PEOPLE always chant it, and it’s simply accepted as a matter of fact, but it’s bullshit. The U.S.A. is not No. 1. It can’t be. Not when so many people living here are living in hell.
With all the crap that’s happened in our country over the past decade, you really only have to point to one event to prove that America is not the greatest country in the world: Katrina. I’m pissed the whole disaster got politicized, because the red-vs.-blue debate pulled our attention away from a sad truth: There are great numbers of people in this country whose poverty is killing them.
Every week, I see two reminders of this sad truth. I’ve been tutoring two fifth-graders in New Haven, Conn., two boys at a college-prep middle school for inner-city, mostly minority youths. I grew up outside New Haven, and figured it would be a good way for a relatively well-off white guy to give a little back, and to see if teaching was something worth exploring careerwise.
What I expected wasn’t what I got. I figured I’d be tutoring two kids who were struggling with math and reading. Turns out my two 11-year-olds are pretty bright. They both read well, and they both love math (one even declared that he’s a “math nerd” but that he hides it because being smart isn’t cool.) They talk about their college ambitions occasionally, and between lessons they sing and dance. They’re relatively happy kids.
But every week, they remind me of what’s fundamentally wrong with their world, and our world. Every week, without fail, they talk unprovoked about the loved ones they’ve lost to bullets or to prison. A few weeks ago, I showed up for class and one of the boys had more bad news — his cousin had just been shot and killed that week. He was devastated, obviously, and we talked about it for a while. My other student shared his own story — his 14-year-old brother had been shot in the head while riding his bike (somehow, he lived).
Teaching math and reading seemed irrelevant at this point of our session. I momentarily thought of telling them that knowledge and college could be their ticket out of this life of violence, but I stopped myself. Even in my head, that just sounded like patronizing white-guy bullshit — these kids are gonna have to dodge bullets for another seven years before they can get to college, and that’s if they can even afford it.
I asked the two boys — remember, they’re 11 years old — how they could end this cycle of violence. In unison, they answered immediately: “Leave.”
“You shouldn’t have to leave your home to be safe,” I said. But “home” must not mean the same thing to me as it does to them. Not if they fear it, not if they want to run away from it.
This past weekend, the boy whose cousin was shot dead broke my heart a little more. He told me he can’t wait till next year, when he’s old enough to join “the battle” and help get revenge on those who killed his cousin. I’m there to teach math and reading, to keep these kids on the path to college, and he’s talking about “the battle.” That’s the path he envisions for himself, at least for the immediate future. College is an abstract goal, the war is real.
I reminded the boy about how sad he is to have lost his cousin, and that even his cousin’s killers have people who love them and would be heartbroken if they were killed for the sake of revenge. I talked to him about the futility of this self-perpetuating violence.
But what the fuck do I know about this world they live in? I just know that it exists, and it’s hell. And it’s in the same city as Yale University, one of the greatest learning institutions in the world. And it’s a couple towns over from where I grew up alongside beautiful farmland. And it’s in Connecticut, the wealthiest state in the country. And it’s in the U.S.A., one of the greatest nations in the world.
And as long as this hell exists, we don’t get to brag about being No. 1. Not when we should be trying so much harder.