Although it didn’t feel like it, I grew up poor. My parents, at the time where migrant farm workers, typical of those found in the agriculturally rich region of the San Joaquin Valley in California. They worked long, hard hours with low wages. My siblings and I spent our elementary years bouncing between free and reduced lunch. Our parents would often buy us clothes two sizes big so that we’d be able to grow into them and thus use them longer. Most of our grocery shopping was done at Food 4 Less and the flea market.We may have struggled financially, but we had no shortage of love and affection from our parents. They did the best they could with what they had. I learned the importance of family and the value of hard work. Looking back however, their was one area were being “poor” has a distinct disadvantage. And that is in education.
In his brilliant work “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell addresses the correlation between education and family background. Essentially, wealthy families are able to provide enriching experiences to their children, increasing both their education and probability of success in the future.
It makes sense. If you come from a wealthy family, you’re able to travel, attend summer school and have a more culturally enriched childhood. Children of lower income families do not have that same opportunity. I am not saying that coming from wealth is the key to a prosperous life, but it doesn’t hurt.
So while most of my classmates (I went to a public school in a rich part of my city) where off traveling or visiting museums, I was stuck at home. The only time we traveled was to Mexico and that was only if a family member was seriously ill (ever driven for 36 hours with 5 people in a single cab truck?). As for museums or other culturally enriching experiences, if it wasn’t a school field trip, we didn’t go.
But it was precisely by staying home during one summer that allowed me to discover the greatest summer school course: UEFA Euro 96 Tournament.
The quadrennial football competition was a combination of sorts between a museum, art history and communication class rolled into one. The perfect thing for a curious, football crazed seven year old to watch during those long summer days.
My dad wanted to watch the tournament. But because of the time difference, the games would be shown during the middle of the workday. But under the supervision of a nanny (my mom worked days too during the busy season at a cannery) he entrusted me to tape the games for him.
When the tournament began, I had no idea who any of these teams where. At that age, I assumed that everyone was either Mexican or American. That’s it. As far as my seven-year-old mind was concerned, Europe didn’t exist.
From the opening game I was fascinated and enthralled. I found out about far off places like England, Switzerland and The Dutch (or as I would later come to find out, The Netherlands). I think Dutch striker Patrick Kluivert was the first black person I ever saw on television. And he was from Europe! My mind was blown. I listened attentively as the announcers discussed different strategies and history of the teams playing. The names on the back of the jerseys blew my mind. How do you say that? Why do Spain have last names like Mexicans? Is that even a letter? I’ve never seen that shit in the alphabet! I made sure to keep mental tabs of everything, so I could read more about it at my school’s library. When school resumed, of course.
The more games I watched, the more fascinated I became. I couldn’t wait for my dad to come home so I could talk about the French team with him. I think also a part of me was mad at him for not telling me that France existed. That tournament forever changed my direction in life. Funny I was only seven, but the lessons I learned that month would contribute greatly to the multicultural (I speak English, Spanish, French and some Italian) and humanistic outlook I have in life.
As time went on, my hardworking father made a wonderful career move that changed everything. We bought a new car, moved into a bigger house and got a pool. Many other changes came about, but my love and ability to learn from football never wavered. If anything it became more profound.
Fast forward 17 something years and I find myself discussing the latest Spain win with a close friend from England. Somehow, we ended up discussing the upcoming July 4th. “It’s funny mate, I didn’t even know England existed till I was like 14!” My friend laughed, as he was by now used to my self-depracting and ironic sense of humor. I smiled though, as I was really being half-serious.