‘No one ever gave me anything,” my father said a few months before he died. He didn’t say it with self-pity. It was just a fact that seemed to have suddenly struck him.
He wasn’t talking about small gifts that celebrate occasions. He got plenty of those. He was talking about big-ticket items that come from parents or rich relatives: Money for school, for a car, for a wedding. Down payment for a house. An inheritance.
He paid for my schooling — high school, then college — and for a used Ford to get me back and forth to classes, taking out a loan that took him five years to repay. But he did it. And he paid for my wedding, too.
He worked two jobs, my mother worked one, and I worked.
But I wouldn’t have finished college without their help. Or without help from someone. I went to a state school and I commuted, but still I could not have afforded it on my own.
I started thinking about this after I read the book “The Other Wes Moore.” It’s the true story of two boys with the same name, both poor, both raised by single mothers in Greater Baltimore. One grows up to be a Rhodes Scholar; the other ends up in prison for life.
The Rhodes scholar wrote the book, in part, to discover why.
Every page is riveting. But what struck me is how different life might have been for the criminal Wes Moore if the Pell Grant, which was going to help pay for his mother’s education (she’d been accepted at Johns Hopkins University) had not been cut because of a change in leadership in the federal government.
Mary Moore could not afford college, so she continued to work at a succession of low-paying jobs. She had no safety net, no one to help her. Her life and the lives of her sons went south after that Pell Grant went away.
“Nobody ever gave me anything.”
My father’s words haunt me, too.
But he had a safety net. He could have gone to college on the GI bill. He did get a GI loan, to buy a house, not exactly a gift, more of a thank you from Uncle Sam for serving in combat. But the low-interest loan and small down payment, just $500, got us out of a three-decker and out of harm’s way, into the safer and much desired suburbs.
This changed my life. This changed my parents’ lives.
It takes a village. Or family. Or government, something, if you don’t have what you need to move on and up.
“We pull each other up,” President Obama said in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. “Our destinies are bound together . . . we have responsibilities as well as rights.”
We are our brother’s keepers.
For weeks after September 11, 2001, when we weren’t sure if there would be a next day, we really were. People stood together, at rallies, in churches, waving flags, praying, hugging. Red and blue. Black and white. Rich and poor. Abled and disabled. Straight and gay. Men and women. Employed and unemployed. People who are pro-life and people who are pro-choice. People who wanted to fight back. And people who begged for peace.
We were at our best then.
Now a presidential contender talks about “those people,” as if we are not all Americans.
“We think,” former President Clinton declared in his nomination speech, that ‘We’re all in this together’ is a better philosophy than ‘You’re on your own.’ ”
Are we in it this together? Or is it “us” and “them,” a country divided? Sink or swim?
“We.” That’s how we’ve made it so far. Together. Battling out our differences. Arguing. Compromising. Learning. Relearning. But together. Not “those people.” All people. Our people.