An American Question

I have been reading It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine's Path to Peace by Rye Barcott.  And by "reading" I mean in 10 minute increments when I happen to get both boys down for a nap at the same time and happen to finish the cleaning etc. I want to get done before they wake up.  At this rate I will still be reading this book well into the new year....but I digress.

Rye Barcott is a former U.S. Marine and the co-founder of Carolina for Kibera, a non-governmental humanitarian organization which works to develop leaders in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya. His book discusses how he came to get to know the people of Kibera and develop this organization.  Barcott took his first trip to Nairobi as a teenager on vacation with his parents.  On that trip he met a safari guide named Looseyia and began a conversation with him by asking about his ambitions.  He was told this was "a very American question" and the following conversation ensued:

"'And you, what do you want to do?' he asked, facing me...
'I don't know.  I want to do something significant.'
'Everything we do matters.  Don't take what you have for granted.  You can do something significant.  But do you know who makes that possible?'
'What's that?'
'It's your parents.'
'Oh, yeah, of course.' I replied.
'No, you're not getting me.  You have more opportunities than I can even dream. You have these because of them.  You should treat them with more respect.'"

Does this conversation tug at anyone else's heartstrings?

First of all there's the fact that to even ask about ambitions in an "American question."  In the United States from the time we enter preschool we are asked what we want to be when we grow up.  We are expected to be ambitious, to dream big and reach for the stars (just the number of cliches we have for this is astounding).  Simply because you grow up in the U.S. the possibilities are endless as long as you are willing to work hard to achieve your goal.  We don't consider ambitions to be a privilege, but a right.  If my boys one day want to go to college, to travel the world, to pursue any number of careers, I have no doubt that they will be able to do so.

However, as I look around here in Mexico, I am reminded that this is not true for everyone.

I look at the kids I teach at Eli's preschool.  Will these precious little boys and girls be afforded the same opportunities as my sons?  They come from middle class families who can afford to send them to a private preschool, so possibly, but there's a good chance they won't.  They may never receive the same kind of education and possibly never even leave Mexico to experience the rest of the world.  After they leave preschool they may never converse with another native English speaker again.

I think about the son of one of the guards from our old apartment complex, who I mentioned back in May in my post I Hope So.  He is the first in his family to attend college.  Doors have been opened for him.  But there's still a chance that he will never have enough money in his bank account to allow him to receive the necessary travel visa to visit the United States or other countries.  These are dreams he has discussed with us that may or may not come to fruition.  I pray his dreams do come true.

I have played with the 6 year old son of my brother and sister-in-law's nanny and wondered what his future holds.  His mother and father do not have a high school education.  They work hard and they send him to school, but they cannot afford to send him to private schools.  Here in Mexico, without a private school education a college education in unlikely.  He will most likely end up in the same type of service careers as his parents.  He and his mother came on vacation with our families last year.  They both saw the ocean for the very first time...maybe the only time in their lives.

These stories are nothing compared to the individuals Barcott works with in the slums of Kenya.  Their chances are even fewer.  Their ambitions are limited by their place of birth.

My parents, and their parents before them, provided me with an endless number of opportunities simply by living  in the U.S. and being American citizens.  My kids have these same opportunities simply because they were born to me, not really because of anything I have done.

I long for them to live significant lives, to make a difference in their world, and to never take all that they were afforded at birth for granted.  I long to set this example for them.  I have some work to do in my own life.


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