Hillbilly Elegy

Like it or not, our society is fraught with class divisions. I was hooked from the first to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Like Vance, I would now consider myself middle class – university educated, well-paid and a person with a gym membership I actually use. But it was not ever thus. Like Vance, my parents experienced extraordinarily different lives to my own: my Mum is one of seven, and with two unemployed parents the family of nine squashed themselves into the village council house I later grew up in (by which point it was immense for the three of us – Mum, Nan and me). She was the only one of the seven siblings to get into a grammar school (despite initially failing the eleven plus), and despite her promise, left school at sixteen to join the army, as did my Dad (who also failed the eleven plus), one of six. My children will have a very different childhood to my parents’, or even mine.

‘You’re reading about your people!’ mocked my other half (who is what we both jokingly refer to as ‘middling’). And in some ways I was, and in some ways I wasn’t. Our society is fraught with class divisions, and despite my roots, an assisted place to a private school largely took me out of my ‘natural’ world at an early age, just as my Mum’s grammar school had taken her from hers.

Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s story of how he beat the odds of poor ‘white trash’ kids in the US and ‘got out.’ Fringe success stories are one thing, but how do we replicate that success for all children? I think there are some places this book helps us to understand, and other places where solutions are suggested.

In the Ohio of Vance’s experience, ‘the statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose.’ Poor and socially isolated, Vance describes poor whites in America as inhabiting a culture ‘that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.’

He remembers a $13 an hour factory job he had in Ohio, one he explains is excellent pay for the area and for the requisite skills. He was shocked his boss found it hard to recruit, but could understand why. Vance refers to one employee with a pregnant girlfriend, who had ‘every reason’ to hold onto that job, who was chronically late, a poor worker, and would take 45 minute bathroom breaks. When he was inevitably fired, the worker railed against the boss for not understanding that he had to support a girlfriend and child, taking no responsibility for what had happened.

For hillbillies, the value of hard work is proclaimed but not enacted. Vance cites a neighbour who had received welfare (benefits) her entire life who would ‘blather on about the importance of industriousness’ and people who ‘abuse the system’: ‘this was the construct she’d built in her head: most of the beneficiaries of the system were extravagant moochers, but she – despite never having worked in her life – was an obvious exception.’ I remember teaching An Inspector Calls for the first time, and being shocked that in a school with over 70% pupil premium, 100% of my class were on the Birlings’ side, blaming Eva Smith for her plight. When we discussed benefits, more than one pupils angrily said the government shouldn’t be giving them to anyone except their own parents, who were an exception. Vance too tackles this cognitive dissonance: ‘we talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese.’

The experience of the hard-working hillbilly seems to come into constant conflict with the others of the ‘same’ social class: working in a grocery store, Vance discovers how the welfare system is gamed: they’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash… I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I could only dream about.’ So why wasn’t Vance one of ‘them’?

This seems largely down to the influence of his ‘crazy’ grandmother, Mamaw, who early on in the book tells young Vance: ‘never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can do anything you want to.’

Throughout the book, Vance is struggling to explore where responsibility lies. He describes the decay of the town; the boarded up shops and houses where druggies lurk; jobs declining but federal programmes helping people to buy their homes trapping them with immense debt in areas where there are no jobs. He describes his mother’s spiralling drug addiction, noting how he scoffed when she came back from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting calling her addiction ‘a disease,’ finding this ‘patently absurd.’ Yet he also acknowledges that there is some research that supports such a view of abuse – the difficulty is that patients who believe their addiction is a disease find it far harder to get clean.

So often in this book, the statistics don’t answer the questions Vance is asking: ‘why didn’t our neighbour leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behaviour was destroying her daughter?’ The closest he can come is to tell stories which reveal the values of the people he grew up with. There are countless stories centred on loyalty, for example: the need to use violence to defend the honour of family members is cited on several occasions, and in one story his grandparents trash a store after an assistant is rude to young J.D. Vance. He writes of violence and shouting matches as the norm in relationships, and compares the unpredictability of his parents’ responses to ‘living among land mines’.

So the crucial question: how did Vance succeed against the odds?

  1. ‘Mamaw’

Vance’s grandmother is a pillar of predictability – even if she is predictably insane, her reactions are at least easy to predict. Vance hides out in her house when things get tough, and finds there somewhere quiet. In fact, he says he is a mediocre pupil until he moves in with her full time for the final three years of his education: ‘three years with Mamaw – uninterrupted and alone – saved me.’

Speaking to a teacher at his old high school, Vance says the teacher told him: ‘they want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.’ Interestingly, Vance never blames his ‘sub-par’ high school for his initial lack of academic success, instead expressing frequent gratitude for qualified teachers and a fully funded school building.

Mamaw has the right priorities – while Vance talks about the Hillbilly tendency to spend huge sums of money on Christmas, financed with credit cards or pay-day loans, Mamaw does not buy him ‘cell phones or nice clothes’ but when a teacher says he needs a $180 ‘graphing calculator’, she buys it for him, and uses the guilt over this expensive purchase to shame him into working harder at Maths.

  1. The Marines

The most revealing section of the book for me was this one, perhaps because both of my parents joined the army at age 15 and 17. For them, it was the key to a future: to travel, learn and be responsible members of society. I truly believe the army is strongly to be thanked for my own childhood: Mum may have held down two or three jobs at a time, and she may have raised me alone, but dinner was always on the table at 6pm, she was never even thirty seconds late for any of her jobs, and the house was always spotless. Routine is important for all of us, but especially for children.

