I feel a self-divide that is hard to explain to many people, much like Holly Genovese discusses in this article. Coming from a blue-collar background in a rural, poor household, even the decision to go straight to college from high school was different enough to start a schism that has only gotten wider. Both of my parents worked on factory floors until their jobs moved out of the country or the company wanted to hire younger guys at a cheaper price. My dad worked at the same place from March of the year I was born (that December) until just a few weeks before I got married in May of another year: 27 years and two months, he worked there, with differing shifts and on differing lines sometimes, but still always there. We lived anywhere from an hour to 40 minutes from this place, keeping us near family and in the same school district and county my entire life, even though he worked in a different county himself.
My dad got up early when he worked first shift (although he also worked third at times, years I remember not seeing my dad much and only recalling his tired face when I did) and his work ethic lives in me still today. You get up early and you leave early. There’s no excuse for arriving to work late, even a flat tire, so give yourself time to deal with those things on the way. If you arrive early? You just have some quiet time to yourself or to talk with others coming on- or going off-shift. It’s part of the package of keeping a job. Then one day they just lay you off “indefinitely” and you know that it isn’t a layoff like previous ones: this one is permanent, terminology be damned. Younger, cheaper guys are coming in to take your place, and you know it—but what can you do?
My mom went back to work when I was in elementary school, but she worked in closer locations: in the kitchen of a nursing home for a bit until a job at the local factory down the road opened up. It was closer and it paid a bit better, so does it matter which job you like better anyway? I became one of those fabled 80’s and 90’s latchkey kids, along with my older sister. We rode the bus for hours a day, gravel road dust pouring in the small cracks of the partially opened windows. We got to know the bus drivers really well as the last kids off the bus.
But the eye-opening realization for me comes in second grade: Mrs. Reed talks about college, like it’s an option for all of us—like maybe I could actually go. This idea takes ahold in my mind, because I prize reading and learning above all else, even above climbing a tree or rolling down a hill—even at that young age. I know that this is something I want to do, so I somehow get it into my mind that the only way to get to college is to get straight As from then on. My elementary-school-kid mind doesn’t understand what colleges are looking for, only understanding that we can’t pay for it and I need to carry this weight alone.
By the time I do begin to understand, the ideal of perfectionism is already rooted firmly in my mind. No pressure given from my parents or family members: it’s all from me. Even a small homework grade of an A- gives me the sweats, and a B+ might make me cry. My parents don’t get why I’m doing this to myself. By junior high, I know that I have to get a scholarship somewhere, or this whole thing is going to fall apart. By freshman year, I know a few places I’d like to go, but I also understand that they are out of reach. My sophomore year, I realize that public schools aren’t giving out scholarships that I’ll need really, so I start rethinking my plans, start looking at all the options.
I don’t know anything about college planning, and my guidance counselor is a joke. I know I have one shot to take the ACT, because one shot is all we can afford. I don’t know anything about potential fee waivers, because these aren’t explained or talked about. You know what else no one talked about? Application fees and how you can’t actually afford to apply to the places you really want to go, so I look for places that will give waivers if you talk to the visiting counselor. I have already had my sight set on valedictorian from second grade, thinking that this will make some sort of a difference, and this along with the great test score and my 4.0 GPA gives me the option of a couple full-tuition scholarships from small, private schools.
I’m in. I will be the first person in my entire extended family to attend and finish my bachelor’s degree, but the move to another state and the education seems to be another wedge that widens the already-started schism between me and some family members. I’m still me. I still enjoy tractor pulls and dirt-track races and a good dusty, gravel-filled backroads trip to nowhere in particular. I still like to read whatever I can get my hands on (except I can get my hands on a whole lot more now). I’m me, but they only see me rising above myself in a way that I can’t stop and I can’t retract. And I don’t know that I would if I could anyway.
