Meritocracy Is A Myth: On Poverty, Resources, And Raising Children

By Noah Berlatsky

“We’re the accountants! Our favorite color is gray. We’re the accountants, counting numbers all day!”

My 11-year-old wrote that. Then he sang and performed his (very brief) musical called “The Accountants!” at his theater summer camp this year. My wife and I both have a horror of musical theater, but through some mysterious cosmic means, our son is a big old ham-slinging thespian. Who writes musical theater. About accountants. Go figure (as it were).

It’s fun watching my thespian ham son doing his adorable thespian ham thing. But it’s also (as the accountants know) somewhat expensive. The boy has talent — he can memorize big blocks of text in an eye-blink; he can sing, he can dance, he can make jaded adults giggle when he launches into musical theater or gives a dramatic recitation of Snoopy being shot down by the Red Baron. Talent alone, though, isn’t enough.

The boy auditioned two years back for a prestigious young acting group, which has a minimal tuition, but he didn’t get in. So we got him acting lessons from the same theater, and the next year he made it, and was thrilled to his socks. The extra investment was certainly worth it — but then, that’s because we could afford it. What about equally talented kids who don’t have the resources to take that extra class?

This fall, our son auditioned for a part in a big theatrical production of The Christmas Carol here in Chicago, and got called back twice. He didn’t quite make it — but if he had, it would have been an impressively large commitment. We would have had to cancel vacation plans over the holidays, and get him downtown for practice just about every day. We could have managed it since I’m a freelancer and my schedule is flexible. But again. If you were from a family with both parents working in an office — or worse, if you were from a single parent family — it’s hard to see how you could have possibly swung it.

The Christmas Carol was an open casting call; they were looking for folks without prior experience, so we (and a hundred odd other people) just showed up. For most auditions, though, you need an agent, which means research, and auditions even before you can get auditions. Agents usually want you to have professional headshots, which are several hundred dollars. Gigs do pay, and once you’re getting regular work (and after you’ve traipsed around to get all the paperwork for underage employment) you can make a decent amount. But as with many things, it takes a lot of money and effort before you can get to a point where you can make some money.

Jojo Moyes in her book One Plus One does a good job of showing how poverty limits opportunity. The novel is about a single mom, Jess, whose daughter is a math prodigy. Her teacher sets her up with a scholarship to a private school — but even with a scholarship that pays for 90% of the tuition, Jess can’t afford it. So they decide to try to take the daughter to a math competition where she can hopefully win prize money to attend the school. But on the way there (or even before they start, really), their crappy car breaks down. And things only get worse from there.

One Plus One has a happy ending; a kind samaritan helps them out, and Jess’ daughter is so brilliant that she can jump through every math hoop she needs to if given even half a chance. But the novel is brutal in its depiction of the barriers that poverty places on every side for even the most gifted child. “Sometimes,” Jess thinks, “life was a series of obstacles that just had to be negotiated, possibly through sheer act of will.” But, the novel suggests, will itself often isn’t enough. If you don’t have the down payment, the car, or the second parent to help out, you don’t get to do the math — or perform on that stage that you were arguably born for.

These inequities aren’t just about special programs or opportunities, either. In Chicago, as in many cities, the public school system over the last decade has become more and more privatized, which means it’s effectively become an educational obstacle course.

In 2013, Chicago alone closed 50 neighborhood public schools, while approving more charter schools. Increasingly, in the city, parents are expected to negotiate (through sheer force of will, it sometimes seems) a bewildering array of magnet, charter, and special schools across the city, putting in applications, showing up to open houses, and putting their name on wait-lists . . . all to get into a school halfway across the city to which they somehow have to transport their kid every day.

The move to charter schools is done in the name of choice. The idea, supposedly, is to give parents and students more options. But the effect is to turn access to basic schooling into a competition — and in such competitions, the same people have the same advantages as always. If you want to go to the performing arts high school (as my son does), you’re in better shape if you’ve done theater already, and in even better shape if you’ve been in professional productions. And the way you get into those productions is by having the time and knowledge and resources to audition successfully.

America loves meritocracy. We love to think that talent and hard work lead to success. But you don’t get to be an actor without paying for head shots, and you don’t get to stage your accountant musical without some investment. Maybe it’s too much to hope that we could give every child everything they need to pursue their dreams. But we could at least acknowledge that meritocracy is a myth — and stop trying to organize our school system around it.

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Lead Image: Flickr/Drew Leavy