But when Barack started telling me about his family — that's when I knew I had found a kindred spirit, someone whose values and upbringing were so much like mine.
You see, Barack and I were both raised by families who didn't have much in the way of money or material possessions but who had given us something far more valuable — their unconditional love, their unflinching sacrifice, and the chance to go places they had never imagined for themselves.
My father was a pump operator at the city water plant, and he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when my brother and I were young.
And even as a kid, I knew there were plenty of days when he was in pain. I knew there were plenty of mornings when it was a struggle for him to simply get out of bed. But every morning, I watched my father wake up with a smile, grab his walker, prop himself up against the bathroom sink, and slowly shave and button his uniform.
And when he returned home after a long day's work, my brother and I would stand at the top of the stairs to our little apartment, patiently waiting to greet him. Watching as he reached down to lift one leg, and then the other, to slowly climb his way into our arms.
But despite these challenges, my dad hardly ever missed a day of work. He and my mom were determined to give me and my brother the kind of education they could only dream of. And when my brother and I finally made it to college, nearly all of our tuition came from student loans and grants.
But my dad still had to pay a tiny portion of that tuition himself.
And every semester, he was determined to pay that bill right on time, even taking out loans when he fell short. He was so proud to be sending his kids to college, and he made sure we never missed a registration deadline because his check was late.
You see, for my dad, that's what it meant to be a man. Like so many of us, that was the measure of his success in life — being able to earn a decent living that allowed him to support his family.
And as I got to know Barack, I realized that even though he'd grown up all the way across the country, he'd been brought up just like me.
Barack was raised by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills, and by grandparents who stepped in when she needed help.
Barack's grandmother started out as a secretary at a community bank, and she moved quickly up the ranks, but like so many women, she hit a glass ceiling.
And for years, men no more qualified than she was — men she had actually trained — were promoted up the ladder ahead of her, earning more and more money while Barack's family continued to scrape by.
But day after day, she kept on waking up at dawn to catch the bus, arriving at work before anyone else, giving her best without complaint or regret. And she would often tell Barack, 'So long as you kids do well, Bar, that's all that really matters.'
Like so many American families, our families weren't asking for much. They didn't begrudge anyone else's success or care that others had much more than they did ... In fact, they admired it. They simply believed in that fundamental American promise that, even if you don't start out with much, if you work hard and do what you're supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life for yourself and an even better life for your kids and grandkids.
That's how they raised us. That's what we learned from their example. We learned about dignity and decency — that how hard you work matters more than how much you make. That helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself.
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