Perspective From Unlikely Places

July 15, 2016 • Columnists, Youth

Ormseth, Matthew greyBy Matthew Ormseth

He called them the “silent population,” a floating community of laborers who slip under the radar of censuses and service providers. They’re the backbone and the engine of California’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry, and yet they’re largely uneducated and largely invisible to the public eye.

Pablo Jasis, a professor at Cal State Fullerton, is running a program to help these migrant farm laborers earn their GED’s. I met with him at a coffee shop while covering the story for a newspaper out in Orange County. Pablo told me about his students in the Coachella Valley who pick dates in 115-degree heat for 12 hours a day and still find time to attend class in the evenings. He told me about the mothers who pick crops in addition to managing households and ferrying kids to and from school — they still manage to make it to class.

During our conversation, I was amazed by what he was telling me. The courage and dedication of his students inspired me. But I could feel a guilt leaking out of my stomach, too, trickling throughout my body, making it difficult to even look at him in the eyes.

Even after an entire day of picking crops beneath a blistering California sun, these people had it in them to go to school. Even with the knowledge that they’d have to wake the next day before the sunrise, they could still make it to evening classes.

I thought of all the 9 a.m. lectures I’ve skipped. I thought of all the times I convinced myself I was too tired or too hungover to go to class. I thought of all the times I had whined and moaned about all the “work” I had to do — “work” meaning an essay or a writeup I’d put off until the very last minute.

Pablo’s students go to class because they dreamed about going to college. I’d never really dreamed about going to college, just as I’d never dreamed about going to high school in middle school. For me — a middle-class student at a high-achieving high school — the fact that I’d go to college after graduation was a given. The only question was where and how prestigious the school.

We all become acclimated to our circumstances. If the most difficult thing you’ve ever done is write a 10-page paper, it’s tempting and it’s easy to call such a thing “work” and complain to your friends about how stressed and worn out you are from writing it.

It’s tempting, and it’s easy to take a college education for granted when it’s accepted by everyone — your family, your friends and your teachers — that you’ll go on to attend college.

It’s difficult to put things in perspective, and that is why I’m glad to have met and spoken with Pablo.

I realized that my life is the stuff of his students’ dreams. They want to go to college, he told me. Any college. When they visited Cal State Fullerton, he said, their eyes lit up at the size of the buildings, the libraries, the dining halls. It was a palace of dreams: a place to live and study and be part of a community that revolved around learning.

I was ashamed. That was exactly what I had. Only campus was no dream-palace for me — just a collection of buildings I associated with dreariness. There’s the library where I write papers four hours before they’re due. There’s the hall where I bombed a Calc midterm. If campus ever had any sort of magic, it was now lost on me.

Pablo burst my bubble, and I’m grateful for that. He reminded me that there is a vast spectrum of circumstances that dictate our experiences, and that rarely are any two sets of circumstances the same.

I can see the absurdity of phrases like “safety school,” the absurdity of the Harvard-or-bust mentality plaguing much of my old high school. And I can recognize my privilege, but now, instead of feeling ashamed, I can begin to feel grateful for it.

My circumstances were different than those of Pablo’s students. I could have left home after high school and tried making it on my own with a minimum-wage job. I could have tried putting myself through college without my parents’ help. I could have tried to diminish some of my own privilege, and perhaps my character would have been stronger for it.

But I didn’t. I took advantage of the opportunities and conveniences my privilege afforded me. And the best I can do now is put that privilege in perspective.

That means not complaining about writing essays. That means not skipping morning classes — or any classes for that matter. And that means thanking my parents for putting me through school. So thanks, Mom and Dad. And thanks, Pablo, for revealing blessings where I once saw only dreariness.

Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.

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