Conversely, after a troubled and unpredictable childhood, Vance relates that ‘everything about the unstructured college experience terrified me.’ (As a sidenote, I do wonder if part of why poorer kids struggle in University is due to a lack of structure in earlier life – the middle class kids, in comparison, have had a lifetime of structure and so are not only able to structure their own lives independently, they also look forward to a little less structure at University.)

So instead of going straight to University, Vance joined the Marines. In his 13 weeks of bootcamp (where he was entirely cut off from home and family, with no phone calls allowed) he experiences harsh discipline. Taking a slice of cake on the first day, his drill instructor says: ‘you really need that cake, don’t you, fat-ass?’ as he smacks the cake out of his hands. Vance notes: ‘if you’d told me that I’d react to such an insult by cleaning up the cake and heading back to my seat, I’d never have believed you… I had underestimated myself.’ And this is the message of the Marines: Vance suddenly realises he has more self-control, more resilience, and more aptitude than he had ever thought possible: ‘what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: it’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.’

He experienced tough discipline, but also realised he was strong enough to take it:

‘Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, I came a little closer to believing in myself.’

In the Marines, a communal identity is forged: ‘from the day you arrive, no one calls you by your first name. You’re not allowed to say “I” because you’re taught to mistrust your own individuality.’ This fosters sense of belonging unlike any other. My Dad says the same of the British army – the drill sergeant’s job over new recruits is to ‘break them completely’; ‘make them hate you.’ He described to me how, thrown together with strangers, you quickly bonded over your mutual hatred of the drill sergeant. And, in my Dad’s words, ‘as the team bond develops, collective and individual performance improves, the drill sergeant reacts appropriately and the team’s respect for him/her increases. By the end of the process the team is a full functioning, well-oiled machine with pride in their own ability and level of performance that has full respect for a satisfied instructor who is the only one who really knows why.’

Moreover, the Marine Corps ‘assumes maximum ignorance from its enlisted folks. It assumes that no one taught you anything about physical fitness, personal hygiene, or personal finances.’ Vance was taught absolutely everything about these aspects of life, and then his drill instructor checked up on him: ‘in the civilian world, your boss wasn’t able to control your life after you left work. In the Marines, my boss didn’t just make sure I did a good job, he made sure I kept my room clean, kept my hair cut, and ironed my uniforms.’ To this day, my Father shines his shoes before leaving the house, and painstakingly irons every visible and invisible crease out of his clothes before putting them on, a hangover habit from a drill sergeant ‘complaining a perfectly pressed shirt wasn’t pressed enough.’

The Marines also gave Vance perspective. On spending time in Iraq, after giving a ‘two cent’ rubber to a boy who smiles like every Christmas has come at once and races to his family to show them, he muses: ‘for my entire life, I’d harboured resentment at the world. I was mad at my mother and father, mad that I rode the bus to school while other kids caught rides with friends, mad that my clothes didn’t come from Abercrombie, mad that my grandfather died, mad that we lived in a small house… but as I stood and surveyed the mass of children of a war-torn nation, their school without running water, and the overjoyed boy, I began to appreciate how lucky I was.’

 

One specific query with the content of this book was on education: I couldn’t quite square the fact that Vance says that school was a ‘haven’ for him, but his attendance was poor – something so many of us struggle with in schools. If home is hell, why don’t these kids want to be in school? The only thing I can think of is that in homes of such extremes, the kids in them are desperate for kindness. Perhaps pretending to be sick elicits kindness from the inconstant adults in their lives, and they stay home to enjoy these infrequent kindnesses when they come. I’ve also seen parents who desperately want their children to stay home with them as a comfort to themselves rather than for the benefit of the child. I approached Vance through Twitter, and he kindly responded, noting that his attendance was at its worst when he and his sister were living alone, without any adult supervision at all. This makes sense, and I’ve known this happen to many children in previous schools. He also emphasised that he did not approach school in a ‘rational’ way: ‘I hated school and hated home worse.’ The difficulty of pupil attendance defies logical explanation: Vance told me: ‘mostly, when things are so stressful, you don’t want to do anything.’ All of this is fairly bleak for schools.

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ leaves us with even more uneasy questions. Social mobility isn’t all positive; it’s also moving ‘away from something.’ My Mum certainly experienced that when she was at grammar school, and I felt something similar when I was the only cousin at a private school.

Another question is: how can we make success against the odds the norm? How can we replicate Mamaw or the Marines for kids who don’t have these?

I think schools can do a few things:

  1. Be a reliable presence

Schools can be predictable, reliable, calm and safe places for children to be in. Teachers need to be emotionally constant, so children can always predict how they will respond.

  1. Instil discipline

Self-discipline is the key to success. If schools are set up to do one thing well, it is to enforce discipline and instil self-discipline. A strong system of behaviour management, accepting no excuses or exceptions, can massively help children to see that their lives are self-directed, and they have responsibility for their actions.

  1. Push kids harder

Success is motivating; schools need to push kids who are furthest behind harder. Currently, we often treat these kids more softly. We need them to work harder and do more. If we can set up enough areas along the way for them to see their success, they can start to believe they can achieve no matter what their background is.

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5 thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy

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