spinning the wheel.
This game, though, would be an adult version of the child-centered original, a version where spins didn’t provide options of “going to college,” “buying a home,” or other common opportunities. My version of the game would provide different options: failing out of college, never being able to afford college, not knowing how to enroll in college. It would include career options of fast food worker, day laborer, or domestic. It would include the house burning down (no insurance) or being foreclosed upon (subprime mortgage). It would include being laid off from a job and not being able to find another one (lack of education, lack of mobility). It would include choices between spending your last $2 buying milk for your children or putting gas in the car in order to find a job. It would include bankruptcy (due to catastrophic medical issues). It would include catastrophic medical issues that insurance (if you could afford it) did not cover. My game would include broken families (not just through divorce, but through murder, incarceration, abandonment). My version of the game would not assume “accumulated literacy” to borrow Deborah Brandt’s term, but accumulated brokenness and lack. It would include teen pregnancy and car accidents and no dental care and homelessness. It would include limited choices.
Doesn’t my version of the game sound fun?
Many people have played my version of the game in real life and they don’t think it’s really a game…they also don’t think it’s any fun.
But how do we get traditional college-aged students to understand that life isn’t just what they have experienced? A game such as the one I’ve described? Do we wait and believe that life will catch up with them? Change our own understandings of what life is to reflect what the students believe? (Ah, no.) There really isn’t an answer to that question, and I’m not looking for one here.
As I type this, I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Long Branch, New Jersey . . . which the cab driver said this morning is one of the most expensive places to live in the country (property taxes, insurance, real estate) . . . in a state that is one of the most corrupt (insert Sopranos joke here, but I don’t think he was joking) . . . that in his $180,000 a year income (his combined with his wife’s), he can only afford a small one-room apartment . . . his kids won’t go to college unless they get other funding . . . he doesn’t have medical insurance as a cab driver . . . but he has lived here all his life and doesn’t see himself moving. Is that a choice? Maybe. A limited choice. His life is one that my students probably could not have understood. This world is so foreign to them.
I count myself fortunate to have grown up as I did (my early life was spent in rented mobile homes…one step up from homelessness), as it’s allowed me to see such a range of human conditions. My students, on the other hand, have not always been able to see beyond what they know. My game of life had one set of choices. The game of life my students often want to play has a very different set of choices. I wonder if there is ever a way to make them connect? Can one group ever really understand the other?