Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I encouraged working-class college applicants to share their experiences and challenge discriminatory practices. I guess I should start things off by describing my own background and education.

In my family, college wasn’t considered an option. My parents were manual laborers, like their parents and grandparents. Of all those ancestors, only one, my mother, finished high school. Only one of my grandparents finished elementary school.

There were two children in the home, me and a younger brother. During the 1970s, my family’s economic circumstances were at their peak. My parents had moved to California from Maryland in the ’60s and they both had union jobs.

We lived in a one-story house in Orange County. Wages were high enough and housing prices low enough that a couple with a typical working-class income could afford a nice, modest house, at least in inland areas. It’s not like that anymore.

For us, it was barely like that then. My parents were always wasteful with money. My father believed that prosperity was measured in cars. If you had multiple expensive cars, especially vintage Chevrolet sports cars, you were king. Debt, high mortgage payments, shabby clothes on your kids—those didn’t matter. Just make sure the kids do a good job washing and waxing the vehicles.

The public schools were good, especially before the effects of Proposition 13 kicked in. I was intellectually curious, but not a good student. My parents never told me the importance of education. They expected that I would attend school as long as it was free and legally required, then get a job. And when I looked at my parents, I saw that they had relatively good pay despite being largely uneducated. I had no idea that the egalitarian economy of mid-20th-century America was on its way out.

For my part, I didn’t like school. I was a scared kid. My parents abused me physically and I responded to bullying and other problems by withdrawing. Religious fundamentalism provided the motivation for many of the beatings and crazed parental outbursts. My mother belonged to an extreme evangelical sect called Free Holiness, and she saw any childlike unruliness as a plot engineered by the devil.

At the time, I internalized her fear of hellfire, and of the apocalypse she thought imminent. I also absorbed the racism that both parents taught me. My mother had grown up in segregated schools in Tennessee, pre-Brown, and had never really taken to integration. Both parents said that “Mexicans and Orientals” were taking over our country, and I figured they must be right. Looking back, I regret being so easily cowed by bullies (starting with my parents) and failing to reach for the learning, friendship, and enjoyment that were available at school.

Late in high school, I actually started enjoying classes, especially history and civics. I wanted to go to college and learn more, but had no concept what that entailed. After graduation, I took some community-college classes and did a lot better than I had in high school. I wanted to continue.

That was when my parents decided to move us to my mother’s native Appalachia. We were reverse Joads, fleeing relative prosperity in California. My mother terribly missed her (mostly evil) relatives and was sure that the Almighty was going to smite California because of all the sodomites, Hollywood sinners, and Catholic immigrants from Mexico.

So we moved to Tennessee, where the economy was dire and low-wage. My parents gave no thought to what they would do for work, what would become of their sons, anything really, all because Jesus would provide. We met many great people, but they all struggled economically. Welcome to the underclass.

We got by on the money my parents made by selling the house in California, plus some savings and the proceeds of labor provided by yours truly. For a while, I was the only one working. I had multiple part-time jobs and some of them were off the grid. My old man knew someone who paid cash for chopping firewood, clearing land, moving rock. I gave the money to my con-man father, who told me not to tell the others.

He insisted that we were beset by nothing worse than short-term liquidity problems. He had “pension stock” that he couldn’t sell at the moment, or other pools of wealth that he had to wait to access. Also, he was going to make a fortune off old Chevy cars that he always bought but never seemed to sell. When I saw The King of Marvin Gardens years later, I saw a lot of my father in the character of Jason Staebler, played by Bruce Dern. But when I was young, I accepted my dad’s lies and delusions for longer than I should have. Writing about my parents now, I am again amazed that I did not irrevocably sever ties with them until just a few years ago.

I alternated work with classes at UNC-Asheville. I had originally planned to live on campus, before I knew about our “liquidity problems.” I arranged my schedule to be entirely made up of Tuesday-Thursday classes, so I could commute from home and work as needed on other days. I was an A/B student. I could have done better, but I was frequently tired from work. Also, I increasingly worried that I would never get to graduate. The money would run out and I’d need to work all the time.

I had learned enough about college to realize the importance of going to a highly rated institution, if possible. I decided to take a last shot at that dream with a round of applications in the fall of 1988. The following March, I got admitted to the University of Virginia and was granted a mix of scholarships and loans. My parents finally got jobs—awful ones, but they got them. I would be able to enroll.

When I was in California, I had been too crippled by my bizarre home life—and my own wrongheaded responses to problems—to take advantage of educational opportunities. Going to Charlottesville on Greyhound, I was determined to make up for that.