In the aftermath of the U.S. elections, when we managed to pull ourselves out of the rubble and debris, we sought refuge in each other’s promises to continue the fight for whatever it is we vowed we would be willing to die for. We all agreed that the first step is to find ways to understand what motivated people to choose what they chose and why other people abdicated their voting rights by staying away from the polls. Reading suggestions circulated around the family chats. Daughter volunteered to have conversations with people who had opposing views to her. The mantra was to “listen, understand, address.” Or, read, understand, resolve.
I chose one of the suggested books, “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance. The book is a memoir of his life, so far. He says he’s an anomaly of his lot — the hillbillies, rednecks, or, even worse, white trash. He tells us his life story, about the people he loves, the people who helped shape who he has become, and the happenstance of events (the stars aligning?) that led to his redemption from the trajectory many in his town were spiraling to.
It was not a long read. I alternated between reading and listening to the book (Thanks Kindle and Audible!) The audio was narrated by the author himself. J.D. minced no words in describing the poverty, addiction, abuse, and family dysfunction that came package-deal among the citizens of Middletown, Ohio, a poster-town for the “dirt-poor white of Scots-Irish descent.” There was no sugar-coating here. He described his lot plainly and honestly. No excuses either.
Along the way, he mused about his own learnings — how he was proved wrong in some of his beliefs (it is not necessary to get even with every perceived slight or that studying is not only for girls and sissies), or how he disproved for himself age-old principles his kin lived by or are willing to go to jail for (you don’t inflict physical harm to people you think insulted you all in the name of honor or that all the lack of opportunity is the fault of the government).
Towards the end of the book, he could not say enough about the many family members who mentored him and helped shape his choices that led to his success at Yale and after. Sometimes, all it takes is some sage advice or a guiding principle, and a child’s future changes dramatically. For him, it was several things: the value his mother gave to education in spite of her drug-addled brain and revolving door of partners. His mamaw’s (grandmother) steadfast belief in him and the stability she provided in her home when his own was too chaotic. This, in spite of her being known to be a shotgun-wielding old hot head. The regular math exercises with his papaw (grandfather) that steered him to a discipline of putting in the time to study. This, was n spite of his papaw’s alcohol dependence. His biological father’s home with a new wife and children, where a couple did not have to shout and disrespect each other in order to communicate. And many more individuals who have left their mark. In all of them, he was thoughtful enough to sift through their inherent flaws (and there were many glaring ones!) and glean from them the values. These helped shape his choices.
I am reminded of another story I learned a few years ago. It is the story of a farmer’s son, how, a farmer encouraged his son to study and aspire for much bigger goals than tilling the soil. Now this son has come back to help his fellowmen.
I was also reminded of a story a good friend had told me. My friend, a retiree, had decided to spend his time helping the poor out of their sorry state, one success story at a time. He decided to introduce, teach, and assist qualified individuals in microfinancing.
He told me the story of a sari-sari store (neighborhood corner store) owner who had three children and a husband who drove a tricycle for hire but spent most of his earnings on alcohol. When the team first met her, the children were unkempt and inadequately clothed. One child had pants but no top. The other had a top but no bottoms. They all walked around on their bare feet. It was clear that the family was barely scraping by.
They introduced their program to her and she was keen to try it out. She went through the process and the training, and was granted a loan to improve her store.
Over the next few years, the team continued to follow her progress. Her children were seen clothed and they wore slippers. They started to attend the local public school. She convinced her husband to clean up his act and contribute to the family pot. Everything seemed to be looking good for them.
One day, my friend decided to meet with the store owner again. He asked her what her plans were for her children. Perhaps, it was time to plan for when they go to college. That would entail putting away enough savings for their future. There was enough time to do it too. He suggested that perhaps, she can grow her business a little more to accommodate the growing needs of her children. She looked incredulously at him. She told him that once they were old enough to work in her store and help their father with the tricycle, she wanted them to stop school and to help the family with the business rather than seek higher education. She could not see beyond where they were. She was content with whatever they had. She considered the improvement of her little store her success story. She did not understand that things can change, even for this microcosm they called their own. She was happy that her reach is within what her imagination could grasp, always. Could it be that when poverty stunts growth, it stunts everything else?
While it is true that there are many givens in our lives — we can’t, as individuals, control many things like politics, the environment, ideological wars, and such. We do have choices on a lot of small things that cumulatively, change the path our journeys take. J.D. showed us this. This, in spite of the helplessness his lot were immersed in. This, in spite of a tumultuous family life. This, in spite of the culture of misplaced pride, the lack of structure, or the distrust of any organized institution.
Yes, it is possible to surmount these odds. This hillbilly has shown he can. Therefore, the rest of us can too.