Let’s face it: the economy is in the toilet, we’re one paycheck away from living in the streets, and we’ve been shocked into suddenly having very little —losing a job, a house, a car, a livelihood, a thinner 401K and portfolio. What portfolio, you say? You don’t invest in stocks? What 401K? You don’t have enough to invest either, huh? You’re just struggling, like many millions of families around the country, to just keep your head above water.
We’ve rapidly had to become a country that is taking a shockingly cold look at itself –a nation of people living beyond their means, a nation of debtors who have lived off plastic and put off responsibility until later, and now dealing not just with the devastating dislocations like, you know, not having a home all of a sudden.
To think that it takes a fundamental collapse of the US economic system, and its banks, and a worsening recession to maybe force all of us to change our ways and become more responsible. Mortgage bailouts? What about those who were paying theirs on time? What kind of help or restitution do they get? But should we punish those who signed those sub-prime ARM loans from the predatory banks, or the lenders themselves? Finally, are we a country that should provide opportunity –some hope that will help propel the economy to help it create jobs so people can feel more confident to spend again? Recession is one thing; living through it day by day, especially for those who are personally affected, has to be a moment in our history to change how we live our financial lives for the better. We just have no choice, and we shouldn’t –in our view—expect that the government is going to be able to “bail” us out the next time.
One example of how this economy is affecting us actually took place close to me the other day. I was in Southern California last Thursday for a business presentation. During the intros we learned that President Obama was a mere five minutes across town, at a visit to an electric-vehicle testing facility in Pomona, CA. The tour was meant to tout a $2.4 billion competitive grant program that will make electric cars more widely available.
Enter Village Academy High School (VAHS)
We were also told that the Pomona schools were especially proud of the fact that the President was also going to meet with Michael Steinman’s AP English class from Village Academy High School, a continuation high school. Apparently the President’s staff had found a series of videos that the students had posted on You Tube that detailed honest, often moving accounts of how the economy had affected their own lives. The class had been reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and discussing what the “American Dream” means. As an assignment he asked the students how their own “dream” in this country was going –what was their own story? The resulting video, “Is Anyone Listening?”, has become popular on You Tube. The White House took note, with the President actually citing one of Steinman’s students, Yvonne Borges, by name. The occasion was the President’s first formal presentation of his education plan on March 10. Video here.
The video is a moving testament not just to the hopes that these students have, but it’s heartbreaking evidence that these young lives are profoundly affected each day. They can’t focus on their studies sometimes. They face their families’ problems each day, whether it’s losing a home, not being able to eat properly because there isn’t enough food at home
The pain and tears in these faces reveal so much, and their words tell a very untold story about what struggling today means. It’s hard to imagine growing up, going to school, just being a kid, and having your life uprooted and then realize there’s nothing you can do to control it. Yvonne speaks of hopes and dreams, of her cohorts being one day lawyers, doctors and engineers, but those aspirations cannot be achieved now. What motivation is there when the rug that sustains you is being pulled from you? Or the girl who wants to drop out of school and, at 17, get a job because she would be the sole breadwinner. Her Mom won’t have it though –best that she stay in school even if she’s unemployed.
Finally, it wasn’t just the White House that noticed. ABC News of course covered the President’s visit –which also included a visit to Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, the first ever by a sitting President. Its 20/20 broadcast last Friday also did a piece on the Village Academy students.
On a show with the theme “Life on the Edge”, 20/20 visited the school and spoke with the teacher and the students themselves. Once again we could see and hear what it’s like to just try to get by and survive during these hard times, far from the world of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. It’s now possible to imagine what each one of these kids is going through.
When the students from Village Academy ask “Is Anyone Listening?”, they become symbols for all the dashed dreams they may not be able to achieve, especially when there is a burgeoning underclass that this economy is also creating each day with each unfortunate economic statistic. Kids don’t lie; they don’t like to talk about such pain, but they are all now inextricably affected. Their words are powerful; their dreams are, for the moment, stunted. And it takes this kind of honest exposure to educate the rest of us. Video link.