Ryan’s letter to Jack Kingston, the congressional
Republican representative for the Savannah area follows:
Dear Mr. Kingston:
My name is Ryan Wilkes, of Brooklet, Georgia. I recently graduated from Southeast Bulloch High School. I will be attending Harvard University in the Fall. Due to the financial burden that Harvard has placed on my family, I began searching for a job several weeks before graduation. After applying to twelve different places, I was finally hired by Dollar General Stores, and, with a crew of about twelve others, redecorating, restocking, and completely reorganizing the stores. This is my first time working, and it has torn the veil of naivete and arrogance I once had for the unskilled and minimun-wage earning worker. My fellow workers and I earn $5.35 an hour; I work from 8 to 5, 6, or 7 and am usually compelled to drive 120 miles roundtrip. I have heard it often said that many of the workers who work at minimum wage or twenty or so cents higher!) are teenagers. Well, of the people I work with, only 3 out of a crew of a dozen are my age. My coworkers are black and white, single and married, childless, or mothers and fathers. They work up to 8-11 hours a day, 40 works a week (it is impossible to get overtime and the high pay that would go with it) and earn a grand total of $180 a week! I know that many of these people have no special skills that would facilitate a much higher-paying profession, but many of them have graduated from high school!
I have spoken to them about many of the issues facing middle-class America, but these people are spread so thin from the arduous life they lead that they have little time for political discussion–and we both know that their political (or shall I put it as electoral) malaise and lack of voting participation are the reasons they are in the economically abysmal rut in which they are drowning. I’ve spoken to them about retirement; they fear that social security will not be there in their old age–and their fear is genuine, for who can save for retirement on $180 a week. Some of the mothers whom I spoke to are over 40 and have no savings!
America is the richest nation in the world, and the best that our representatives can do for the incredibly hard-working, dignified, and competent working class of America is $180 a week? It’s an outrage, in my opinion. How many countless people are slaving away for such wages, how many parents work 40 hours a week and then come home to take care of the children–to cook, clean, mentor, guide, and heal the future of America–and are rewarded for their hard work with a measely, insulting $180.
Mr. Kingston, you have a responsibility to the people of your district to try to improve their standard of living, to protect them from the exploitative companies who would pay even less if they could do it with
impunity. I urge you, I plead with all the integrity you possess, to help the working class of America make a decent living and receive a more just compensation for the many days of their lives spent working in order to stretch the ends until they meet. Please significantly raise the minimum wage.
August 28, 2000
New York City
It’s that time of the year again. Almost time to stop wearing white sleeveless T-shirts. I have already gone several times into the office at my college to write syllabi and prepare for classes, commencing next week. Being a non-tenured and allegedly part-time college professor (a member of what I think of as the lumpenfaculty), I have already started teaching developmental psychology at a local private college of Nursing where most of my students are immigrants from the Caribbean with one or two from India and Pakistan. The lifespan developmental stages of late, late post-industrialist capitalist societies – prenatal, infancy/toddlerhood, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood and late adulthood are as much processes and products of culture as class, with even these two categories inextricably bound together. As I review their submissions from their first assignment, I am once again vulnerable, as I am every semester, to their early childhood memories transported across the seas and skies from Jamaica or Haiti, their crosscultural sensitivities, their economic tribulations, their determination to snatch a future from the City that fulfils dreams nearly as easily as it shatters them.
For me, it is an overriding sense of the inequities of US society that prevails at such times. America proclaims its freedom to the world. But when you live on the inside, you may occasionally or continually be struck by the notion that in America freedom includes the freedom to be unfair, unjust, inequitable. The fabled economic boom of the Clinton years continues. But in the cracks and behind the lattices of rampant capitalism are other stories. The National Center for Children in Poverty released a report last month that states poverty rates among children are higher than 1979 levels. That means twenty years later, more children are poor in the United States. Forty-four million of Americans are uninsured for healthcare, a figure higher than ten years ago. America’s vaunted universities are largely staffed by faculty who, when the hours are totaled up, are paid little better than burger flippers. Of course burger flippers should be paid more and not be terrified to fall ill.
Recently I had several emails from Ryan Wilkes, a young friend from Georgia. All legs and eyes, a dancer and a poet, solemn and passionate, Ryan not yet eighteen, is headed for Harvard this fall as an entering freshman. He addresses many of the concerns that I have mentioned above. I have chosen not chose not to edit his letters but merely to place them together. They seem to capture the essence of what Erik Erikson called ‘ethical capacity’ in youth. He writes:
What fools we all were! We complained every day about school, expressed every day our boredom with our classes, and exclaimed every day how eager we were for graduation — so we could enter the wonderful world of work!
What prodigious naivete! I’m working at Dollar General, which is a discount goods store. We’re going to various stores and reorganizing them. Last week, we worked at a store in Sylvania–60 miles away, and the stockroom was up two flights of stairs! I carried heavy boxes up and down for 3 hours, then tables, and my glamorous duties have entailed stacking box fans and mason jars!
I told everyone at work that I’ll never vote Republican! The minimum wage should be raised to $8 an hour! I never really realized how hard it is to make it if you don’t have skills. A lot of the people I’m working with have children, and they slave away and take home about $175 a week. How can people live on it?
Wednesday, we went to a luncheon at the Hyatt for recognition of my scholarship. I got to rub elbows with Gulf Stream millionaires. Actually, I think the hard workers I’ve been sweating with recently have set a high standard, in terms of integrity. These millionaires were, at the very least, quite a bore.
I read Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street.” It made me so angry at conventional America because I could see how they were slowing destroying all the eccentric beauty of the female protagonist. It was also very
intriguing to me because I thought of how biting a criticism it was of 1910-1920’s America–so unlike the romanticized reminiscences that people form fifty years later and bore their grandchildren with.
I also read a lot of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry and found it quite beautiful and eclectic. Currently, I an reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night.” He is an amazing writer; the story is written
so smoothly and meticulously detailed in such a serene manner–then the previously placid river becomes great, churning rapids of passion and distress. It’s so easy to read, I sort of float in it for long
periods of time–when suddenly he writes a sentence or paragraph that catapaults me into that strange realm where the human condition becomes a thing of such striking beauty that the intellect must help the aesthetic sense sort it out into something comprehensible–but those first, dizzy moments of awe at the darkness and brightness of humanity are so intoxicating, so difficult to articulate.
My novel is proceeding rather smoothly. The main problem is how tiring work is. When I come home, I feel too tired to write, but I had the weekend off and wrote a good bit. How did your trip to India go? Tell me all about it!
I wrote a letter to Coverdell, Kingston and Cleland (my district’s rep. and the Georgian Senators) expressing my views about the plight of the people with whom I work–Would you like to read it?