I was asked to address my hardship in order to qualify for a grant. While I missed out, I did learn about my own privilege.
I was recently asked to write an application letter that addressed how I felt I was held back from achieving my dreams.
I wrote what I thought was quite the touching tale, detailing how my parents had always personified the Great Aussie Battler ideals, and that, despite their dreams for my life to be better than theirs, I’d still found myself dropping out of school at the end of tenth grade and working for below minimum wage.
I wrote about hovering above the poverty line when my daughter was born with health conditions that prevented me from returning to work, and proudly explained that I’d worked my butt off to finish a university degree while I stayed home with her; that I was not going to let my unfortunate circumstances stop me from achieving my goals. I was passionate. I was determined. I was sure that I was a shoe-in, and I spent most of September refreshing my email app, waiting for the congratulatory email.
When the thanks-but-no-thanks email came through at the end of the month, I was floored.
What the hell? The essay was on-point. Couldn’t they see I was needy? I earned this. I skulked around the house muttering under my breath about good-for-nothing idiots who didn’t know talent when it slapped them in the face. I kicked the kid’s Lego box over. I threatened to throw my work in the bin and huffed and puffed and frowned and sulked. I threw a tantrum my 2-year-old niece would have been proud of.
It wasn’t until the list of winners was announced a week later, and I saw them collectively for who they were, that I realised my mistake. Never before has the term “privilege” struck me so deeply. Yes, my parents had lived paycheque-to-paycheque; yes, we were a single income family living in community housing; yes, our medical bills often took care of any dreams we might have had for disposable income. But my goodness. As I read the stories of the ten selected recipients who truly represented what it means to struggle, I became more and more ashamed of the drivel that I’d penned in my application.
I grew up with Kmart pencil cases while my friends had Billabong and Rip Curl, sure. We went camping in the school holidays and listened to our friends tell tales of hitting up the theme parks or going to Thailand when school returned. But unlike the approximately 17,000 Australian children experiencing homelessness right now, I had a roof over my head.
I had become so focused on how I saw myself as being excluded, that I forgot what real exclusion looked like. And that’s what privilege does to you.
I left high school at the end of the tenth grade to start working, but how many of the one in four Australian kids who don’t finish year 12 will have the opportunity that I did to return to their studies and actually graduate university? And if they did, would they be supported to actually graduate? One in five university students don’t complete their degree. Yes, it was a struggle with two kids at home, but I had a world of support from my family to make sure that I stayed focused and got that piece of paper that hangs proudly in my hallway. And while we’re on the topic of education, let not forget the 28 million girls worldwide who don’t get the basic right of an education. Malala Yousafzai was shot in the face for daring to get an education.
How dare I complain about not being able to go back to work, when we were lucky enough that we could scrape by with just my husband’s wage. We’re a single income family, but at least that means one of us is working, unlike the 339,000 jobless families with dependants in this country. My daughter is sick? I have access to world-class medical treatment for her, funded through Medicare. Unborn babies in the United States of America are routinely aborted because their parents can’t afford to treat them if they are born with health conditions. The more I thought about it, the more things I identified that proved that I was afforded a much better chance in life than so many other people.
Growing up, I’d always been told that no matter what, there was always someone who was doing it tougher. Somehow, I forgot that. Privilege is not just a condition of the upper classes. I had become so focused on how I saw myself as being excluded, that I forgot what real exclusion looked like.
To some degree, I think we all fall into this trap and lose sight of the hardship that those behind us are suffering. Being rejected was a positive, because it opened my eyes.
So, to the judges who had to read my self-important drivel in amongst the truly deserving applications, I humbly apologise. And to those who find themselves questioning if life is having a laugh at their expense, I challenge you to find one thing – just one – that you are privileged to have experienced.
Hang on to that one thing, and know that because you have it, you are one of the fortunate.