But For Happenstance

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I once worked for a fantastic principal who created innovative and supportive programs for his students and faculty. He often defended teachers from crazy parents, taking their abuse so that the educators endure them. He never looked for praise or credit for the things he did. His low key humility often backfired on him. Others took credit for his hard work. People wondered what he was actually doing and I once told him that he needed to learn how to toot his own horn. It was a mode that he was never able to master because his rationale for everything that he did was to be a champion for whatever his school needed, not to bring glory to himself. I applaud and admire him for being so modest but I sometimes feel angry that lesser persons than he is garner adulation.

I despise snobbish, braggarts. I find myself recoiling from anyone who feels the need to demonstrate superiority over others. I can’t stand people who take the air out a room with their pretentiousness. I suppose that my feelings come from my mother who continually reminded me that each of us is talented and capable of greatness. Sometimes the only difference between someone who is highly successful and someone who seems ordinary is money and influence. She pointed out that being born into a family that provides one with access to an Ivy League education and powerful people does not make one more valuable than others, just lucky. 

My mother was a big fan of Queen Elizabeth. She admired her as a wonderful woman and often commented that she would have enjoyed having tea with her Majesty. Nonetheless, Mama insisted that she would never have been willing to bow or curtsey to the monarch because she saw herself as the Queen’s equal in every way other than the differences in their births. My mom was the daughter of a poor laborer. The Queen was destined to be the head of state in the British Commonwealth as the daughter of a king. My mother felt that such privilege did not give royalty the right to feel better than their lowliest fellow citizen. 

My mother always told me to hold my head up high and never be cowed by anyone because nobody’s worth should be any better or worse than mine. She felt as comfortable talking one on one with a doctor as with someone who cleaned offices. In fact, her own father had mopped up the blood and muck in a meat packing plant but his glory in her mind lay in his willingness to work hard for his family. She told me how he wore a suit to his job each day and changed into coveralls to do the dirty work of his employment. Mama said that his occupation did not define his status because he was so much more than the seemingly menial job that he did. In fact, she insisted that he was as essential to the running of the world as the king had been.

For that reason, like my boss, I eschew snobbery or boastfulness as much as possible but I do have some prideful times. I know that I have a facility with mathematics that not everyone enjoys. Solving problems does not come as naturally to me as it does to my brother but I tend to learn quickly and even when something is challenging I only have to exert a bit of extra effort to figure things out. I feel good knowing that I have that talent but it is not something about which I choose to gloat. Instead I have spent most of my life attempting to unravel the mysteries of mathematics for others. I have learned that everyone is capable of becoming astute at calculations. It just takes some longer than others to gain the confidence and skills that they need. I can be grateful that I am able to learn mathematics fairly easily but I do not need to be overly proud of that gift. 

I find that many of the problems that we face in life come from snobbery of one sort or another. There are those who live behind fences in grand style with riches beyond anything most of us have the power to imagine. They certainly have a right to feel secure and to select with whom they have interactions but there is no reason for them to consider themselves to be above the rest of us. 

My daughter once worked for a wealthy family that lived in the most sought after neighborhood in Houston. She was one of the family’s personal accountants. She kept track of expenses and payments for their travels, clothing and personal lifestyles. Part of her job required her to go to the house to deliver or pick up bills, receipts and to provide updates. My daughter had degrees in Finance and Accounting from prestigious universities for which she had worked very hard and yet whenever she arrived at the house she was instructed to go through the garage to knock at the servants’ entrance where she made exchanges without ever once being invited inside the home. The lady of the manor had never gone to college nor held a job. She had come from a low income family but her husband had taken an idea and built it into a successful empire. Forgetting from whence she had come she often yelled at my daughter and treated her as though she was inferior and undeserving of respect. That is the kind of snobbery that I hope I never emulate.  

I was taught to treat the man who mows my lawn with as much dignity as I would accord to Bill Gates. In fact, I have learned first hand that Bill Gates would probably agree with me. The one time that I met him in a small and personal group he was gracious and willing to hear what my students and I had to say about education. He took notes and fielded questions that demonstrated that he was seriously pondering our comments. 

I hope that I never come across as a snob. I boast about my grandchildren and speak of the joy I get from reading and taking classes and writing. I pray that nobody mistakes my joy for an assertion of superiority. We each have much to offer in the world, even the soul whose life is wretched. But for happenstance I might be the Queen of England or a woman struggling to escape the ravages of war in Syria. We are not so different from one another after all and it is often only the accident of birth that stratifies us as rich or poor, a success or a failure, a citizen of a wealthy democracy or a victim of authoritarian exploitation.

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