I’m not sure what the mood is like back home, but it has been fascinating being in London in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death. Everyone has something to say about her – from a friend whose grandfather and father went ‘down the pit’ but still respects her to friends who say things like ‘she really sorted this country out’ to people who truly think she was the devil incarnate. The media here has, of course, gone WAY over the top – every paper in the country is desperately trying to out-milk every fact you could ever want to know about Maggie (or Mrs. T as some call her – not sure if this is flatteringly polite or a way of belittling her by marking her as some nameless married woman). Just this past Sunday, Hilary Alexander of the Daily Telegraph told me that Thatcher “owned a striking array of hats.” The word ‘Boadicea’ has been used to describe her upwards of 500 times. Compelling stuff, I tell you.
My personal viewpoint? Well, I like any woman who is getting it done the way she wants it done. So yes, I think she was rather amazing. I’d really like to see what she would do with the political stalemate in America, were she in power right now. And would teachers be the new coal miners, and would she be bessie mates with Michelle Rhee?
Which brings me to today’s point (I know, you were starting to despair). I haven’t read many American reactions to her death, but in my concerted effort to canvass a variety of news sources, I stumbled upon a piece from Steve Tobak on FOXBusiness called “America Needs a Margaret Thatcher” which unsurprisingly espouses her virtue in employing the much over-worked phrase ‘personal responsibility.’ What gets me about this phrase is that, yes, of course, I wish more of us would take responsibility for our own decisions. I wish people ate and exercised better so our health care costs would go down. I wish gun owners would take responsibility for America’s absurd gun violence. I wish everyone driving in America would pass in the #$%*% left lane and then move the hell over.
But – and this is an important but – I also wish that everyone had the fortune to be born with a high-functioning brain and a family who fed them well enough and loved them well enough to enable all individuals to take personal responsibility for themselves. This is, unfortunately, not the case.
So let’s take the case of Freddie (as I will call him here), who I taught two years ago as a senior in high school. This boy was, quite simply, not given the gift of academic intelligence, though socially he was off the charts. He was always making the class laugh – mainly at his expense, because he realized he was not understanding a damn thing I said. He also had a string of girls hanging on his every word. But this kid could not write a sentence to save his life. He could just barely read. Freddie was quite good at (American) football, so he received special support throughout high school. He managed to graduate (with LOTS of mandated help from me as well, I might add) and was given a scholarship to play football at college as well as a new support teacher there as well. Problem was, he still could not write a sentence. And here’s where it starts to unravel.
End of story, Freddie dropped out because he couldn’t cope with the workload. And having no other path to follow, he is now living at home and unemployed. The part of me who loves the idea of personal responsibility shouts out, ‘We gave him too much support! He should have been allowed to fail as a child!’ Part of me also thinks he could get a minimum wage job and work up from there. But it’s just not that easy. Freddie’s mother told him right in front of me he would amount to nothing. And Freddie confided in me, many times, that he was the stupidest, most worthless human being on the planet. And in a school system that only values academic success, what other message could he receive?
What would Maggie have made of Freddie? According to liberal thinkers here, she would have allowed him to rot and die. I can’t really speculate, because I was 14 when she was kicked out by her own cabinet, but here’s what I would have liked to see happen for Freddie.
I would have liked to have the chance to direct Freddie towards a vocational course – one that might take advantage of his charm and sociability. I would have liked to set him up with a viable educational and/or career alternative that did not make him feel terrible about himself. I would not have buoyed up his hopes with a football scholarship (he wasn’t THAT good) and I would not have allowed him to graduate from high school without mastering the art of writing a sentence.
What it boils down to is this: People who are gifted with money or brains must take responsibility for people who are not born with the gifts to better themselves. It is all well and good discussing how we should take responsibility for our choices, but the people saying these things have possibly never even met someone who has not had a fair shake from the very start of life. The obstacles they have to overcome are, in some cases, truly insurmountable. Which is why our society creates safety nets (and should consider creating a few more).
The fact that anyone deplores such nets illustrates that they are probably from a privileged upbringing. Am I wrong? Do tell.