This campaign season's controversy about "You Didn't Build It" reminds me of a startling classroom moment I had in my first year at Southwest [Minnesota] State University.
In a freshman history seminar Prof. Duane M. Leach asked if any of us knew a "self-made man." Mine was the first hand up. My dad is a self-made man, I announced proudly.
He grew up on a farm in South Dakota. His dad kept him out of high school in the early 1930s because he needed help but couldn't afford a hired man. During that year, my dad told us later with steel in his voice, he determined that he'd never be a farmer. He wasn't.
He put himself through college with a sports scholarship and a string of jobs (bouncer in a nightclub, night watchman in a mortuary). Out of college he took a low-level job at John Morrell and Co. -- a meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls.
By the time I was a first year college student, Dad was the assistant manager of that plant (on his way to manager). He held board seats at the bank, the hospital, the Catholic high school and the United Way; he'd been Chamber of Commerce president and national vice president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce.
Leach took a moment to hear my story and to marvel with me at my dad's hard work and success. He recognized the sacrifice and discipline that such a life path had required. Then he asked me a series of questions:
Is your dad white? Is he male? Is he healthy? Was he born in the United States? Could his parents read and write?
Well, of course, I answered to each one as it slowly dawned on me that the professor was offering me a look into some advantages that dad had.
Leach didn't suggest that my dad hadn't worked hard, or that he hadn't earned his success, nor was there a hint that my dad didn't deserve his success, but he did teach me the point that President Obama was making -- albeit less elegantly -- when he said "you didn't build it."
That moment has stayed with me for nearly 50 years. It has made me a better teacher. It reminds me of my own advantages. It helps me notice how often people work really hard and still don't get ahead: bad weather, bad luck, wrong time and place, illness, accident.
It leaves me grateful, too, for the many people who have built so much. Finally, it reminds me that my own successes depend, too, on others.
Annette Atkins teaches history at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University.