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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Living on the Margins

I'd like to consider a few ideas that have come to me from watching the film The Pursuit of Happyness.

Chris Gardner
The film is based on the real-life experiences of Chris Gardner who managed, through dogged persistence, gain a position with a Wall Street stock brokerage. The actual story of Gardner's life is a good deal more complicated than the movie depicts, but that's not what I am concerned about in this post.

What has struck me about the film is just how marginalized Gardner's life is all the while he is pursuing his dream. Merriam-Webster defines the verb as "to relegate to an unimportant or powerless position within a society or group." I have always appreciated this metaphoric verb because it demonstrates to me how easy it is for some members of our society to be kept on the edges of life or ever pushed over the edge.

In the course of the film, Gardner has to deal with homelessness, unemployment, or to be more accurate underemployment, unpaid taxes, eviction, and single parenthood.  His ability to overcome these problems and succeed is a testament to his goal driven determination. Some would see him as a classic American success story right out of an Horatio Alger story.

Yet I feel the unanswered question is how many have pursued happiness without ever approaching it? How many other Chris Gardner's are out there who found themselves still marginalized despite their hard work and determination? Who is telling their story?

In the film, Chris interviews with Dean Whitter Reynolds
One key point in the movie illustrates what I mean.  Chris makes a deal with his landlord to let him and his son stay in their appartment despite the fact that the rent is 3 months overdue. (Chris has been an unsuccessful salesman of medical equipment up to this point.)  Chris has an interview for an unpaid internship with Dean Whitter Reynolds in the morning, but he gets a call from the San Francisco police with a warrant for his arrest for unpaid parking tickets, which came about because he has parked in several hospital zones while rushing from one sales opportunity to another.  He has to spend the night in jail, use his phone call to arrange for his estranged girlfriend to pick up their son, and barely has enough time to run to the interview while still in his painting clothes. During the interview he sits across from the men who will decided whether to let him into the internship program. Chris, who is black, manages to convince his potential employers, who are white, to accept him. If the men did not, Chris would have few options to fall back on considering the fact that he is also being hounded for back taxes he has not been able to pay and a job that offers little hope of getting him out of the hole he is in.

Now, all the forces working against Chris are working within the systems we have in place in our world. The landlord has to collect his rents. The police are just doing their job according to the law. The IRS is enforcing the laws of the state.  Dean Whitter has the right to choose whom they wish to invite into their firm and who they won't.  However, for someone like Gardner, the odds are all stacked against him.  True, he overcomes those long odds, but for one Chris Gardner who succeeds, what happens to the many thousands who don't. 

We see the results of those who don't or just can't in our statistics on poverty, drug abuse, crime, imprisonment, school drop-out rates, child abuse, homelessness, divorce, and violence in American society. 

While I celebrate the Gardner's of the world who manage to step away from the margins, I mourn the thousands who still find themselves on the margins fighting not to be pushed over the edge.

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