Dessa, a singer and songwriter, gets this dichotomy of self and ambition. In “Fighting Fish,” she sings the following lyrics:
Around here we don’t like talk of big dreams
to stand out is a pride, a conceit
To aim high is to make waves, to split seams
but that’s not what it seems like to me, cause
I wanna try, I wanna risk
I don’t wanna walk, rather swing and miss
I’m not above apologies
but I don’t ask permission
got a lot of imperfections
but I don’t count my ambitions in ‘em
I didn’t come looking for love
I didn’t come to pick a fight
I didn’t come to wave or take pictures
pander to some benefactor, ring on every broken finger
Won’t extend my wings to be clipped
I know the culture here is to stay humble but shit
if we all go round bowed heads, button-lipped
if none of us go for the bell, then who is?
I just finished my master’s degree, and as I debated whether to announce it to family and friends, my dad told me not to. “It’d seem like you’re just trying to brag about it,” he said. I’ll admit it: it hurt to hear that. I wanted to share a success in my life: a goal I’ve had for almost 15 years now finally coming to fruition. My parents have been completely supportive, even if my mom didn’t quite understand what I was doing or why.
It’s hard to explain the feeling that washes over you at that moment, where you are so proud that you finally accomplished something you’ve wanted to do for so long, yet you feel ashamed of wanting it and of striving for it. Even though I don’t want to count my ambitions among my imperfections, I know that some of my family members do. It’s a pull in two different directions that doesn’t make sense to those who haven’t straddled two worlds.
The pull gets stronger, the chasm wider. I have fairly decent health and dental coverage through my husband’s position; my parents can’t afford true health care or even partial dental coverage. Pulling a tooth that needs a root canal is the only option, because the root canal is too costly. Meanwhile, I have terrible teeth (childhood poverty and rural living on well water waving reminder flags) having had my first root canal at age 18 and the second shortly after I married at age 26 along with various and sundry fillings. Seeing other people’s white-picket-fence-rows of stark white, straight teeth is a reminder that braces aren’t commonplace everywhere or for everyone, although people around me often talk as though it were. Hearing people complain about doing without as children and finding out they mean they didn’t always have the latest gaming system as soon as it came out is disorienting still. Adults who complain that the Coach bag they wanted was out of stock, so they had to make do with this other one that wasn’t exactly what they wanted until the other comes in is still foreign to me, even after years of being around it.
When I go home, I feel a sense of belonging that doesn’t quite fill me in other places. Yet at the same time, I feel rough edges that don’t quite fit into the place I left, like I’m a cube being ground into a sphere to fit another space and time. There are gaps and holes around me the whole time. I fall back into speech patterns with my “y’all” and my vowels more drawn out. I am more aware of money, what things cost, how it fits, what my budget allows and how it differs from my parents.
I feel guilty. I want to give something to them, but I know they wouldn’t take it. That intense pride in making do as much as you can, even if it means you might need WIC to round out your kids’ diets when they’re young, it still fills me with a fierce independence that many don’t fully understand (particularly, I think, my in-laws). We make do with what we have. Making do becomes normal again.
But it still lifts my other self’s spirits a bit to hear from my dad’s coworker that he’s been bragging on my accomplishments, my new degree. It helps to hear that he cares enough to pull this accomplishment out and show it off, even if he knows others might not totally get it. It helps a little bit to know that he supports these dreams of mine, even if they are different than the dreams he once had.
But who knows? Maybe he once had these dreams, too, but couldn’t escape the rift—or couldn’t tolerate the thought of trying to. Even today, life is different. I recently worked in a college counseling office, where I saw the world of college search open up to me even broader than before: fee waivers for testing, fee waivers for college applications, summer programs for those whose family incomes don’t quite make the cut. Maybe my dad once had similar dreams, but didn’t have a second-grade teacher who told him it was possible. In the back of my mind, I always think about making the impossible possible and seeing dreams fulfilled, and I wonder more and more as I get older about the dreams deferred in previous generations. Instead of drying up or festering or rotting and stinking or even exploding, maybe, just maybe, it moves down the line to the next generation, planting a seed, just a small kernel of an idea in a young mind until one of our own catches hold of their own dream and rides it until it breaks and becomes instead a distinct possibility.
(If you want to hear the song mentioned above, and you know you do, listen to it below!)