Letter from the heartland: Who should get the scholarship?

Dear friend,

My letters to you have spoken of the workers and the elderly, but I’ve not mentioned the young people of this area. Recently, I had an opportunity to be a part of a committee that was awarding scholarships to local students.

The interviews took place in a small meeting room at the local high school. The guidance counselor had prescreened about 15 students for us to meet and interview. She called them before us one at a time.

It was our committee’s job to ask them penetrating questions that would, hopefully, give us insight into their career plans.

Ah, there was the problem. Well, two problems actually. First, we realized very quickly that it did not take profound questions to get to know these kids a little better.

Secondly, it became quickly apparent that few of them had career plans.

Even questions such as, “What will your major be?” proved difficult for them. Most of them had few plans beyond what they would be doing with friends over the weekend.

About midway through the process, one girl came in wearing a nice business suit. That in and of itself was unusual, because most of the students had chosen to wear jeans and regular school attire.

In our small town, everyone knew her. They knew her family was not rich. They knew her mother had addiction issues. They also knew that the girl made good grades, worked 30 hours a week at a McDonald’s in a nearby town, and still managed to find time to be captain of the softball team. So she is what we would call an over-achiever.

Besides, it’s difficult having to be mother to your mother at age 17.

We asked her what her plans were, which is about as open-ended a question as you could possibly ask a young person, and her confident answer stunned us.

“I want to live in another country.”

In the silence that followed her response, I grinned and asked her why.

“Because America just isn’t working anymore.”

That’s when another member of the committee, the local elementary school principal, who knew the girl and her family well, chimed in, “What do you mean?” He leaned over the conference table towards her, eager for her response.

“I mean our system isn’t working, is it? People don’t have work. Corporations run everything. The political system’s corrupt. I want to go to a place where people care about each other.”

Stunned silence from the committee. What could they argue with, friend? She was right. Not necessarily about the moving to another country part, but she was right about the brokenness of this country. Right about how rotten our systems have grown. Right about how corporations had replaced caring.

A woman on the committee, the local bank manager, sputtered, “Well we do have our problems, but we also have a great system for fixing them. Things are getting better.”

This made the girl smile. Where we had spent most of our morning looking at kids who had no clue about the world around them and their futures, we now saw a look on this girl’s face that mirrored our smirks of, “Oh, you poor dear thing.”

In church circles, what we usually say about someone who has no clue is “Bless his heart.” It’s church-speak for “sweet moron.”

That was the look – a bless your heart look – that the girl gave the bank manager. It was an amazing moment.

The guidance counselor quickly changed the subject, and we spoke of the girl’s family for a moment before the counselor brought in the next kid.

During the discussion after the interviews of who would be awarded the scholarship, the girl’s name was not mentioned.

But she’s right.

And she said it in such a sweet and innocent way as a child can, a way that cuts to the very heart of the matter. There was nothing threatening on the surface of her words, because there was no guile behind them, no agenda.

Yet, this 17-year-old had thrown the destroyed American dream in the faces of that committee. And none of them could disagree.

Meanwhile, I hope your struggle goes well.

In solidarity,

Charlie M.

Photo: Allie/CC


Charles Millson
Charles Millson

Charlie Millson works in rural middle Tennessee with a food bank and ministers a small church. He's spent time teaching and ministering in the Memphis area and logged two years teaching in Romania, where he adopted his son, Shawn, 16 years ago. He's also the father of a 5-year-old bulldog named Bucky.