Dear MEL (Mia, Ezra & Lorenzo),
Around 25 years ago, give or take a year, your grandma and I were sitting in a window booth at the Taco Bell on E. North Street having lunch. As we ate, a little girl — maybe a little younger than Lorenzo is now, so 5 or 6 years old probably — sat down at the table next to us with what looked like her grandpa.
She unwrapped a soft taco, stared at it for a second, and gingerly picked it up. But she picked it up the wrong way — she used two hands, like it was a burger, and the open end of the taco was facing away from her mouth. She brought the fat bottom part up to her mouth, took a bite, and of course the taco opened up downward and every bit of stuffing fell out.
I still remember the baffled look on her face. And I still remember that my unfortunate response, as a caustically sarcastic older teenager, was to lean over to my mother and whisper, “Oh my god, that kid is so stupid, she can’t even eat a taco!”
Or something like that. I’d love to revise history and make myself less of an asshole in that moment, but I know that whatever I said, it was mean.
My mom quietly looked over at the table. The little girl was still stumped by the taco. Her grandpa was no help; he was staring out the window, oblivious to her difficulty. She looked at me and whispered, “It doesn’t look like she’s ever eaten one, Josh.”
Still in incredulous-prick mode, I snickered, “Mom, seriously. What kid hasn’t eaten at Taco Bell?”
And she said — not whispering this time — “A lot more than you think.”
Those six words kicked the arrogant teenage know-it-all inside me in the gut, and the underlying human being re-emerged for the rest of the meal. But I felt like an ant, assuming that ants have the capacity to feel crippling shame.
Because that’s what I felt when my mother, in the most gentle of ways, bitch-slapped the sass out of my mouth for confusing stupidity with what was simply a childhood less privileged than mine.
I still feel embarrassed about that day (although I know I really need to let it go). But among my many jobs as your father, none is more important than to give you a roadmap to become a decent human being, and some of the best instructional materials stem from my own failures to be one.
You hear the word “privilege” a lot these days. And like most things ultimately involving race and class, discussions about privilege throw people’s emotions into the red and it ends up being more of a riot (or at least a food fight) than a fruitful discussion. One side insists they’ve never enjoyed a droplet of privilege; the other side screams that the first side has actually enjoyed ALL the privilege in the world, and acrimony ensues.
I’ve read dozens of those food fight arguments, but no incident in my life has crystallized the issue of privilege more than that lunch at Taco Bell with my mom 25 years ago. So maybe I can make it a little simpler for you here, too.
Those kids at school who struggle and stammer when they’re forced to read aloud — you know, the ones that the class dickheads always snicker at — they probably didn’t have a parent reading them three books a night for the first years of their lives like you did. They may have gone their entire childhood without anyone reading them a book at all.
Do the math. That’s about 1,000 books a year, multiplied by a few years. Thousands of books read aloud to you that rocketed you into early reading proficiency. That was a privilege you enjoyed that they didn’t.
The kid who’s always in detention at school may be desperate to do something, anything, that makes his parents put down their cell phones at night and pay attention to him.
That kid who always wants to borrow your clothes and sometimes doesn’t bring them back. Maybe that kid hasn’t had any new clothes for a very long time, and the clothes they do have don’t fit that great. Or they’re stained, or they have holes in them, or they’re just old and out of fashion. They didn’t have a dad or grandma who was happy to take them clothes shopping anytime they were low. That’s a privilege you’ve enjoyed that they haven’t.
When you’re at a jiu-jitsu tournament and you’ve used your strength and ability to rough somebody up and win a match, remember the privileges that got you there. Those include: a) a nice gym setup at our house that most people don’t have; b) a house full of food to feed that muscle you built; c) the money it costs for three kids to go train four times a week; d) great instructors and training partners. Having all four of those things is a privilege most people don’t have; some have none.
And some kids, well — some kids have never eaten a taco before.
At the same time, for goodness’ sake, don’t feel guilty about the privileges you have enjoyed. You absolutely should show your appreciation for the hand you’ve been dealt by running with it and making the most out of it.
But don’t forget them. Don’t let them disconnect you from your fellow human beings, and certainly don’t ever forget that they were a key ingredient in the successes you string together in life. For the love of Pete, please don’t be the guy who’s born on third base and acts like he hit a triple.
I’ve been lucky so far in that you are generally very good at this. You’re happy to load up toys and stuffed animals and clothes you no longer use and take them to The Mission without tears being shed over their loss. You raise money for charity and have given your own money away to help others many times.
What I hope for you is that your spirit doesn’t dissipate as you grow into adulthood, as it does for many of us. Something happens to the lot of us as we grow older and our own responsibilities multiply, and that giving spirit toward the underprivileged gives way to a shoulder shrug that chalks up inequality to “the way of the world” and thus absolves us of any impetus to help.
And so, to avoid that fate, please stay mindful of the privileges you enjoy.
We aren’t rich, but you’ve always had all the food and money and love and warmth and shelter and education that you’ve ever needed. Many around you have not.
So whenever you can, help. Teach. Give. Show compassion. Lend a hand.
Create a little more privilege for someone else.