It’s graduation time. Congratulations, seniors; congratulations, parents. This is one of the few formal events in life that are not over-hyped – it really is a passage from one stage of your life to another.

At least that’s what I gathered from watching my two daughters graduate. I don’t remember my own high school graduation, and not because it was a long time ago. It’s because it never happened.

Back in 1980 I was one of the millions of kids who didn’t make it to the high school finish line. To say I “dropped out” makes it sound a lot more intentional than what really happened. It’s not like I marched into the principal’s office and quit. The classes that I wasn’t going to started to bleed into each other until I wasn’t in school anymore. It was just over.

Of course, a lot happened after that. I hitchhiked around the Western states and camped out on the floor of my sister’s San Francisco apartment. I worked in restaurants, on construction sites and as a bicycle messenger.

One evening I dropped into a school building, and a few weeks later I got my GED diploma in the mail without as much as a handshake.

I don’t tell this story much. I’m not ashamed. I eventually went to college, first at a low-barrier state school and then, via transfer, at a fancy liberal arts college. After graduation I worked hard and finally got my dream job working as a newspaper reporter, where all those experiences helped me understand how people live.

But I don’t like to tell the story because it sounds like bragging. I don’t feel right taking credit for something that I had very little to do with.

We have a class system in America, and it’s just as hard to fall out of a class as it is to climb up. My parents were both college professors. It would have taken a lot more effort than I was willing to exert to drop off that track completely.

A social scientist probably could have walked through my fifth-grade classroom and come pretty close to predicting my future career. I could express my thoughts in writing and I followed the news, so it would not have been much of a stretch to guess that I would end up in journalism. I’m sure the same scientist could have predicted which of my classmates would be a teacher or a mechanic, or who would go into business or medicine.

The sociologist could have gone to another fifth-grade classroom and identified who would be a gang member, teenage mother or prisoner.

Would there have been some surprises? Sure. But a lot fewer than you would think. There are powerful forces in play.

For most of human history, your future was decided at birth. There have always been exceptions – Napoleon went from immigrant to emperor in a decade – but that’s why they are called exceptions.

America was supposed to leave that kind of class structure behind. This was the land of opportunity. Everyone could expect that they would live better than their parents if they worked hard. These days, income inequality and concentration of wealth have made that more myth than reality.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stieglitz has documented how over the last 30 years, the incomes of the bottom 90 percent of wage earners have grown by only 15 percent, while those in the top 1 percent have seen an increase of almost 150 percent, and twice that in the top 0.1 percent.

While Americans complain about high taxes and wasteful spending on the poor, the real money is being redistributed upward, leaving economic opportunity concentrated in fewer hands.

Stieglitz writes that “the life prospects of an American are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in almost any other advanced country for which there is data.”

It’s easy to miss it. Class advantage often looks like merit, especially at school. Some kids have parents who read to them and make sure they go to bed on time and have enough to eat. Some kids have parents who don’t know where they are going to sleep tonight. The only time those kids are treated equally is when the report cards go out.

Class advantage can give you straighter teeth, better health and a head start in career networking. It also can give you second chances to turn your life around. Too many people in this country don’t even get one chance.

If this sounds like a call for class warfare, good. The alternative to class conflict is class dominance, which is what we have and what could destroy America.

It’s graduation time, and I’m grateful for my second chance. Here’s hoping that this year’s class of non-graduates will get one, too.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: gregkesich


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