I had to smile at the New York Times’ story yesterday breaking the news that senior citizens who attend college classes do it because they want to. At this point, learning for the sake of it has become newsworthy. The idea that people free from economic necessity can pursue higher learning isn’t exactly new -- Aristotle was no stranger to it, and Machiavelli waxed eloquent on the subject -- but it’s worth revisiting in a time of economic panic. At this point, it’s almost radical to suggest that higher education is more than job placement.
And yet, I understand. The economy remains unforgiving for people trying to get started, and paths to the middle and upper middle classes are less legible than they once were. Even once you’re there, holding on takes sustained and serious effort. That’s especially true if you’re also trying to keep your kids on the right path.
That’s why the occasional break is so important. It offers a chance to look up from the quotidian whitewater of events and get some perspective.
Christmas break is many things, but one of them is a chance to read stuff just because I want to. It’s good for the soul. For a little over a week, I got to sit down from time to time with books or articles that held my interest just because. And I remembered why I care as much about education as I do.
Without quite intending to, I read Kathryn Edin’s “$2 a Day” and Hanna Rosin’s “The Silicon Valley Suicides” back to back. Edin’s book is a bracing account of the realities of living on the bottom of the American economic ladder in the wake of welfare reform; by her reckoning, several million Americans live on $2 a day or less, which is the measure some NGO’s use to calculate poverty internationally. Rosin’s article profiles high-achieving teenagers in one of the most affluent areas in the country, in one of the most desired high schools in the country. You’d think that reading them next to each other would constitute what, in my radio days, we used to call a collision mix. But it didn’t.
They’re both about constrained possibilities, or the inability to see other ways of being.
Edin’s subjects are so strapped that their world shrinks to what’s right in front of them. Given the extreme and increasing economic segregation of housing in America, very poor people tend to be clustered with each other. Growing up in a setting like that, desperation can come to seem both endemic and inevitable. If everyone you know is struggling just as badly, or almost as badly, as you are, it becomes that much harder to see a way out. Edin’s subjects are full of stories of couch-surfing -- often staying with people who were sexually or otherwise abusive, just to have a place to stay -- and of no-win ethical dilemmas. Some sell food stamps (now in the form of EBT cards) because they need cash to pay utility bills or rent. TANF is almost entirely absent; strikingly, nobody in her book received it, or knew anyone who did. It has become so difficult to obtain that for all intents and purposes, it’s gone. She writes of a teenage girl who consciously chooses a sexual relationship with a teacher because he promises her food. By the girl’s reckoning, if the teacher feeds her, then there will be enough food left in the house for her siblings. It’s the only way she can see to get everyone fed.
Rosin’s piece is about another world, but the habits of mind are the same. Palo Alto High School has been plagued by multiple rounds of student suicides, largely among high-achieving students. Rosin paints a vivid picture of students who are so deeply inculcated with upper-middle-class notions of meritocracy that they can’t even conceptualize rebellion. They’re so focused on not losing the ground their parents gained that any failure, no matter how small or normal, seems catastrophic. Most find their way through, but a disproportionate number see no better option than stepping in front of a Caltrans train.
The economics matter, of course. But so does a sense of larger possibility. Neither Edin’s nor Rosin’s subjects can see an alternative to the world in which they feel stuck.
That kind of vision can come from all sorts of places. Kristin Hersh’s memoir of her late friend Vic Chesnutt, “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” is a jagged collection of broken visions. It’s messy and spiky and unforgiving, crushingly sad, sometimes funny, and humane. At about 180 short pages, it took me a half-dozen sittings to get through. There’s nothing light about the book, but it’s worth the considerable effort.
Hersh and Chesnutt were close friends for many years, and much of the book consists of tales of touring with their respective spouses. But that’s like saying that Moby Dick is about trying to catch a whale. It’s not wrong, exactly, but it misses the point.
In Hersh’s telling, Chesnutt comes off as kind of a jerk. She knows that -- he did, too -- but, as she put it, “love just is.” The book gives the contours of a travelling foursome gradually shrinking, and of a friendship struggling. One marriage dissolves and then sort of doesn’t; the other does, more slowly. Money is sort of present, and then very much not.
Hersh is far smarter than she lets on, with the eye of a naturalist. She plays dumb at several points, but her writing betrays her. Although she occasionally inveighs against musicians’ effort to “control” music by consciously writing it, she has gone to great pains to be kind to everyone in her writing. Her husband, who leaves her at the end of the book, is portrayed sympathetically, as are Vic and his long-suffering wife, Tina. Kristin and Billy’s children are entirely absent from the book, which struck me as a kindness to them. The prose isn’t always linear, but it’s always tightly controlled, with her characteristic ear for phrasing. She seems determined to find kindness and grace where she can, and to share it.
Which is why, as difficult as it is, the book won me over. Hersh is awash in visions; some unbidden, some chosen, some even a little forced. She sees her friends for who they are, and for who they want to be, and she loves them for trying. She notices the grace notes in fleeting moments, and shares them as she can. She’s artist enough to convey many of them -- for my money, “a man made of butterfat/careening around on a Sno Cat” is one of the best word-pictures in music -- but humble enough to try to lean towards the humane.
I couldn’t speak for a while after finishing Hersh’s book. But then I couldn’t shake some of the images. The wings she imagines spreading from the back of Chesnutt’s wheelchair, the flavored non-dairy creamer packets they’d eat in hotel lobbies; they were all about seeing more than what was directly in front of her. They were about looking up.
I’m glad to have had the chance to look up, too. Now it’s back to work, trying to create opportunities for students to look up. Share those grace notes, and remind them that there is more to life than job placement or predators. There’s humanity, if you’re able to take a deep breath and look.
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