When I was born my parents were teenagers, and functionally homeless. They felt lucky when they were allocated public housing in a dire and crime riddled cluster of shacks near Oyster Bay. My mother believed that ratty little duplex was key to improving their situation; it was easier to get and keep jobs once they had a place to live. From that base, they spent the next several decades working tirelessly to improve our material circumstances.
My mother enrolled me in Head Start as soon as I qualified, and compelled me to go even though I found the other children terrifying. Because she needed the free hours in her day, but for deeper reasons: she credited that program with giving me the skills I needed to be successful. Before she died I suggested that having a good mother was more important, but she disagreed. From her perspective, free basic preschool was the single factor that prepared me for anything life would bring.
When I was six our family entered a government cooperative program for low income families to build their own houses. We spent a year framing, hammering, pouring concrete, literally building a neighborhood. Sure the houses were built on wasteland, and the single shared well was often contaminated, but the houses belonged to us. And there was another bonus – the new neighborhood was on the other side of the county from our family. I started kindergarten fresh, without the reputation that followed her maiden name.
The other miraculous change that year: my mother got a full-time job in the naval shipyard, doing classified work she wasn’t allowed to talk about. Her earnings would have provided a reasonable standard of living, if I had been healthy. But I was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and she found herself in an impossible situation, because her job provided the health insurance that saved me. The bills were punishing, we were constantly on the brink of bankruptcy, and she could not take time off work to care for her sick child. I was sent to school while literally radioactive because there was nowhere else to go.
But she kept the job, and she kept our family together, and I survived. It took a couple of decades to pay off the medical debts, and the job at the shipyard was the source of that money. That is where she remained until just before her death at age 63. Her job with the Department of Defense held our little family to a high standard of conduct (unlike the criminal branches of the clan), and she set the example of how people are supposed to exist in the world. She served her country, and her family, and she expected others to do the same. When anyone complained about normal things, or even tragic things, her most common reply was boo-fucking-hoo.
From the first day of kindergarten until I graduated high school, my parents did not attend any school events. They did not meet with teachers, and they certainly did not intercede on my behalf in the long battle I waged to gain access to mainstream assimilated education. By age thirteen I knew all about Section 504, by age fifteen I had threatened lawsuits often enough I was catapulted out of remedial programs and into honors classes. My mother thought the fight was good for me. She reckoned life is hard, then you die.
What she hadn’t bet on was the fact that her efforts would encourage me to go even further. Free public education was considered good, but it was supposed to end at 18, when a smart kid could hope for a job in the shipyard or on the ferries. There was no reason to think I had any other prospects, since I too had become a functionally homeless teen parent.
It was a shock to the family that I wanted to go to college; when I finished my undergraduate degree in two years and enrolled in grad school my actions were disruptive, abhorrent, unforgivable. The choice certainly killed my marriage, and also created a terrible rift in my relationship with my mother. She didn’t like airs and graces, or fifty cent words when a nickel would do.
When I landed my first job in government I believed I was following her example, protecting my child, serving my community. But my education and litigious nature made me that worst of all things: management. And I did it without getting my hands dirty, or putting in the hours. It was insulting that I was a boss at age 22, when nobody in any generation of her family ever achieved that — or indeed wanted to. Management is the enemy, not your kin.
My relationship with this status is likewise problematic. I’m a working class woman in every particular, regardless of title or rank, and I make no effort to mask my antecedents. I don’t aspire to be middle class or even to understand what middle class people care about. They annoy me, middle class humans, with their smug assumptions and comfortable lives.
When my mother made sharp comments about my failures as a daughter I shrugged and told her it was her own fault – she set the standard, I’m just trying to live up to the example. The importance of family, service, and stability are the values she instilled. I’ve never found a better belief system.
But then my children grew up and shocked me, the way I shocked my own mother. Because my kids, though born into poverty, had a softer version, defined by a mother with an advanced education and professional aspirations. They didn’t know they were poor, because I made up elaborate games to distract them and keep them busy, and because they hardly ever went to school, and because we moved constantly.
