The Gift of Privilege
Nantucket Essays

The Gift of Privilege

by Robert P. Barsanti

She parked her dented pickup in the loading zone for the Hy-Line. Then, she left it with her friend and her luggage. Her landscaper’s pickup truck, redolent of hydrangea and dirt, sat half in traffic, half in the loading zone while a row of cars built up behind her. The rest of us had luggage to drop off, people to bid farewell, and business to conduct. But we were stuck behind her.

After a polite few minutes allowing for good-hearted confusion, I got out of my car and started poking about. She had left her iPhone and her latte on the seat, and a large set of feathery keys dangled from the ignition.

At ten minutes, politeness ended and I opened the driver’s door. At eleven min- utes, the driver came running. She was young, she was blond, she was upset. “I had to see my friend off.”

It must be nice. It must be nice to be young and blond and absolutely sure that you can park in the middle of the street if you feel you must.

The privilege of youth is that age must make way for you. The privilege of age is to make it difficult.

The word “privilege” gets heaved about like a brick; it’s a slur that bruises, falls at your feet, and begs to be thrown back into someone’s smirking face. When you smear the word on someone, you mark them as undeserving and unaware. Good for- tune did not come from hard work, diligence, or shrewd good sense, but from luck, bias, and Daddy’s wallet. In the words of a wise woman, “it must be nice…” to have those advantages.

I think of those words a lot in June. The school year has collapsed into a heap and the students have tip-toed away and shut off their cameras. The principal has asked for my keys and will not let me back into the building until September. For my entire professional life, I have been able to take my watch off in June, drop it into the desk, and proclaim it “Summertime.” To me, June has always come with a cleans- ing breath after the grades are turned in, the flags rolled, and the doors locked. It must be nice…and it is. It means I can have a summer of beaches, boys, and beers while others scoop ice cream, drive Ubers, and listen, patiently, when the customer tells you “The wine is insufficiently chilled.”

And it must be nice to have a life on Nantucket. It must be nice to have more work than your phone can hold, get paid a king’s ransom to mow lawns and paint walls, then end the day wetting a line at Nobadeer. It must be nice to watch the sun- set over the Atlantic, with hot coals in the grill, cold beers in the ice, and something big tugging on the line. It’s a privilege to watch the boat leave. Like all privileges, it came as a result of any number of fortunate and lucky events combined with a bit of pluck, hard work, and skill.

I don’t want to admit that something other than the sweat on my brow brought me to this beach, these grilling shrimp, and this fishing line. I would like to believe that I deserve this, as if some great beneficent God had passed judgement, found me worthy, and gifted me with this evening at Nobadeer. I am sure that my blond friend near the Hy-Line feels the same way.

All of us stand on the shoulders of others. Some of them preserved much of this island so as to make it more valuable. Some fought in wars, foreign and domestic, to insure that we were not serving some tyrant or another. Some marched and organ- ized and brought the working conditions that we enjoy right now. And millions were brought and born into slavery, lived and suffered under tremendous pain, died, and carried us to this place.

On the Fourth of July, we can’t pick and choose our forebears. We can’t pretend that Washington and Jefferson did not own slaves, nor can we pretend that they didn’t show bravery, wisdom, and skill. Like ourselves, the figures of history are com- plicated, conflicted, and contested. If we have to be honest about our own American privilege, we have to be honest about the murderous, painful, and heroic past that led us to this sunset beach. The blood and treasure have long been hidden, but they remain.

The greatest privilege of being an American is not what was done in the past but what can happen in the future. We are a nation built on an idea that keeps changing and becoming a more perfect union. The privilege of age is to know what brought us here. The privilege of youth is to take us forward. To be an American is to be in a constant state of developing. We don’t know what we will be, but we know what we were.

At the high school graduation, the island conferred onto its children the privilege of Nantucket. It surrounded them with love and support, even in the fading fire of the pandemic. Speeches were given, songs were sung, and caps were flown. Then we gave them $700,000 in scholarships. Far too many of those memorial scholarships bear the names of people I knew well: Pignato, Gardner, Gordon, Diamond, Fee. All of those people believed in the promise of what America, and Nantucket, could be. They all believed in a more perfect union; not as it was, but as it would become. This money will give the young of Nantucket the privilege of attending the best schools without onerous loans and difficult decisions. It must be nice.

Privilege comes with an expectation from the dead. Silently, but constantly, they mutter “To whom much is given, much is expected.” America is always for the young. It will bend to their wishes, their commands, and their votes. They must make their country better than the one we gave them. We all have received a gift of privilege, but what matters is what we make of it.

Articles by Date from 2012