When my six siblings and I were growing up, our family finances hovered between lower middle class and working poor. We didn’t realize it, though, because many of our neighbors were in the same shaky socio-economic bracket.
But years later, as adults looking through old family photos, laughing at unfortunate clothing choices and epic hairstyle failures, it finally hit us. “Look at this!” One of my sisters was pointing not to the people, but to the background in a photo: TV trays used as end tables. A bedspread thrown over a sagging couch. A television set with a pair of pliers next to it—for use in turning the broken TV dial. “Geez, you guys, we lived in the Sanford & Son house!”
Which made us laugh really hard because it was true, and because it had never occurred to us before, and because we’re fond of a little dark humor in my family. We then recalled other unrecognized-at-the-time signs that our family had lived on the economic edge. Macaroni and butter five nights in a row. We just thought, Yay, no vegetables. Hand-me-down clothes—from people we weren’t even related to. A house furnished entirely with garage sale purchases.
Our lives as adults are different. We all enjoy a more secure financial footing than our parents did. No one is fabulously wealthy—I’m quite disappointed by my siblings in that respect. I’m looking at you, Tricia, Janet, Jim, KK, Barbie, Tim. Because how great would it be to have a younger sibling shower you with financial tokens of affection in return for the loving oversight and guidance you provided during their early years? But, I digress.
I’ve always credited our successes in life to our parents. Not because they inspired us with the exhortations and expectations of “tiger” parents, or subscribed to the interventionist guidance of “helicopter” parents. If anything, their parenting style might best be described as laissez faire. Their goals for us were modest: do your best, be honest, be kind, don’t kill each other. They stepped in when we strayed too far from those basic standards, but it was primarily by their example that we learned what kind of people we wanted to be.
But I think there was another factor, too, that tipped fortune in our favor. Although we lived in a rundown house, in a middling neighborhood, on the raggedy residential edge of a street that at its other end boasted a scrap metal junkyard, we also lived only two blocks from Alma College. The small liberal arts school was very friendly to neighborhood children. Perhaps because liability and child safety worries didn’t loom large in those days, the college was part of the landscape of our everyday lives. We rode through campus on our bicycles, cut through the wooded area behind the president’s house, played on the bleachers at the football field, trick or treated at the fraternities and sororities and sold Girl Scout cookies in the dorms.
And we saw students, not all that much older than we were, walking back and forth to class, studying in the library, playing Frisbee on the grass. We came to view attending college as the natural progression of things—like going from junior high to high school. Our proximity to the college, and its easy acceptance of our presence, gave us the expectation that we had a place in the world that Alma College represented.
I believe that success in life is about hard work and developing your talents, but it’s also about opportunity. A lucky accident of geography helped the children of a man who didn’t graduate from high school, and a woman who dreamed of nursing school but had to go to work instead, believe that other doors were open to them.
In an era of reduced opportunities and narrowing choices for children from families like the one I grew up in, I was happy to read that Alma College will be offering 10 full-tuition scholarships annually to area students. Good fences, as the saying goes, may make good neighbors. But open doors make even better ones.