18 September 2013

Melissa from Tempe, AZ  

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Melissa is a 27-year old student from Tempe, Arizona. She is a single mother who works at a sushi restaurant in the city at night and as a babysitter on the weekend to support her 5-year old son, Marcus. Melissa doesn't have enough time to be either a Democrat or a Republican; she says working, studying and caring for Marcus take up so much time that she barely knows what's going on in the world.

Melissa grew up as an only child in what she calls a "dirt poor" household. Her father was frequently between jobs and her mother never worked. They moved back and forth between family, RVs and trailer parks, and Melissa changed schools so often that she didn't start to make any friends until she moved out of the house. She was an "uninteresting" student in school, graduating in the middle of her class. She didn't go to college right away because she couldn't afford it. She knew she needed to get away from home but couldn't afford to go very far from there, either, so she moved only a few miles and started working as a fast food worker.

Melissa says that she doesn't remember ever holding very strong political beliefs. The one thing she does say is that having a child changed her life, and that she thinks anyone who chooses to have an abortion must be "very sad, and ruined forever." She has never voted, though she says she was tempted to in 2008 in order to vote for Barack Obama.

Eventually Melissa moved to Tempe and started school. Shortly thereafter, she "fell stupid in love," dropped out of school and had Marcus. The father left before Marcus was born, though, and enlisted in the Marine Corps. Melissa says she's moved past that, and is happy that she can be the sole influence in Marcus' life.

She's concerned that he's reading below grade level. She wants him to have a better life than her, to do well in school and go to a big college, maybe be a doctor or write a book about something interesting. She thinks the public school he recently started going to is "crap," but she really can't afford to move anymore and definitely can't afford private school. She shrugs her shoulders:  "Oh well."

She thinks that government should do more for schools and education. "I don't understand how someone like Miley Cyrus can get paid millions of dollars, yet my son's teacher is probably making dirt and resenting her job the whole time." She says that government should spend less on social welfare programs and more on education, specifically teacher pay.

Melissa, though, isn't proud of the fact that she has accepted some government help in the past. She was on food stamps for the first four years of Marcus' life. "After I started school again and started working, I got off those quick," she says. "My father would always remind me that he never took no handouts from the state while I was alive, and that if you could work, you should suck it up."

More than anything, Melissa wants to be someone Marcus can be proud of. "I don't consider myself very smart or successful, but I don't want my son to see me that way. To him, I want to be everything. He's at that phase where he thinks I can do no wrong. I need to graduate and become something for when he grows up and realizes his mom is an idiot."

How often do we take the time to talk to the people that we meet? How much better would the world be if we all approached each other as human beings; not as enemies?

We can find common ground on the issue of abortion. How do we keep them safe, legal and extremely rare? A wise man once said, "the ideal number of abortions in this country is zero." The answer is not to criminalize women, but to accept the practice of child-raising as part of our closest neighborhoods.

Government is not the whole answer in education. Melissa is right--our teachers are not getting paid nearly enough for the heroic work they do on a daily basis. Programs like Teach For America bridge part of the gap, but it isn't enough. 1 in 5 children in this country will be born into poverty. There is not a government program large enough to correct that--it will take a culture change and an embracing of the notion, "do unto others as you would have done unto you."

Finally, how do we evaluate ourselves? Are we who we want to be? If not, how do we get there? My mother used to say, "If you're not happy in your job, it isn't what you're supposed to be doing." Too many of us settle because we are in a job that pays the bills and we are terrified of jeopardizing our families or our well-being to reach for what we're born to do. Sometimes this is justified, but the question is always there:  What can I do to make myself better every day?

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