Holiday spirit complicated by deep socioeconomic divisions

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Christmas is a wonderfully tragic yet beautiful time of the year for me, laden with equal parts nostalgia and regret. My most vivid memory as a child during the season is from when I was 10. I tore the wrapping off a box from Santa Claus to reveal a Gameboy SP and Pokémon FireRed — the first ever video game either my brother or I had ever owned. I remember playing for hours, even skipping showers to play, much to the bemusement and chagrin of my parents. I showed it off to all of my mom’s family who came to visit that day, and then again to my dad’s when we traveled to his parents’ house. In that moment, I remember joy in a way that only Christmas can bring out in a young child.

But, in all honesty, that’s not the Christmas memory that hits me hardest. When I was 12, my dad lost his job during the 2008 recession. We had grown up modestly, partly by necessity from my mom’s medical bills, but mostly because she was determined to never spoil us. However, that Christmas was especially tight. I remember feeling disappointed at how crummy Christmas was, in how few presents I got to open up. Even though my mom had worked hard rewrapping previous gifts from the year before and had filled Christmas bags with our favorite candy and foods, the moment still felt empty and hollow — like my forced smile as I opened yet another box of year-old socks. And I remember my dad’s face as I stared dejectedly at the shredded pile of wrapping paper on my grandma’s floor, his expression a mixture of embarrassment, pain and remorse. I remember that face to this day; I can only imagine how it might feel from the other side as a parent.

Fast forward 10 years. Things have gotten plenty tighter, and not all my family has chosen to stay a part of my life, but my mom still makes Christmas special for my brother and me. She still wraps new gifts, rewraps old ones and puts food in Christmas bags — it’s practically tradition now. She mailed my brother, currently deployed in Afghanistan, his presents before he’d even left the country. She set up the same artificial tree with the same collection of ornaments bearing memories of her 58 years in the corner of her modest apartment nestled on the 11th floor of a senior living facility. We still use the same “12 Days of Christmas” glasses and sing the same verses at every meal. And, though our family has changed in some painful ways, my mom continues to bring back the memory of home every year.

However, I can’t help but feel frustrated. I finished exams this past December only to work as seasonal help at Barnes & Noble to be able to afford Christmas presents and my next car insurance payment. I felt envious because while I was working, most of my friends were resting during break. I felt sad because I couldn’t make Christmas parties or catch-up dinners or post photos in front of tacky lights on Instagram. I felt self-righteous because I still work three jobs when most of my classmates don’t work any. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my work. I’m proud to be self-sufficient and buy presents for loved-ones, but I can’t help but feel alone.

However, the thing is — I’m not. 40 percent of college students work at least 30 hours a week. A quarter of Americans work during the holidays. Nearly 44 million Americans are an unpaid caregiver to someone in need, and plenty of families struggle to make the season magical. One of the most gut-wrenching parts about working in retail during Christmas is watching parents make the difficult choice of which presents to take out of the cart because there isn’t enough money left in their bank envelope. On Christmas Eve, a woman came in with various gift cards she’d saved up over the whole year to buy each of her kids something special. The hardest part of my night was taking off the stuffed bear and chapter book from the receipt because she didn’t have the extra $30 to cover the difference.

My experience is that of the typical American, even though it’s rarely seen or heard at the high-level academic institutions or upper-middle-class neighborhoods I grew up around. It’s a set of trade-offs between health care and Christmas, insurance and eating out, new shoes and used textbooks — how to stretch that bank envelope to make ends meet. While I am so fortunate to have grown up with access to many of the same opportunities as my wealthier classmates, too few have that same privilege. Class mobility is the lowest it has ever been since the Great Depression. Middle America is increasingly priced out of attending college. Those who do manage to attend report lower grades and graduation rates than their wealthier classmates, whether from the stress of working, serving as a caregiver or the failure of the public school system to adequately prepare them for collegiate-level work. We face a growing divide in opportunity, in inter-socioeconomic association, in institutional access. And, I know it’s become a hackneyed refrain in the age of “Trumpism,” but Middle America is being forgotten.

I don’t have a silver bullet for our woes but let me offer the beginning step to a solution — look for ways to cross the social divides between us. Work at the local YMCA, Habitat for Humanity or a religious organization, places where we serve alongside one another regardless of background, and bond as equals. It is in those places where we feel most comfortable to share our stories and empathize with one another. Look out for the boy with twice-gifted socks and the mother who can’t afford a teddy bear for her child. Look for the student working three jobs to make ends meet and the family supporting an ailing loved one. Only through truly seeing, truly listening, truly understanding the lives of those different from us can we begin to create the change necessary to mend our divided nation. Because, for all the things which divide and differentiate us, we are all Americans. And only by realizing that are we able to move forward and make the American Dream, whatever that may be, a reality for the forgotten majority.

Email Mason Davenport at madavenport01@email.wm.edu