That can’t be right” was my first reaction when I learned the meaning of my American Dream score of 74. No way have I had more factors working against me in my life than working for me.
So I took the test over a second and then a third time pondering each test question carefully now before answering. But my overall test result did not change.
Could it be, I wondered, if what some might see as barriers, I have come to see as my normal? At 63, I’m used to what comes with being black and female. It’s the landscape I’ve been dealing with my whole life.
I grew up in an intact family adored by my parents. Even as a little girl I knew there was a big difference between what I experienced at home and what I experienced in the world outside. In my predominantly white elementary school, I was seen as an outsider. No one ever picked me for the soccer or volleyball team even though I was a decent athlete. I was always the default choice, picked last after the boy with the bulletproof glasses and the girl who smelled like she peed in the bed.
I remember at 13 going to my first dance at the local teen club and neither the white boys nor the black boys asked me to dance. Back in those days, beauty standards were strict. There were no Lupita Nyong’os gracing the cover of fashion magazines. You were either paint by the numbers pretty or you weren’t. You either fit or you didn’t. And I never did.
Eventually, I stopped trying. I discovered that looking different had its advantages. Instead of hiding my ethnicity, I played it up, piercing my nose with a diamond decades before it was fashionable to do so, and wearing my hair big and bushy.
I began to think maybe there was a place for me in an American Dream that prized individualism and independence. Maybe like in the Burger King commercial, “I could have it my way.”
I was 23. Today I know that individualism and independence are not the whole story in America. There’s an African proverb that says if you are sitting in a shady spot you need to be thanking the people who planted those trees long ago.
Today, I know a lot more about interconnectedness.
There’s not a day I don’t worry that someone could mistake my 12-year-old grandson for a bigger boy and could find his clowning around and horseplay menacing or scary. Today, I know that being an unarmed, innocent child is not enough to protect him.
Lots of people thank me for having the courage to write Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal. I have never thought of myself as a courageous person. I just take the next step even when I am scared to death. I take the next step and pray the ground is there.
I also throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall. I reach out to all kinds of people I have no business reaching out to, writing the email equivalent of one of those half-court basketball shots. Lots of times I don’t hear back, but about a third of the time I get the meeting.
I have wondered what direction my life would have taken had I not ended up sitting next to Susan at that workshop for women entrepreneurs 25 years ago. If it happened today, we might not even glance up from our computer screens. Back then, we actually had a conversation. And that single conversation set off a chain of events that got me on the board of a major retail trade association, launched my stores in New York City and started an amazing five-year retail adventure.
I have always had a few friends who are struggling, but that number shot up when I left corporate America to start my retail business all those years ago.
Until then, most of my friends were like peas in a pod with similar education, background and experience. That was not so in the world of small business I entered. There, everyone had a story that zigged and zagged. We bonded around the daily struggle of keeping our businesses afloat.
Some of my best connections have come from friendly acquaintances, not friends. I know that sounds odd, but there’s actually a lot of research to support the power of “loose ties” in helping us to find work/jobs, etc. And I just don’t stick with people in my age range. I let my curiosity lead, and have found common ground with people quite unlike myself.
I grew up with a dad who was a big “people person.” When my mom sent him to the store for milk, he would return with four strangers he’d met along the way. I learned from him to see what’s special about people — and that wisdom can come from anyone.