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Keeping perspective: Don’t lose sight of how lucky you are

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Opinions


Before you read this article, stop for a moment. Think about where you’ve been today. Let’s say you stopped by the Shapiro Campus Center. You can remember students roaming around, talking in groups, lounging with books and tapping at iPads. Now think again. Who did you miss?

A few days ago, I would not have thought anyone was missing from that picture. Last week, however, surveying the buzz of activity from my spot at the Campus Center Info Desk, I noticed a man carefully sweeping around the students’ feet, so as not to disturb their conversations. Moments later the janitor was called to clean up a spilled drink near the couches while students dashed off to their next activities.

After that day, I increasingly noticed the total separation between worker and student. A common sight is the janitor roaming the atrium with a trash can, picking up after students who leave in a rush. What strikes me most is the total invisibility of the janitor. One day he rolled a loud trash can through the atrium and no one looked up. Students moved aside, still engaged in conversation, but never made eye contact.

Brandeis is known for being one of the most socially conscious campuses. And in truth, I have never seen students behave in a demeaning or dismissive way toward the workers on campus. On the contrary, I believe students are generally accommodating and respectful to staff. The problem I see is the unrecognized indebtedness we owe the workers around us.

They allow us to go about our day without having to think about anything but studying and socializing. Our bathrooms are stocked and clean, our food is prepared and ready, our events are set up for us to enjoy. We are able to lounge in the atrium and discuss our classes and lives because we don’t have to worry about anything else. What a life! How lucky we are to be the ones on the couches.

What makes us different from the people who sweep around our feet? Why are you reading this newspaper between classes as opposed to sweeping it up at the end of your shift?

This injustice starts the minute we are born. I remember meeting a girl named Alicia in my high school study hall; she was filling out telemarketer applications while I was filling out college applications. We were in the same school, in the same room, yet so far apart.
I was lucky to be born into a family that values education above all else. My father left his country at the age of 26 after the Iranian Revolution. He lost all his connections, all his upbringing’s status. As far back as I can remember, he has stressed the importance of doing well in school. But I could easily have been born into Alicia’s family, with an alcoholic mother, pregnant best friend, dad who paid his daughter with vodka to babysit and a sister with fetal alcohol syndrome. In Alicia’s shoes, when would I do my homework? Who would have taken me to piano lessons, soccer games and swim meets? Who would have driven me to school at seven in the morning for math tutoring? I learned to appreciate the small and large contributions my family made to my education. From kindergarten on, students have preconceptions about how they are going to fare in school. Most of us at Brandeis have known we were going to college from the first time we heard about it. For those who have come to college without the support of strong expectations, great admiration is due.

I understand that unequal opportunities have been a real problem in this country for a long time. One cannot be faulted for a privileged upbringing. I don’t expect to solve this problem, nor do I expect it ever to be solved. So what can we do? We can be utterly thankful—thankful for our positions, thankful for our good fortune. We may not change the lives of the workers at Brandeis but we can be aware of them. We can acknowledge the debt we owe them and keep in mind the people that allow us to pursue our goals.