Uplifting News to End a Dismal Year
E, a Latina immigrant and single mother, who tidies my (bijou) apartment just heard her son was admitted to Harvard College.
She used to have a business with her husband. After the business and marriage dissolved, E has supported herself providing housekeeping services – with great diligence and remarkable cheerfulness.
I found her through J, a student from more than 20 years ago and, subsequently, a friend.
J’s a big (he could have had a career in professional sports) and big-hearted guy. His father, a first- or second-generation Italian immigrant, started as a construction worker, built his own construction business, and saw J (and his brother) through Harvard College. After getting his MBA and MPA, J worked in private equity and then started a buyout firm which has done splendidly.
J helped E’s son – she’s been working with him for many years — get into a ‘posh’ private school (which J’s son also attends) and wrote a letter supporting the boy’s Harvard College application.
Good people can apparently still make good things happen.

1. I emailed this to some other friends earlier. One instantly wrote back (his replies are always instant, god knows how, given his job):
“Great story… As I always say, there is enormous operating leverage in financial aid. E’s son’s life will be transformed by attending college. As a result, his children will have a very different life and so will their children. And if we are lucky, E’s child, like J, will find a way to help others.
This year’s early action class has a record number of first gen kids. We should all take pride in your story which I hope will be replicated many times in the future in this and in other Harvard classes. It is one of my highest priorities.”

And all this has a personal resonance:

My father’s father began working at the post office after his third grade in school.  My father grew up perpetually hungry but somehow went through college (there were scholarships for poor Bramhin boys I believe and his father apparently believed well-educated was better than well-fed).  My mother’s father had a job riding railroad tracks on a trolley checking the soundness of the rails.  His daughter (my mother) published several hundred papers in cancer research.

I am the very very lucky — not ‘deserving’ — beneficiary.

2. A couple of responses to the email I circulated were skeptical of what the episode says about the fairness of American society. The critics drew the moral “you need a rich patron to rise.” This has made me think what I’m sure are not original thoughts but here goes regardless:

– Most of us would instinctively believe that a good society provides ample opportunity for inter-generational mobility.
– We’d also believe that in real life opportunity is not uniformly distributed and is to varying degrees in different societies a function of parental wealth. This observation prompts the further belief that societies with uniform distribution of wealth are fairer/better.
– But, and this is what struck me yesterday, if opportunity were indeed thus uniformly distributed there would be no scope for inter-generational mobility. And I think such mobility is its own reward — and the difficulty helps make it so. If it were easy there would be no sense of accomplishment in achieving it. Or in my case pride in my parents having done this. Perhaps the greater European success (at least in the last 50 years or so) in promoting equality has dampened upward striving, and the joys thereof. In India it has increased.
– On the other hand if the barriers are too great, mobility and efforts to achieve it would cease.
The balance is of course difficult.

3. Another friend (and fellow immigrant) made the observation that some immigrants to the US strive to regain status they once had and then lost in their native lands. And this is indeed a distinction which gets inadequate consideration in the “land of immigrants” narrative.Some immigrants are indeed “wretched refuse of a teeming shore.” Others — the Jews fleeing the Nazis and more recently Tamilian Bramhins from India (eg Kamala Harris’s mother is one) had previously enjoyed quite high status — which was taken away from them.

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