I don’t know exactly where it happens when you’re driving east down William Cannon road. But I know that after you pass Manchaca the scenery starts to change. And even though I’ve lived this experience personally, it still surprises me every week when I drive from my home in west Austin to teach my program to my kids at Mendez Middle School. Rolling green lawns shift to a waxy bland landscape. Flourishing businesses transition into pawn shops, liquor stores, and instant loan servicing places. And the thing I always think about is awareness.
Our ability to move forward in life hinges on what we know. If you don’t know, you don’t know. If you haven’t seen it, you don’t know. If you’ve never been in an elevator, it’s a little overwhelming to take one up three stories and apply for a job. If you can’t imagine having never been in an elevator…you don’t know.
By the time you reach Pleasant Valley Road (and it’s not — pleasant) and make a left, you might as well be living in a
different city. And things look different here. My kid will go to middle school next year for the first time. But she won’t see this every day. Police presence (and it’s needed!) is an integrated part of these children’s existence. It’s weaved into their communities, their schools, and their understanding of the way the world works.
And often, too often, these kids are making difficult choices. The weight of poverty is crippling. It is a driving factor in their decisions. We (as a society) say to ourselves, they have opportunities. This is America. Anyone can accomplish anything. Well, yes. Kind of.
But not really. Not always.
I was 13 years old when I got my first real job. Work literally saved my life. It was the first thing in my world that taught me I had any value. Some people think that’s a sad story. And parts of it are sad. I grew up in poverty. I dangled from the thin thread that held me over a confusing world with what felt like no options. Work saved me. And it was horrible work. Cleaning toilets. And I was grateful for it. And I resented it. A big bundle of conflicting emotions for a kid to handle, made easier by a rumbling stomach.
Later in my life I would be rescued by real work. Meaningful work. Work that taught me how to bring value to an hour. Work that paid me enough to live. Allowed me to develop a creative voice and set the stage for me to eventually, slowly, gradually, finish my education, create a stable economic foundation and have the privilege of living in west Austin where I get to get into my car that runs well, drive (on a full gas tank with a full stomach) to my kids off of Pleasant Valley road and notice how things look different here.
I am grateful down to my toes. I’m also compelled.