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Who Helped Me for No Reason

This is a very personal post.

Recently, I have had a number of people I’m close to use me as an example of someone who worked his way up to a successful career “without any help from anyone.” They like to use me as an example of why we should eliminate taxpayer-funded social programs. This argument about me is absolute baloney. I have been helped immeasurably from many people and institutions, including government, private sources, and individuals who didn’t know me.

To counter myself being used as an example in arguments, and to remind myself how lucky I am–to recall the unearned privilege I’ve enjoyed in many cases–I list some of the people and institutions who have helped me get where I’ve gotten. For these reasons and more I support government programs that help people, and I am happy to give back to the next group of people who could use the support to move ahead.

Though I acknowledge them, I do not track here some unearned social privilege I have enjoyed, such as white privilege and male privilege, meaning I was not held back by and was no doubt supported by institutional racism and institutional sexism. Instead I focus on other forms of privilege.

I track only up till the time I secured a job as a college professor. I have 20+ more years of professional experience, and assistance, since then. But I decided I didn’t want this post to go on forever.

The point of this post is not to broadcast my professional accomplishments, but to publicly acknowledge all those who assisted me in completing them. Yes, I worked hard (but not always), and I generally did the right thing (but not always), and I pretty much stayed out of trouble (but not always); however, had I not received ANY ONE of the unearned privileges I list below, I have no idea where I would be.

The number of people and institutions to which I owe my gratitude is huge, and I’m certainly forgetting many of them. Thank you. -KL

1970-1980: Pre-Kindergarten (St. Dominic’s) & Kindergarten to Eighth Grade (St. Helena’s), Bronx. NY

  • My parents paid tuition
  • Members of the local church community greatly subsidized that tuition through charitable giving, such as collections from mass
  • Clergy, especially nuns who took a vow of poverty, taught me for very little salary (if any)
  • Lay teachers, non-clergy, taught me for very small salary with very little (if anything) in the way of healthcare and retirement benefits
  • Public taxpayers supported the schools with free police, fire fighters, water, and other services

1980-1984: High School

  • I paid nothing to attend a public high school with a world-class reputation, which continues to open doors for me. I used a taxpayer-subsidized bus pass to get to school, and I enjoyed a taxpayer-supporter reduced price for lunch for at least part of my high school years.
  • The daughter of a friend of the family suggested I apply for a job at McDonalds and then served as a reference for me for the job. I held that job for 3.5 years and saved good money from it to help me with college.

1984-1988: College, Southampton College, Long Island University

  • The father of my best friend offered me summer and winter work as a custodial worker in a city high school for which I was paid a huge $11/hour) and received paid sick and vacation time. When I left McDonald’s, I made $3.45/hour.
  • I received a work-study job at college, which paid minimum wage and was financed by taxpayers through the federal government. This money helped me buy supplies and enjoy some spending money during all four years of college. I also gained valuable work experience as an admissions aid and campus tour guide.
  • I received very generous financial aid from the federal and the state government through TAP, a Regents scholarship, direct federal aid, and access to federal student loans with very reasonable interest rates. I attended a small, private college. When I graduated, I accrued about $20,000 in loans. I believe I paid about $220/month from 1989 till about 2002, when they were paid off. I could afford this without significant sacrifice, but I knew I could defer these loans if I had financial hardship, which means they didn’t cause me stress (avoidance of stress is another major privilege).
  • In my second year of college, I didn’t submit the federal financial aid form in time, and as a result was not eligible for the generous financial assistance I would have been eligible for. This was entirely my fault. I seriously explored the possibility of quitting college to join the Army. When my professors and the Admissions staff found this out, they worked with the university financial aid office to find enough funding for me to be able to stay, which is what I really wanted to do. Had I gone into the Army, it’s a good bet I’d have been involved in the Persian Gulf War, as my brother, a Marine, was.
  • My college roommates teased me incessantly about my Bronx accent to the point that I basically lost it. That lack of accent has probably given me a great deal of assistance in my profession. I can claim Bronx status without having the completely unfair social stigma that an accent might have inflicted. (This is a situation for another post altogether).
  • I was taught by professors who spent hours with me outside class to assist me in maturing and learning to be a good student (which I was not in high school), and who wrote letters of recommendation for me to get a job.
  • I benefitted from the support of a generous cooperating teacher at East Hampton High School who helped me learn the basics of teaching in a real-live high school.

1988-1992: Columbia High School, East Greenbush, NY/SUNY Albany

  • My first professional position was as a high school English teacher in upstate NY. As a public school teacher, I enjoyed a reasonable salary, job security, health benefits, paid sick time, and a host of other benefits, all courtesy of local, state, and federal taxpayers.
  • I was represented and protected by a union, which was supported by member dues from across the school district, the state (NYSUT), and the AFT.
  • I had a department chair and principal who saw the best in me, excused my many stupid mistakes, and helped me become a successful teacher, launching a career that has fulfilled me ever since.
  • I was part of a union- and taxpayer-supported mentorship program that gave me unbelievably strong support in my first year as a teacher. Yes, I paid dues, but what I received in return was far more than I could have done if I had kept that money. I have no doubt, that mentoring program is a major cause for my success as a teacher.
  • I paid $98/credit for a masters degree in English from SUNY Albany, a terrific school and degree program. Among others, I was taught by Professors Cy Knoblauch and Judith Langer, two giants in the fields of Composition-Rhetoric and English Education, respectively. Their influence continues to pay off in my career. SUNY Albany was funded more generously at that time by NY state taxpayers. This tuition was so reasonable, I was able to pay for it with my salary as a teacher while I was also supporting myself, paying off my student loans, and paying income tax.
  • My college teachers wrote me letters of recommendation that assisted me in getting into the PhD program in English at Syracuse University. Teachers are not required to write such letters, nor are they paid to do so. It’s completely voluntary.

1992-1996: Syracuse University

  • I was offered admission to the Syracuse University PhD program in English.
  • I was offered a 4-year teaching assistantship that came with the following:
    • $9,000/year salary
    • FREE tuition for earning a PhD (FREE TUITION, for simply submitting an application with a small application fee ($100 or less)!)
    • The ability to teach 3 college-level English or Writing courses per year
  • Syracuse is a private school, so the public taxpayer support was likely much lower than at SUNY Albany. So I received a PhD for free (minus fees, books, etc) thanks to the generosity of donors and administrators at Syracuse University. I went through a competitive process to receive this phenomenal opportunity, but I did NOTHING to earn this opportunity. No one got anything out of giving me this opportunity, except me.
  • I earned the PhD in 1996, and it has opened many, exciting professional doors for me. I’d never have guessed years ago what I would be doing today. I am grateful to all those who have helped me, and I will always do my best to pay it forward through my taxes, my votes, my service, and my charitable giving.


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