Friday, January 20, 2006

Country Boys

Before we left for our business/pleasure trip to a state where the sun actually shines in the winter, we were busy girls. One of the things you might remember that was on the agenda was to take down the Christmas tree, which actually did get done. While dismantling the holiday home, we put on the boob tube, and watched the Frontline documentary, Country Boys. Apparently the whole thing is available to watch online, and if you missed it on the television, I highly recommend it.

The story of the two boys, Cody and Chris, profiled in the documentary has stayed with me. I didn't get to watch the conclusion of this documentary until last night, and there were a lot of tears. I ended up feeling more connected to Chris than Cody, but both boys have had an enormous amount of struggle in their young lives. Something about Chris though touched me. He lived in a mobile home on some land with his mother, two siblings, grandmother, and alcoholic father. No one seemed particularly invested in his education-- other than to keep him in school so they would continue to get his SSI check. But Chris was/is smart. He had a real spirit about him that I was just drawn to. A little awkward, sure, but I found myself just wanting to go get him, take him into our home, and give him a little love. Help him out in school by pushing him a little.

I read some of the comments on the Frontline website that people had sent to Chris, and more than one person identified with him because their own life stories were so similar. Mine couldn't be more different. He grew up in rural poverty in Appalachia. I grew up in suburban splendor in one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country (which also has its perils-- Over here, Melissa has actually written about this before.) My parents were very invested in the education of their children. I mostly let them down, not caring particularly about grades until I was in college. But my parents did every thing within their power to try and get me to succeed in school. Any amount of money would be outlaid in their (thwarted) attempts to get me to care about school. If I had been in Chris's situation, at that age, I am not sure I would have persevered as he did.

At least once a year, we have an argument at a family function that is rooted in our very different opinions about socio-economics. My father (and mother, truth be told) are very much people who believe in "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." I suppose to some degree, I agree with that, but what we usually fight about is the fact that for some people it's just harder than for others. My father put himself through school, and certainly my family struggled when I was a young child. But the fact is, my father was the child of a PhD in chemistry. Even if his parents were disinterested at points, there was a certain privilege in his upbringing that someone like Chris just did not have. (This argument usually segues into a discussion regarding "the garbageman" which no one in my family seems to appreciate as much as Partner and me. Somehow my family, who I love very much, esteems the doctor and lawyer [well, maybe not lawyer] more than the garbageman and Partner and I are always arguing that every one of the people doing jobs like that are essential for the functioning of society. Education does not in and of itself make you an inherently better person than the uneducated. To think otherwise is academic snobbery. Do I think education helps people? Enriches lives? Of course I do! I am a teacher, for fucks sake! But I don't think my almost PhD makes me "better" than Chris with his GED.)

When we were watching this show, I just kept thinking of how I wanted to drive down to Kentucky and find Chris and bring home with us-- I just wanted to get this boy and show him how he could be loved. And tell him he was smart. And even though we're feeling pretty close to the bone monetarily lately, I can't help thinking I want to do something to help him out. This kid needs to be in college.

The very real and endemic poverty present in this country-- how can people ignore it so blatantly? It's in front of us every where. Wednesday night when Partner and I were driving home from our really hard class (known after this as RHC 101) I mentioned that I would really like if we were more flush and could just go out and order dinner in instead of cooking something at 10:00 at night. She agreed. Mind you, we had dinner out the night before from expensive-but-yummy local deli. Before that we had a series of pricey Orlando dinners (is anything cheap in that town?). We aren't poor like this kid, his family, and those living around him. We don't even know anything remotely like it. And our families wouldn't let us know that either. I am struck that one of the major differences between us is the family involvement in our lives. Beyond the monetary poverty, the poverty in family that this young man had deeply saddens me. I've long known that while my family can be incredibly overwhelming at times, they are the biggest blessing in my life. I wish I could give Chris some of that love and support because he so desperately wants that in his life.

Who's poor? Not me. Not me at all-- in any sense of the word. I have an amazingly supportive family. My brothers, my parents, even Partner's family-- it's quite a network. I have some pretty incredible friends too. After watching this documentary, it made me refocus on these positive things and get some perspective. It also made me really start to evaluate what I am doing about poverty in this country-- the monetary poverty and otherwise alike. I don't want to discount the prayers, but I think I need to do something more than that. I'm not sure what it is yet, and I'm not sure if ultimately our RHC 101 will help me do something more, but there has to be something, and I'm going to find it.


Anonymous MFA Mama said...

Oh, man. I soooo know where you're coming from. I grew up below the poverty line, but my parents were a PhD/Child Psychologist and an nurse midwife, and that is really different from the way even my husband grew up, right at the poverty line probably but the son of a kindergarten teacher's aid and a door man with a high school education and a fifth-grade education, respectively.
I have not seen "Country Boys;" I never get to watch TV anymore.
I'm so glad you're back. It gives me something to read when I'm (not) grading freshman papers. I'm so behind in my grading it's not even funny. Sigh.

11:55 AM  
Blogger LilySea said...

We were absolutely glued to that series--it was great, really.

And Cole's family is from a very similar region (coal country, West Va) so it hit close to home for us.

11:56 AM  
Blogger PortLairge said...

I have bookmarked that page and will definitely watch. My Dad worked two jobs when I was growing up so that my Mam could stay home. We wanted for nothing but we weren't too spoiled. I work with a person who believes in small government and every one for themselves type of mentality, which is fine if you are already rich. I agree with you, some people just need more help. In this country, our public school teachers are paid a pittance, why- because the rich people can afford to send their children to private school( I feel a post coming on). Fuck the education of the poor people, keep them down- they'll continue to vote for the Republicans if you keep them below the poverty line and deny them an education. Teachers are the jewel in the crown. If America spent more money on it's teachers, by default, the whole country and education system would rise up.
When Ireland was a fairly new state, they opened regional colleges in back arse of no-where towns and taught subjects based on business, science and computers. While some of Ireland's current economic success can be attributed to the EU, the reason that big American companies put their European base there is that an educated workforce is already in place. What would happen if public education was mandatory in this country?

Whew you got me going there and took my mind off my own woes. Thank you.

12:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there, here's an idea for helping kids like Chris. There's a college in KY that is FREE. Every kid gets a tuition scholarship. If/when you're feeling more flush this would be a great place to send any extra cash.

3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great post to read on a Monday morning. I too agree that something needs to be done to help people like the boy you mentioned, but I think a lot of the trouble is making sure the money gets to him, not his parents.

From my experiences, there are two types of poor people, one who don't want to be poor and are prepared to work hard to get out of their situation and two who wont work to escape their situation because they believe the world owes them and should come to them with assistance. The first group really deserve our help and more should be done to help them, but it is pointless giving anything to the second group because they will waste any opportunity given to them, instead the opportunities should go to their children.

But how can we help these people without being rich ourselves?

11:10 PM  
Blogger Jen said...

I agree with all of your analytical and heartfelt thoughts about poverty and class and injustice. But what really resonated for me in this post was...

Zingerman's. Oh, how I would love me some Z right now. Mmmmmm. Chocolate cherry bread....

2:40 PM  
Blogger Career Guy said...

As a card carrying bleeding heart liberal, I've always been concerned about the poverty in our country. Reading "The Other America" got me started on all the attendant issues. If someone wants my vote, show me what you'll do for the people being left behind. Money, volunteering--we do all that stuff. I'm proud of our children who share the same sensibilities--especially our youngest who works for Habitat for Humanity. I agree that education is the key to all this. Ireland and Costa Rica are examples of what you can do if you really invest in education.

8:58 PM  

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