My friend was talking to her son, who is 20, when he blurted out a secret half as old as he. It was the explanation for his ambivalence toward success. It began, he said, in his early school years, when a fifth-grade teacher questioned whether he had really written the outstanding essay he'd turned in about the life of squirrels. It ended when the teacher gave him a grade that clearly showed she did not believe the boy's outraged denials of plagiarism.
Because the young man is black and the teacher is white, and because such incidents had happened before, he arrived at a youthful solution: "I never tried again," he recently told his mother, who had suffered misery as her son's grades had plummeted and his interest in school had waned. He had sold himself short because he was humiliated.
Today he reads the classics but has only a high school diploma; today he can finally articulate his feelings. Today he feels he was manipulated by society not to achieve, and feels he has been tricked into lowering his performance. He is furious that he blocked his own talents.
As my distraught friend recounted this disturbing episode, we looked at each other and grimaced. Each of us know people of her son's generation, and of our own, who are ambivalent about success.
But mixed messages about success are B not transmitted only when the teacher and the student come in different colors. The black teacher who wants to disassociate herself from her poorer students may punish them with criticism. The thoughtless teacher can leave her charges with the feeling that they can't succeed.
I know teachers who have told their pupils that they would never be more than garbagemen. I have heard mothers, already defeated by the system, condemn their offspring to a similar fate.
The messages about success to our generation seemed contradictory. Our elders told us we must be twice as good to go half as far, but they taught us also to be modest. ("Don't get the big head, don't blow your own horn.") They reasoned that pushy blacks with healthy egos would not go far in a white male world.
I have an acquaintance who is a personnel director, and she is struck by how few of their achievements blacks note on their resumes. She is appalled that so little of their lives, in their views, deserve notice. It is the "I-don't-want- to-brag" syndrome at work, the subliminal parental warning surfacing: If a black person is too smart and brash he will be distrusted and feared.
There is a reality behind the cautiousness of the elders. Without being told, they knew that social class, sex and race play far greater roles than individual intelligence or effort in determining success in American society. Now, it is apparent that the social reforms of the past two decades paid little more than lip service to true equal opportunity; our elders knew this instinctively. They knew that our society was structured so that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, and while they pushed us toward avenues of advancement like education, they cautioned that we would go only so far.
Their admonitions to work hard and keep a low profile communicated an ambivalence toward success. And progress often has been lopsided. I have seen friends come near to success, then sabotage themselves. I know people who so fear success that they never take a risk. I know businessmen who were afraid to expand for no reason other than fear of failure--even before the economy hit the skids.
It is an ambivalence some white women also share. Society still pressures them to be decorative and passive. Society still dictates that to be successful is to be unfeminine.
My friend and her son, then, both have mixed feelings about success. But there is a significant gulf in attitude between them. The son had no childhood poverty to make him yearn to escape. He needed motivation in order to soar, and when he received scorn instead, he retreated in defeat.
So we must teach our children to get the rewards from themselves, from the joy of accomplishment. We must show them how to reward themselves and not be so dependent on others for approval. We must not be so busy sheltering them from hurt that we fail to prepare them for life's punishments. We must dare them to be as good as they can be.