Growing up, I never really saw myself as disadvantaged in any way. My neighborhood was infested with poverty and drugs, but I didn’t know anything else, so that was normal to me. My immediate surroundings were my world and I—as several research studies have shown—derived much of my happiness and sense of self from what my situation was relative to those immediately around me rather than a more global comparison.
Truth be told, I was far too country and ill exposed to make a global comparison of anything in the first damn place at that time. Hell, I didn’t even know that many of the jobs that my classmates at Wharton have or have had existed until I was nearly 30 years old.
Strangely, my childhood neighborhood was generally safe. Many of the adults, including my mom, had grown up there and we had this sense of kinship and community during that time that few kids growing up today get to experience. Every adult who knew your parents was also considered to also be a parent to you, and you could be disciplined by any of them with the full support of your folks at home. My mother had moved us to that area to be close to my grandmother and great-grandmother, whose support she needed after my dad, a pharmacology graduate student, died of cardiomyopathy when I was ten months old.
I never really felt in danger in my neighborhood. I just knew where not to go and who not to mess with. In fact, I learned critical pecking order and political skills in that environment that have given me quite an advantage in matriculating through organizations with nuanced political climates today.
I also learned not to take anybody’s shit; because once people know that you’re a pushover, the abuse can be never ending. Always being prepared to put up your dukes to defend yourself or form friendly alliances so as to learn that people planned to jump you after school were also necessary skills to develop in order to survive. Such skills prepared me well for dealing with people in corporate environments later in life. And corporate life for me has felt quite similar to any ghetto I’ve ever been in.
On the flip side, I had a very strict mom and stepdad who, in hindsight, sheltered me from a lot of the traps that existed in that environment—namely the school-to-prison pipeline that cripples most young men from communities like mine by the time they are about 20 years old. In fact, I recently discovered that I’m only one of two guys of the 40 to 50 who I can remember who didn’t end up in prison or dead, including three of my younger male cousins who grew up next door to me. Their two sisters ended up turning out pretty well because that system is heavily skewed towards crippling the boys in those environments.
The sad thing is that few of these young guys are or ever were violent criminals. They end up stuck in a cycle of arrests and jail/prison time that keep them from being able to get honest work—which then leads them down the path of earning money illegally which then begets more jail/prison time in a never ending cycle. By the time I had graduated college, many of my old neighborhood friends had an entire page of arrest mugshots for drugs, suspended driver’s licenses, and the like.
The worst part of all of this is that this cycle typically starts with a marijuana charge in neighborhoods like mine, while kids in the suburbs are doing that and much worse and never get in the slightest bit of trouble for it. Every time I come across another upper middle class cokehead, mushroom eater or [fill in the blank with any hard drug or hallucinogen far worse than cannabis] head in Silicon Valley or in Ivy League circles, I am reminded of some guy from back home whose entire life became ruined before his 21st birthday because he got pulled over for driving over the speed limit with two-ounces of weed and an expired vehicle registration. And these cokeheads are the same people who really think that everything they have is because of merit.
Luckily, I was sheltered from all of that by not being allowed to hang with certain kids whilst constantly being kept busy with church, Little League, music lessons, summer camp, parent/teacher conferences, and the imminent threat of severe Southern ass-beatings for bad grades or bad behavior. I hated it; but it saved my life. I’m just glad that I am now too old to be beaten for my LT’s—at least I think I am. I haven’t exactly shared them with my folks.
Wharton has been a fantastic experience for me. While I stumbled upon it later in life, I know that I did so at precisely the right time for me. In many ways, it has helped to restore my faith in humanity and what is possible when people attempt to celebrate their differences rather than block each other from opportunities based on them. And every now and then, when I’m giving my opinion in class or learning something from a classmate in a study group or over drinks, I think about just how easy it would have been for me to have been one of the guys in Cellblock B instead of Cohort E.
I’m not smarter or better or more deserving than any of those guys. I’m just lucky enough to have been born into better circumstances to parents who knew better (and therefore, did better) than theirs did.
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