Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The power of perseverance (slightly cynical take)

MAD Magazine once ran what I consider a classic strip in Dave Berg's "The Lighter Side Of..." It involved a track sprinter who has just won an Olympic final, and is being interviewed at the finish line. Asked how he managed to win, he says something along the lines of, "I won because I trained every day for years and practiced self-discipline," to which another runner retorts, "Big deal! I did the same thing and lost!"

Not that this really applies to the Saints, because their performances this season suggest that they aren't so much as phoning it in (or e-mailing it in, even). But it does seem to apply for many people in general, doesn't it? To quote an obscure late-era Men at Work song, "You can make a million staring at the ceiling / You can break your back and still be poor."

Years before I truly understood economic lines, I attended a middle school that was a mishmash of poor black kids and rich white kids. The latter were bused in from the wealthiest neighborhoods to attend the school, which was in an area that had its fair share of hoodlums and homeless people. Though I lived near this neighborhood, I attended this school only because I was in gifted classes. The gifted students were, by and large, diverse both in race and in life experience. And while I got picked on them occasionally, I always preferred the gifted classes to the (one level lower) advanced/honors classes.

The advanced classes always gave me a vaguely creepy feeling, which I know now was because most of the students in those classes came from locally powerful and/or wealthy families. I shared very little in common with them - they all knew each other from childhood, were very cliquish and lived in large homes in neighborhoods named after trees and Sir Walter Scott novels. From day one, these kids never made any effort to welcome me into the fold; a common response to anything I said was, "Who asked you?" Even when they did ask. There were exceptions, of course, but mainly among those who felt as out-of-place as I did in those classes. Three years and several mysterious bully departures later, not much had changed.

Honestly, I didn't care much even then what they thought about me. Even though they treated me like furniture, I learned to not let them use me for a footstool. Anyway, they were zoned for a different high school than I was, and I figured that fork in the road would be the last I would ever see of them. I haven't seen 98 percent of them since, nor have I heard anything about most of them (except that one died in college on Christmas Eve after getting drunk and chomping GHB like candy, thus lapsing into a six-day coma).

So what does this anecdote have to do with perseverance? Just that I wish America truly was a meritocracy. It isn't. Mostly, it's people who ride on the success of others, even when that success is defined strictly in wealth. Conversely, good, hardworking people are often mocked by these brats because the rewards of their success aren't as visually apparent as a Lexus.

I'll never forget one day when my grandfather, who had run a small, home-based TV-repair shop for decades, picked me up from that school in his 1980 wood-paneled station wagon. By then, the faux wood had considerably peeled off and the car looked a lot older than it actually was. That never seemed to bother him, nor me. I loved my grandfather and learned a lot from him. On this particular day, we were at a stoplight near the campus when a bus full of the preppy kids pulled aside us. Spotting me in the car, several of them poked their heads out of the bus windows and jeered, "HEY MAN, NICE CAR!! HA HA HA HA!!!" By then, I knew exactly how to react:

"This car rules! Fourteen years old and it runs better than you do!"

Yes, we were happy with what we had. People who aren't rich appreciate stuff more than those who can buy anything they want on a whim. I think their kids turn out better as well. So even if people do all they can and still finish second by traditional parameters, in other ways they actually come out on top. These kinds of thoughts help me feel better in those times when I feel winless.

I wish New Orleans could harbor a winner. Having the Colts, Cowboys and Patriots atop the NFL standings is as inspiring as seeing one of my former classmates land a six-figure position at his dad's firm. Which is to say, it makes me want to vomit. Right in their parents' Lexus.

1 comment:

saintseester said...

Yep. Dallas being in there is especially disturbing.