M Y T U R
Even though I
know education is
the right thing
to do, I can't
help but feel I
have it too good
BY MARCUS MABRY
proclaiming, "We built a proud new feeling," the
Around, green cardboard sign hangs from a string
slogan of a local supermarket. It is a souvenir
from one of my brother's last jobs. In addition to
being a bagger, he's worked at a fast-food restau-
rant, a gas station, a garage and a textile factory. Now, in
the icy clutches of the Northeastern winter, he is unem-
ployed. He will soon be a father. He is 19 years old.
In mid-December I was at Stanford, among the palm
trees and weighty chores of academe. And all I wanted to
do was get out. I joined the rest of the undergrads in a
chorus of excitement, singing the praises of Christmas
break. No classes, no midterms, no finals ... and no fresh-
men! (I'm a resident assistant.) Awesome! I was looking
forward to escaping. I never gave a thought to what I was
Once I got home to New Jersey, reality returned. My
dreaded freshmen had been replaced by unemployed rela-
tives; badgering professors had been replaced by hard-
working single mothers, and cold classrooms by dilapidat-
ed bedrooms and kitchens. The room in which the "proud
new feeling" sign hung contained the belongings of myself,
my mom and my brother. But for these two weeks it was
mine. They slept downstairs on couches.
Most students who travel between the universes of pov-
erty and affluence during breaks experience similar condi-
tions, as well as the guilt, the helplessness and, sometimes,
the embarrassment associated with them. Our friends are
willing to listen, but most of them are unable to imagine
the pain of the impoverished lives that we see every six
months. Each time I return home I feel further away from
the realities of poverty in America and more ashamed that
they are allowed to persist. What frightens me most is not
that the American socioeconomic system permits poverty
to continue, but that by participating in that system I
share some of the blame.
Last year I lived in an on-campus apartment, with a
(relatively) modern bathroom, kitchen and two bedrooms.
Using summer earnings, I added some expensive prints, a
potted palm and some other plants, making the place look
like the more-than-humble abode of a New York City
Yuppie. I gave dinner parties, even a soiree francaise.
For my roommate, a doctor's son, this kind of life was
nothing extraordinary. But my mom was struggling to
provide a life for herself and my brother. In addition to
working 24-hour-a-day cases as a practical nurse, she was
trying to ensure that my brother would graduate from high
school and have a decent life. She knew that she had to
compete for his attention with drugs and other potentially
dangerous things that can look attractive to a young man
when he sees no better future.
Living in my grandmother's house this Christmas break
restored all the forgotten, and the never acknowledged,
guilt. I had gone to boarding school on a full scholarship
since the ninth grade, so being away from poverty was not
new. But my own growing affluence has increased my
distance. My friends say that I should not feel guilty: what
could I do substantially for my family at this age, they ask.
Even though I know that education is the right thing to
do, I can't help but feel, sometimes, that I have it too good.
There is no reason that I deserve security and warmth,
while my brother has to cope with potential unemploy-
ment and prejudice. I, too, encounter prejudice, but it is
softened by my status as a student in an affluent and
More than my sense of guilt, my sense of helplessness
increases each time I return home. As my success leads
me further away for longer periods of time, poverty
becomes harder to conceptualize and feels that much more
oppressive when I visit with it. The first night of break,
I lay in our bedroom, on a couch that let out into a bed
that took up the whole room, except for a space heater. It
was a little hard to sleep because the springs from the
couch stuck through at inconvenient spots. But it would
have been impossible to sleep anyway because of the
groans coming from my grandmother's room next door.
Only in her early 60s, she suffers from many chronic
diseases and couldn't help but moan, then pray aloud, then
moan, then pray aloud.
Not very festive: This wrenching of my heart was inter-
rupted by the 3 a.m. entry of a relative who had been
allowed to stay at the house despite rowdy behavior and
threats toward the family in the past. As he came into the
house, he slammed the door, and his heavy steps shook the
second floor as he stomped into my grandmother's room to
take his place, at the foot of her bed. There he slept,
without blankets on a bare mattress. This was the first
night. Later in the vacation, a Christmas turkey and a
Christmas ham were stolen from my aunt's refrigerator on
Christmas Eve. We think the thief was a relative. My mom
and I decided not to exchange gifts that year because it just
didn't seem festive.
A few days after New Year's I returned to California.
The Northeast was soon hit by a blizzard. They were there,
and I was here. That was the way it had to be, for now. I
haven't forgotten; the ache of knowing their suffering is
always there. It has to be kept deep down, or I can't find the
logic in studying and partying while people, my people, are
being killed by poverty. Ironically, success drives me away
from those I most want to help by getting an education.
Somewhere in the midst of all that misery, my family
has built, within me, "a proud feeling." As I travel between
the two worlds it becomes harder to remember just how
proud I should be-not just because of where I have come
from and where I am going, but because of where they are.
The fact that they survive in the world in which they live is
something to be very proud of, indeed. It inspires within
me a sense of tenacity and accomplishment that I hope
every college graduate will someday possess.
Marcus Mabry, a junior at Stanford, is in a joint bache-
lor's-master's degree program, studying literature and in-
52 NEWSWEEK ON CAMPUSA