“How is your morning going so far?”
I looked up.
She was wearing her all-black server’s uniform. Black slacks. Black button-up shirt. And a black apron. Her attire was in complete contrast to her bright demeanor.
Bright eyes. Bright smile.
“My morning is going good,” I replied. I buried my nose back down into my book, hoping that she’d move on. It was Sunday, which is my day to sit in the corner of my favorite museum with my books, my coffee, and my peace.
But she didn’t move on.
“What’re you reading?” Shelbie asked. (Shelbie isn’t her real name, so don’t try to track her down on Facebook.)
I looked back up at her and took a deep breath. It’s the type of breath you take when you’re trying to suppress your annoyance and show your annoyance at the same time.
So much for my peaceful Sunday, I thought to myself.
Thank goodness she interrupted me.
We talked about the book I was reading—which, if you’re curious too, was a book about an American spy ring during the Revolutionary War. I talked about travel. She mentioned school.
“What are you studying?” I asked.
“Well,” Shelbie said bashfully, “I’m still in high school.”
I was surprised. Remember, we were at a museum. This museum is located in one of the nicest places in my city. It’s the type of place where high schoolers are rarely expected to hold down a weekend job. We were also by a couple universities, so I assumed she’d at least be in college.
“Wait,” I said, “you’re still in high school? What’re you doing working on a Sunday?”
She didn’t answer right away, and her bright smile faded from her face as she stared off into the distance. This lasted less than a second before she looked back at me and smiled. But I caught it. I caught the look.
I’ve seen that look before.
It was the look of someone who had to be tough.
Honestly, I don’t remember what her answer was. Also honestly, I interrupted her answer because I had a hunch that I knew her answer.
“Who do you have to support?”
Shelbie looked away, because she knew I knew. Here are the things she knew I knew: she didn’t live in this area, she wasn’t working on Sunday because she wanted to work on Sunday, and she had to be tough to support others.
It turned out that she’s growing up in a neighborhood close to where I grew up. There’s not a lot of upside in those neighborhoods. Not a lot of opportunity.
But there’s plenty of poor people.
When she realized that I could feel what she’s going through, her smile came back. It was real this time. It was like she didn’t have to put on a pretty face required of her job.
That was when the real talk began.
Neighborhoods like ours.
People want to leave neighborhoods like ours. But often, they can’t.
They can’t because they don’t have the opportunities to leave. They’re the type of neighborhoods where high school kids have to work on Sundays to support the family.
In neighborhoods like ours, there are tired parents.
More accurately, there’s a tired parent. Kids grow up without their dads. Sometimes, the kids don’t grow up at all. They just get older.
People in our neighborhoods survive. But it stops there.
Few thrive. Few actually dream of something big, then set out and do it. Few encourage others to get out. Few become more than mediocre.
In neighborhoods like ours ambition can shrivel away, if it even existed at all.
How to escape neighborhoods like ours, if you want to.
Shelbie has big ambitions for herself. Huge ambitions. What about you?
If you do, then take my upcoming advice to heart. What I’m about to lay on you are incredibly important things to understand if you want to make a real change. Read these next several lines as if your future depends on them, because your future does depend on them.
1. Give yourself zero excuses. You’re living in the land of excuses and lost dreams. There are people to your left and to your right who have given up. They’ve resorted to handouts. Some even steal. That’s not the life for you. Don’t allow disadvantages to become excuses.
2. Getting out doesn’t mean you’ve sold out. You can stay true to your neighborhood and escape the trap at the exact same time. Some people will challenge your ambitions. They’ll wonder why you want something better. They’ll give you side eye when you talk about bigger things. That’s jealousy speaking. Don’t listen.
3. Be proud of being poor. This one is hard. In our neighborhoods, people will do incredible things to feel rich. Jewelry, partying, tint and rim jobs, sneakers. Don’t follow that lead. Being poor is nothing to be ashamed of when you’re on your way out. Instead of hiding it, own it. Believe that things will change, and let poverty motivate you to become great.
4. Resourceful vs dependent. Look at the people around you in your neighborhood. They’ve either become resourceful or dependent. Those are the two outcomes of growing up without much. You can either find a way to get the most out of what you have, or you can complain about not having enough. Be resourceful, not dependent.
5. Let money motivate you, but don’t be fooled… I have a good friend and business partner who grew up quick up with nothing. As a teen, he helped a rich drug dealer clean his money. One day, the drug dealer approached my friend and said, “I’ve got money, but it didn’t solve any problems I thought it’d solve.” Lifting your fam out should be motivation, but don’t let it be the only goal you have.
6. Don’t believe that rich people are bad. This type of talk bubbles up all the time in neighborhoods like ours, and it’s poisonous. There are just as many good rich people as there are good poor people. Also, there are just as many bad rich people as there are bad poor people.
7. It’s a good thing that you don’t have it easy. You might look at kids who have more opportunities, more privileges, or more money and become jealous. Don’t get down on yourself. Starting with less can be a huge advantage. You’ve got nothing to lose, but everything to gain. Believe it.
8. Finally, believe a better life is actually for you. The more ambitious you become, the less your neighborhood will understand you. Good people will start warning you about things like “the system.” They will ask why you want to achieve so much. They’ll wonder why you just don’t do things like everyone else. All of that will happen. Nod your head, but don’t listen. Just do.
A better life is actually for you. They’ll believe you once they see it.
So show them.
Most importantly, show yourself.
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Photo: Flickr/Stefan Insam