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7 One True Thing

with 4 comments

This is number 7 in a series. If you want to read the entire series, scroll down until you reach number 1.

For several years after Bill died, I taught part time in a program designed to prepare students from very bad high schools to handle college work, and therefore—at least theoretically—make it possible for them to stay the four year course and eventually graduate.

Most of the students in this program were from high schools in inner city New York and Philadelphia, which meant I was frequently teaching sections whose students were entirely African-American. Some years later, when the whole “white privilege” thing became a cultural obsession, I would end up getting VERY low “privilege” scores because, among other things, I HAVE been required to be in places where I was the only person of my race in the room.

But this is not about that, exactly. If you want to debate “white privilege,” there are hundreds of places on the Web that will be happy to let you do it.

What I’m getting at here is twofold: something I read, and something I’ve learned about myself.

The thing I read is called Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, a memoir about growing up dirt poor in Appalachia.

What I’ve learned about myself is somewhat more complicated, but I’ll get to it.

Hillbilly Elegy was an extremely weird experience for me. Before I read it, I read dozens of comments about it on my Facebook feed.

Those comments had a few things in common. They were almost universally written by people who were, like me, middle class white girls. In other words, the people commenting had never directly experienced the kind of life the book described. To the extent that the commentators knew anything at all about the life described, they knew it either entirely ideologically, or they knew it second hand, by working with the “target population” as teachers or social workers or other members of the “helping professions.”

The comments were also almost universally negative. Vance, I was told, “didn’t understand the context” of these people’s lives—interesting, since Vance had actually LIVED the context, as the commentators hadn’t.

And Vance’s big sin was to insist that the failure, degradation and poverty he saw all around him was at least as much the fault of the conscious decisions his family made as it was of any outside forces.

By the way, as an aside—Hillbilly Elegy is the third memoir I’ve read by somebody who grew up in extreme poverty. All three of them insist that the poverty was largely the result of decisions, not circumstances.

But that’s another discussion, too.

What made Hillbilly Elegy such an odd experience for me was that it was all too familiar. The culture it described—the chaos, the violence, the drugs and alcohol, the long stretches of joblessness, the periodic descents into near starvation—was exactly what I had had to wade into with my inner city kids.

One group was black and one was white.  One group was urban and one was rural. One group founded formal gangs and the other embedded itself in complicated webs of biological kinship. It didn’t matter.

When I was still teaching in the program, I would get asked what I thought was the biggest obstacle to my kids’ success in academia. My answer was always the same, and would be the same today: disorganization and passivity.

The disorganization is so endemic as to be bewildering to anybody who hasn’t grown up in it. Most of us don’t realize how organized we really are. Culturally middle class families instill organization in their children automatically. There is a time to get up and a routine—take a shower, brush your teeth,  get dressed, eat breakfast. There are scheduled events throughout the day, school or work or church or Scouts or team practice. There is rhythm and regularity. There is predictability.

If you haven’t been taught this kind of rhythm and regularity, if you haven’t incorporated it into your very blood and skin and bone, you’re going to have a very hard time getting anything done. Showing up to class on time, or at all? Finishing your homework and handing it in on deadline?

The passivity goes at least as deep, and maybe deeper.  It is the deep seated, almost ineradicable conviction that whatever is going wrong in your life is not your fault, and nothing you can do will ever make it any better.

Both my kids and J.D. Vance’s family exhibited both these traits is extreme forms.

And that’s what brings me to the thing I learned about me.

My father used to have this thing he said, over and over again, in my childhood and adolescence: if something goes wrong, you better hope to hell that it’s your fault. If it’s your fault, you can fix it. If it isn’t, you’re just plain screwed.

I’ve got more reason than most people to accept the inevitability and importance of luck. I know all about circumstances beyond our control. I know that we can’t always overcome obstacles or even affect our circumstances. Neither people, nor life, is perfectible.

But.

I also know that to the extent that I have accomplished anything in my life, it’s been because I have put that knowledge aside and convinced myself that my choices matter, that they make a difference, that they (and not some shadowy something or somebody out there) will determine the outcome.

The Franciscans have a saying: pray as if it all depends on God; work as if it all depends on you.

There’s one true thing.

 

Written by janeh

May 15th, 2018 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to '7 One True Thing'

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  1. The Franciscans are right, of course. I have even known Methodists to say the same thing.

    The reviewers. Keep in mind that there are entire academic disciplines which would sink faster than the Titanic if they ever admitted that living through something trumped academic understanding of the same thing.

    The kids. I think I could name at least one of those other books–Glass House? And in the academic world, Bancroft and Murray have said something similar. The end of the draft probably didn’t help. Apart from the experience of meeting people from wildly different backgrounds and finding out that other people thought and behaved differently without being fools or devils, all militaries everywhere hate disorganization, and modern militaries hate passivity. They probably changed the lives of a lot of kids between 1940 and 1973.

    But what we do now, I do not know.

    robert_piepenbrink

    15 May 18 at 6:32 pm

  2. The one we got as kids was “God helps those who help themselves”.

    What we do now? Nobody knows, but any truly promising initiative will be seen as a threat to some powerful people’s gravy train and will be stillborn.

    Hillbilly Elegy was a great book.

    Mique

    15 May 18 at 7:17 pm

  3. Don’t give up hope, Mique. Nothing last forever, good or bad. I think we’ll be a long time getting rid of rule by fussy contradictory detail, because that’s where the political class gets its money, but they might at some point throw the welfare bureaucrats under the bus.

    robert_piepenbrink

    16 May 18 at 8:36 pm

  4. I was going to post a note to 5, I think, the “poor little Jane” one, and I think this one has some connected ideas. I tend to (1) not share everything for fear of exposing myself and becoming “poor little Cheryl” and (2) mentioning some such events in my life to hit at the fear of others’ responses. And one comment I did get at a time in the past when things were really bad was “you really don’t like being called a victim, do you?” No, I don’t. Being stuck into that little box feels like a removal of my agency, my ability to respond to and deal with the situation. And sometimes I’ve responded very badly, and sometimes I’ve had to accept that I can’t change whatever it was that could have made me a victim, but I’m not going to wallow in victimhood and wait for rescue.

    And just to add a detail – I also had a diagnosis of breast cancer a few months back – stage 2 and an excellent prognosis, so not really comparable to your situation, but I was initially tempted not to mention it to anyone – and decided, why bother? I don’t need to waste my mental energy on pretending nothing’s going on.

    Cheryl

    6 Jun 18 at 6:19 pm

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