I grew up near the town my immigrant ancestors settled in the 1890’s. The regional library was an hour away, if I could get a ride, and there was a strict limit on how many books you could borrow. Our extended family of junkies and felons were always around, demanding cash and rides and attention. School was the place I felt safe, where I could read and dream, and I resented the unnecessary (and unlawful) obstacles that were placed in my way by teachers more concerned with absences than aptitude.
In contrast, my kids traveled the world, living for long stretches in hotels in Europe, corporate housing on the west coast, the faculty club at Berkeley, student housing at CMU, in genteel squalor in Cambridge, in a cottage on the grounds of an ancient college in Oxford. We didn’t have enough money for basic things like food and clothes — but we had libraries, and museums, and parks, and countless visiting scholars arguing over the dinner table. We had careers instead of jobs.
My kids went to school largely when they could organize it themselves, which was only intermittently. The younger child did finish primary school, but the elder attended classes for perhaps two years (cumulatively) before age eighteen. My opposition to standardized childhood education is absolute: I think it was principally devised to create conformity and clerks. Good luck to anyone who tried to make my offspring normal, or make them do anything. I didn’t let them have personal computers, television, or video games — but other than that made no effort to interfere. They were not homeschooled. They just did, well, whatever.
But to me, higher education is an entirely different matter. And it is in fact possible to go to university without any preliminary work, if you are smart and work hard. I inflict this notion on everyone in my vicinity, proselytizing against K-12 and in favor of college at every opportunity. I find the weird kids and the dropouts and offer to teach them my tricks. I locate the ones who think they need permission, and spell it out.
Mostly though I debunk cultural assumptions. Not good at math? Doesn’t matter – look at my mathematician husband, a junior high dropout who never studied the subject before grad school. Family doesn’t support you? Gotta support yourself. Impostor syndrome? Easy: I agree, you’re an impostor. Fake it til you make it.
I’ve devoted hundreds of hours to helping people figure out applications, scholarships, strategy. I take them on tours, and write their recommendation letters, and provide encouragement that is perhaps at times a little too intense. If the subject of education comes up at one of my dinner parties, regular guests see my mouth open and chant Have you considered grad school?
My own kids didn’t really have a choice; their scary working class immigrant mother accepted nothing else. I had to make my own way in life and they were going to do the same whether they liked it or not. At age 18 they were either out of the house, or they were in school. If they could figure out how to support themselves, fine. If not, too bad.
Both tested my tolerance – one with serious illness (childhood cancer rendered me deeply unsympathetic to anything short of death) and one with standard doldrums (when that one turned 18 without a plan I moved to another country the very next day, leaving them behind to sort out finances the hard way – true story). No exceptions, no excuses.
They didn’t particularly want to go to university but did the calculations, failed to find jobs, and accepted their fate. I nudged, debated, and basically harassed my teenagers to apply broadly, accept the best offers, and start proper degree programs.
Imagine my surprise when the eccentric little unschooled cygnets proved to be excellent, disciplined, self-directed students. Now imagine the sheer terror I felt when I realized they were not interested in practical things like computer science or contract law. Oh no – they wanted to study anthropology and art and music.
When I was young I thought my mother wasn’t proud of me, because her reaction to my accomplishments registered as baffled. Now I look at my own children and understand how she felt.
My eldest is finishing her PhD, my youngest has a fistful of grad school offers from prestigious institutions. He is going to study opera, of all the outlandish things. I’m proud of them, but also perplexed.
How did this happen? How did I stop a cycle of poverty, abuse, and exploitation stretching back generations? How did I produce children with the intelligence and grit required to achieve at such high levels?
The answer is: I didn’t do much except survive. The real work was done by my mother, who put me in Head Start, and built a house with her own hands, and got a job at the shipyard, and never let me repay the debt caused by my cancer.
Her sacrifices are astonishing, and her presence is missed. If she were here we could sit at the kitchen table eating coffee cake and marveling over my odd children, and all the strange things they will do with their lives.