It is a truth, perhaps not universally acknowledged, that a large percentage of college instructors come from middle-and lower-middle-class families of industrial workers, construction workers, hard-scrabble farmers, farm workers, and other blue-collar employees. I am one of them. Like a great many people I have met in my line of work, I chose a profession that offered a moderate but secure income and a modicum of status—two things that I did not grow up with; like many of my colleagues, I followed the ideal of humanistic education rather than the lure of material success.
What troubles me about my profession is that too many of my colleagues have become dissatisfied with their own condition. After five or ten years, perhaps the idealism and novelty wear off, and these people find themselves in a static system—they see themselves as having little chance for advancement other than routine raises, as being overworked and underpaid for dealing with unmotivated students, and as being unappreciated by parsimonious taxpayers. Restless in what they once thought was an enviable position, they turn to the various politics of the profession, or they cultivate sideline incomes.
Maybe they don’t want to look back, maybe they are too preoccupied to do so, or maybe they do not have a clear idea of how the other half lives. But the result is that many instructors forget that other people also have aspirations, conflicts, hesitancies, and feelings of inadequacy. I hope I never lose sight of that. I have some vivid memories to help me.
I grew up poor, without much of a sense of how much better or worse off other people were. I knew that we were poor because there were many things my father couldn’t afford. He told us so when we asked for them. I also knew from indications. We charged our groceries in a little country store; my father often waited in the car (we had no mother), and the grocer was too polite to badger children about the bill. My brothers and I typically had shirts and jackets with holes in them. We wore shoes with floppy soles. Our pants might have holes in the knees, and on the school bus into town, I would take out my pocketknife and scrape the dirt from my jeans. Beneath our jeans, undershorts hung in tatters.
The principal of our school was a benevolent man. He arranged free lunches for us, in the days before free lunches. Occasionally a poor kid, who had been wearing broken-down shoes for a while, would go uptown with Mr. Burchfield and come back with a new pair. When my father expressed his humility, Mr. Burchfield explained that for this purpose he received contributions from affluent farmers.
All the way through school, my brothers and I worked to help support the family. In grade school we raised animals, delivered newspapers, and sorted soda pop bottles. The bottle sorting was in the days before throw-away bottles, when bottles would accumulate in heaps behind a nearby super market (we had moved closer to town by then). On frosty mornings, with gloves received on credit, we would stoop, sort, and stack until we were done, perhaps by early afternoon. Then the manager would figure our wage and deduct it from the grocery bill.
In high school we worked in the crops, hoeing weeds or picking fruit and vegetables after school, on weekends, and during endless summers. For the last thirty days of summer, ten or twelve hours a day in sweltering heat, we would pick prunes so we could buy school clothes.
I doubt that our teachers and principals knew that we might wash our few clothes by hand between trips to the laundromat, that we sometimes had no hot water, that we slept in a room with a broken window. But they knew that things were not easy at our house, and they encouraged us all the more to do well in school. Education, at least for poor whites in rural America, was truly democratic. There we were equal in opportunity, and we had a refuge from the socio-economic realities of home. The public school system, despite its occasional invasion of privacy, was (and I hope still is) a positive influence in the lives of the less privileged.
When I went to college, no one knew me or my background, and I was glad to have learned self-sufficiency. In addition to financial aid (I qualified easily), I picked up odd jobs. I lived on potatoes for a while, noodles for a while; in less lean times I feasted on the cheaper meats such as chicken gizzards, beef kidney, and beef tongue. I usually lived in relative solitude, renting rooms with kitchen privileges, from divorced schoolteachers.
Whereas in my undergraduate years I learned to get along in an impersonal, apathetic environment, in graduate school I learned to make my way through a system infested with callousness, jealousy, and strange urges for power. I saw how professors used condescension to keep grad students in place, and I saw how they used power—the power to promote or block careers—to reward sycophants and punish recalcitrants. On some occasions, I saw talented people wash out while comparative morons got advanced degrees, largely because some professors, unlike the public school teachers I had known, could not see beyond the importance of their own little domains.
Graduate school prepared me for the job market, where I encountered more apathy and condescension. I cannot count the times I was treated with slight courtesy in form-letter rejections, in perfunctory interviews, and in evaluation during part-time and limited-term employment. I often felt as if I was seen as an inferior or incomplete person because I did not have a job or because I did not have a full-time career job. Perhaps those who do the interviewing and evaluating feel that too many people are pounding on their doors, hungering for their jobs. Perhaps they just have a hard time imagining what people in less secure positions think and feel like.
Four years at a full-time career job, at a school with humane personnel practices and no tenure paranoia, have not softened me into complacency and forgetfulness. When I was growing up, I always told myself I would remember what it was like to be down and out. When I was in graduate school, I swore that I would remember how a student feels when a teacher wields his power. When I was on the grub-line of part-time and revolving-door jobs, I knew I would not forget the anxiety of having a career at stake.
As I meet people in my line of work—students who may look shabby or frightened or out of touch, students who have difficulty with teachers’ authority, or people who are trying to put a career together—as I meet these people, and as I hear my colleagues complain about salaries and working conditions, I hope that I may continue to remember where I have come from and what it would be like if the shoe was still on the other foot.
I wrote this piece almost thirty-five years ago, when I was young at the academic job I still hold and value. I submitted it to a writing contest and won a small award. As I look at it now, I find very little that has changed in my way of thinking about my upbringing and about the value of remembering where we come from. It is nice to review how we have put down our ideas in an earlier phase of life, and it is good to be able to continue to remember.