4.12.2012

life in the cracks

driveway chard

A few blocks down the street, there's a house with a Portland-typical raised bed next to the driveway. Last summer, I noticed that not only was an array of Swiss chard growing in the planted bed, along with other vegetables, trained and trellised and tidy, but also a stray was pushing up from one of the driveway cracks. All summer during neighborhood walks, I checked to see if the stray chard was still there. It was. And then winter came and I stayed mostly indoors and forgot about the chard, a hardy plant that can endure cold, wet northwest winters before blooming and going to seed. This week, the rain temporarily halted and the sun out, I took my camera for an evening walk and found the red chard still standing in the driveway, an evident honored stray not to have been cut and eaten or run over by a car for a whole year. Whoever owns the house must marvel as I do at the vagaries of the plant world, the mysteries of the garden.

Whenever I see a pine tree bent like plumber's pipe, growing out of the side of an embankment along a highway, or a cliff stand of evergreens fronting the ocean, their needled branches frozen landward, as if running in place from wind and storm, I see the will to life. Living things can't help but try to grow, such as they can, even when conditions are far from ideal.

Many of my students are like that chard and those trees, coming mainly from the lower socioeconomic spectrum: sometimes children of addicts; sometimes former addicts themselves; often children of divorce with all its psychological and economic correlations; sometimes victims of domestic violence; sometimes divorced; usually single mothers with at least one kid, wanting to build a more secure financial future for their child(ren). I don't ask; sometimes they tell. The most stable are typically, with exceptions, married.

What the students may not know is that many of their instructors are also like those trees for similar reasons, fish (to switch metaphors) misfit by social class and family background for larger, more esteemed ponds. Yet I've never so much enjoyed conversations with such interesting, quirky coworkers anywhere else. We have master's and law degrees but the part-timers get paid near minimum wage, once prep and grading is factored in because that's what the market will bear. And that's probably something the students don't know, either, considering how much they pay in tuition.

Society would label the majority of our students "poor white trash" (most are white and poor), ignorant of or indifferent to how hard it is to overcome class boundaries, how hard it is to create healthy relationships without proper models. Even some of the students themselves joke about having grown up in "Incestacada" or Felony Flats. We tend to blame individuals over poor environmental conditions, believing everyone should pull herself up from her bootstraps, believing the myth that everyone can become a success if only she works hard enough, the lie that those among us in society who make the most money are the hardest-working, smartest, and most deserving, rather than sociopaths and those who've most often witnessed early models of investments and returns and dividends—multiplication of wealth rather than impoverishing division—and those who've typically had lifelong models of intact families, along with house-down-payment benefits of trust funds and inherited estates, even when modest—in other words, generations of success, rather than first-time-in-the-family college-goers aiming for an upgraded $30K career in which to assist doctors or lawyers via tens of thousands in student-loan debt they can only hope to someday repay—because the alternative is continuing to manage a fast-food chain or work retail at the mall, unable to earn enough working full-time to pay bills, let alone save for the future.

One can even see the generational-success pattern among some artists, those confident they can craft a career from art because their parents also were artists with portfolios. That belief of success from personal witness is powerful magic—compared to being told that maybe, just maybe, if one gives 110% for the boss, one could become a secretary, bank teller, or manager of Taco Bell. These are the differences in expectations between classes.  

Westerners are still feeding themselves so many lies about what is now possible, what one can expect of the future. The other night while driving to work, I was listening to NPR's story about low educational achievements in Portugal, the least educated country in Europe. The lead anecdote involved two friends, one of whom dropped out of high school as over two-thirds of Portuguese students do (!) to work in a shoe store, and the other who went to college, graduated, couldn't find work as a nurse (!), and now (drumroll, please) . . . sells shoes alongside her high-school-dropout friend. That's like college graduates in the U.S. working at Starbucks, happy for a job with health insurance.


purple flowers growing in the crack between basement and driveway

More austerity, the rich want? Those gorging on cake want the rest of us to eat stale crumbs? One day, when living conditions worsen, when more people grow hungry, the working class will again march, resist, revolt. Just wait. We are hardy, like chard.

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