Just Desserts

5:23 PM



It's that season again, for jingling, holiday cards, and early decision and early action college acceptance decisions. Anyone with Facebook friends who are high school seniors may have seen by now those Facebook posts in all caps: "[NAME OF SCHOOL] CLASS OF 2020!!!" "GOT INTO [NAME OF SCHOOL]!" or, for the spectacularly high-achieving students who applied to multiple non-restrictive early action schools, "[NAME OF SCHOOL], [NAME OF SCHOOL], [NAME OF SCHOOL]!" This will be my last year seeing a large crop of those posts, since I didn't know too many people more than two grades below me in high school. It made me think about what this time meant for me, back when I was a senior.

It has now been exactly two years since I received my own Early Action admissions decision. Senior year was going swimmingly. I was co-president of the speech and debate team with my best friend, and that December day in 2013 our whole team was at a tournament at another high school. We gathered around our table in a noisy cafeteria that smelled like movie-theater popcorn. While my teammates avidly read over their evidence files, I refreshed Gmail on my phone again and again.

Finally, the email I was looking for.

My heart seized a little. I pressed it and blinked my eyes shut, hardly daring to open them again and look. And then, in front of the whole debate team, I read this:

Dear Adora,

I am very sorry to let you know that we are unable to offer you admission to Stanford University.

It felt like a gut punch.

Even though I had known it was a long shot, even though I was barely even sure if I really wanted to go there, even though I'd heard so many remarks like "College admissions is just a crapshoot" indicating the link between merit and admission was tenuous at best, it didn't change the reality: that "unable to offer you admission" felt like some kind of declaration of You just aren't good enough, Adora.

The latest deluge of joyful college acceptance posts reminded me of that day, and the whole college admissions process in general. How, after the Stanford rejection, I applied to 13 other schools because my admission that I hadn't been good enough for them made me worry I wouldn't get in anywhere. How I messaged friends to ask them if they'd gotten in to the schools we'd both applied to, and when they said no, I felt better, as though I hadn't wanted them to succeed.

The whole thing made me question a lot, including our definitions of "merit" (as you can read in this blog post) but also the idea of "deserving" things. My friend and fellow Cal Bear Giovanni put it really well in this Facebook post:

"**edit: hella important to mention that these realizations are based not only in my experiences as a low income student (no college counselor, being told at orientation that low income students only get into college bc of affirmative action/ 'don't deserve to be here,' etc.), but MORE IMPORTANTLY the theoretical/political criticisms articulated mainly by PoC (esp. underrepresented folks) that gave me the language to produce the following: I've been reflecting a bit on the the college admissions process after seeing a couple of my friends recently get accepted into their first choice colleges via early decision.
The biggest mistake I made in applying to college was taking myself seriously: believing the folks who told me I deserved to go to certain schools.
If I could go back and change one thing about how I went through the process, knowing what I know now, I wouldn't invest the kind of emotional energy I did. College acceptances are, especially for folks like me, simply a measure of our privilege rather than our worth as people. It's not, and never has been, about how "worthy," "deserving," or "hard working" we are. The responses I got from the schools I applied to were indicative of the privileges afforded to me--having my education financially and otherwise invested in since pre-K, being groomed to believe my opinions/my presence/facets of my identity matter, having a teacher who used to work in admissions at Oberlin read over most of my personal statements, being exposed to financial and mental health resources that helped support me (s/o to Questbridge and the fab core teachers + corebabies who stuck it out for me), etc.--nothing more, nothing less."

That post made me think about how the way we think about college admissions is reflective of a larger problem endemic to our culture: the idea that we deserve our rewards, admissions, high incomes, and successes because of our merit, hard work, intellect, or virtue. 

I disagree, even if it's an unpopular stance to take. President Obama got into hot water in 2012 for expressing this in a campaign stump speech:
"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
I agree with the President. None of our successes happen in vacuums. The seemingly bright and hopeful message of saying that people who are lucky are lucky because they deserve it has an equally dark implication: that those who are less fortunate, whose lives are dealt blows day in and day out, are somehow lazy, unintelligent, unambitious, or immoral.

I do not believe in a fate so just that it deals the fortunes you "deserve."

Which misfortunes do we call injustices? Which do we assume are some kind of punishment for deficits in character? Take, for example, poverty. There's a Bible line (Luke 6:20), "Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God." I bring it up not out of any personal belief but because of irony: the party that most loudly and frequently proclaims its Christianity has, from the 1980s onward, associated being poor with laziness or depravity. The Reagan administration famously disparaged "welfare queens" who fraudulently cashed in on government largesse, vilifying welfare programs for incentivizing laziness or bearing children out of wedlock. "[Reagan's] welfare queen soon became deeply ingrained in American culture. She was black, decked out in furs, and driving her Cadillac to the welfare office to pick up her check. None of these stereotypes even came close to reflecting reality, particularly in regard to race," write Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Schaefer in $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. Yet this persistent stereotype, and the idea that people just had to work harder not to be poor, justified spending cuts on welfare programs for families in poverty.

Many people living below the poverty line in America work incredibly hard, harder and longer hours than the CEOs making hundreds of times their wages. They often work in suboptimal conditions and for low wages.

But this, ultimately, is beyond the point: the idea that some people "deserve" to be poor, if they don't work that hard, is reprehensible. That's like telling women that we "deserve" to be catcalled on the street if we don't cover ourselves from head to toe, or telling immigrants that they "deserve" to be subjected to offensive comments if they don't speak English without an accent. It's blaming an individual for a larger problem (sexism, xenophobia), instead of trying to carve the rot of inequality away from the societal structure itself.

The denial of help to people in need, in the name of a holier-than-thou this is what you deserve, only further entraps people in poverty--denying equality of opportunity to generation after generation. It's a mistake to associate "freedom" and "opportunity" with how rich our top earners can get; the lowest level of rights we accord to people is far more reflective of the morality of our society than the heights to which we allow people to rise.

Recall Giovanni's line "College acceptances are, especially for folks like me, simply a measure of our privilege rather than our worth as people." You can replace the phrase "college acceptances" with just about anything--ZIP codes, incomes, high-powered careers--and that sentence will hold true. As my friend Kelly pointed out, you working hard does not negate the existence of privilege, adding that "being privileged just means that you don't have to work as hard as someone else with less privilege than you [to get to the same point]."

Just like the many opportunities I've been afforded in my life, I did not "deserve" the star in my hand saying #BerkeleyBound. It could have just as easily gone to any of my friends, and a Yes or No from a school is a statement of fact--"We are offering you admission," not a judgment on who you are.

One day I was practicing layups in my basketball PE class and overheard a classmate say, in some forgotten context, "We're smart, we're all at Berkeley right?"

I wanted badly to interject, to say "Lucky, all. And some of us had parents who read to us from the womb and teachers who supported our dreams and SAT prep classes and former Olympians for sports coaches. But please never say that we are all smart, or good, or curious, simply because of the accident of fate that landed us here."

But as one does in PE, I kept my mouth shut and my eyes on the ball.

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