Eighth Grade’s No Longer Good Enough

9 Aug

When my grandmother was 14, she finished school, at eighth grade. Her mother had just died of tuberculosis, and being the only child on a farm her hands were needed for work. Two years later, she got married, and at the age of 17 she had her first of seven children.

I was thinking about my grandmother’s reality, and fully realizing how different it is from my own. There’s a picture of her at 16, with my grandfather, beside an old Model-T. It was the 1930s, and they look a lot like Bonnie and Clyde. Somewhat rakish, and definitely adventurous. Grandma had attitude.

And she also had substance. If she’d been born more recently, my grandmother would have earned her Ph.D. She was a very smart woman–intellectual, despite a humble upbringing and spending most of her life raising children and working in the house. After they were all grown up, she began researching the family genealogy and contacted people from around the world to piece it together. She did extensive research at the OSU libraries during the early 1960s, sifting through county records without the benefit of digitized information.

Grandma also had an incredible imagination and was known for her detailed stories about her family’s history in the Salt Creek Valley, along the border of Ross and Vinton Counties in Southeast Ohio. All of the stories had elements of truth, along with varying degrees of embellishment depending upon the day. They held nuggets of family history, but they also made for good entertainment. There’s a volume that my aunts put together, after transcribing hours of Grandma’s storytelling, and it’s more than 100 pages. I had the pleasure of reading from it as part of her eulogy when she passed a few years ago.

None of Grandma’s children, my aunts and uncles, went to college. In fact, neither of my parents did, but since I loved school they encouraged me to do well there and always made it clear they’d find a way to support me in earning a degree. Which they did, and not without difficulty. My mother has always been a reader, and my dad has a lot of my grandma’s innate intellectualism (with lots of blue-collar flair). They provided me with the self-confidence and resources to “make it.”

The difference between my life and my grandmother’s has to do with EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY AND AN ETHIC OF SELF-SUFFICIENCY. If her family hadn’t lost it all in the Great Depression (i.e., if they’d had anything to fall back on), if she’d married and had children later in life (i.e., birth control) , she’d have finished high school. And perhaps those additional four years of education would have given her the springboard to support one or more of her kids in going to college.

It’s very clear to me, having this reality just two generations behind me, that opportunity for success is not something easily accessible to everyone. So often, it requires several generations of success to launch new generations up to a certain level of affluence. Even if there is a chance to make disruptive change from poverty, in circumstances where resources are scarce there’s a strong encouragement to take care of others (like my grandmother did) rather than oneself. Or to achieve less success than you could find for yourself, by bringing up others with you along the way.

This is why I have to laugh when I hear people talking about how in America you can go as far as you want to go. Yes, it’s true that here there is the freedom as an individual to make great progress,  more so than in any other country, but there’s a cost to it. Not everyone is willing to leave behind responsibilities to support family members needing help. It’s much easier for some than others to have that single-minded focus on success. You have to be able to afford it, in terms of money and social norms. In a way, it’s about being able to afford being selfish. That’s what we aspire to, as Americans. (Is this a good thing?)

I often wonder why people in my demographic buy luxury cars (even if used) for their teenagers and don’t ever expect them to get jobs. Is success as easy as simply wanting it? Are we raising a generation that doesn’t know how to work hard, just to be able to drive a beater car? Or even–gasp–pay for gas to drive the parents’ car?

Not everyone in the “upwardly mobile” set in America is (a) selfless enough or (b) self-sufficient enough to be able to truly make it on their own. Even when upper middle-class kids work in high school and college, typically it’s to pay for extras (going out) and not to contribute to the overall resources of a larger family. Their families pay for their tuition, food, clothing and other necessities, keeping them from truly knowing what it means to sacrifice and make their own way.

So when I read stories like this one, from the thoughtful Atlantic (September 2011 issue), I wonder what level of education my kids will have to attain in order to be successful. Is the middle class truly doomed? That’s a lot of people, just like my own family. It’s interesting to see how distanced we’re becoming from the upper class in terms of earning power, despite higher education.

And, I wonder, will this next generation define success in other terms, not related to money or affluence, but instead related to happiness and personal/community fulfillment? Was the platform that my grandmother created for me destined to help a new generation to hit the reset button on what it means to “go far?” Will hitting an economic flat-line have a more positive effect on our overall well-being?

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