Educating Oneself

I went to the University of Texas because it’s where my mother would have gone if she’d had the chance to go to school beyond her six grades. She shared that secret of hers with me when I was twenty-nine (I think) and shared, too, that I was the only child of hers she’d told. What other secrets had she planted in my siblings but not me? I genuinely can only imagine, knowing my siblings are as tight-lipped around me as I am them. And I do believe she would have gone to the University of Texas if she had grown up in Texas, like me. After all, my brother went there, too, and he seems to have a lot of her within him.

Our vulnerability comes from our mother. She is the most childlike, wide-eyed person I know, and with this recent knowledge, I see why. We are easily hurt, easily offended, easily dented by what others would usually quickly brush off. It makes sense, though: she has no established way of navigating this world. Reason gives way to her senses and intuition because she was never given the tools to reason. Rules that are often known to many are invisible boundaries to her (and sometimes us) because of her heritage. Alternately, rules that are known to us are invisible to others.

In those days, people had to pay to go to school in Taiwan. I’m hesitant even to state this definite location because this must have been true in so many countries, or even continues to be true, now.

I wasn’t aware of her lack of education when I was growing up. I only remember mispronouncing the name of a city to my teacher in elementary school and being mortified when I was corrected. Perhaps after this I regarded my mother with more suspicion, sensing I would only get hurt by the world around us if I put my full trust in her. This divide is itself what hurt, though—as if I had severed her love from me.

When I got to college, I met so many intelligent, but also motivated, individuals. I didn’t understand the world beyond school—that school was a means to an end. I wasn’t motivated toward an end. I knew there was a “job” to get, which would become a “career,” but I looked for what I thought was truth and, well, did I find it? The conundrum is that I thought I did, until I graduated. I held onto whatever kernels of truth I felt I’d found, but they rarely did me any good. I held several jobs, sometimes for mere months before turning myself out to hit the proverbial pavement again. My string of failures were the sum of three parts: a lack of practical and people skills, a stubborn grasp of my own truth and what that had meant to me (the opposite of a nine to five), and an economic downturn that put most people, regardless of professional experience, through the wringer.

My peers talked of graduate school, doctorates and Rhodes and Marshall scholarships like they were pages one merely turned in a book. I had no personal connection to these things, save for an uncle with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Iowa and an aunt who had worked her way up in the State Department to become chargé d’affaires of Ethiopia.

My sense, now, is that more people than I thought had the same impressions I had in college (or, “as undergraduates”). Many of us did not come from money, or old money, or Ivy League pedigrees. For a long while, I aspired to be like those other people—spend lots of money, find ways to make it, live extravagantly (boldly! some like to say) and rack up degrees, internships, bullet points and titles on CVs. But when my interest in writing took hold, I began wondering what kinds of people these peers or their parents really were. No doubt, they had true feelings and love for their families, but were they the kinds of people to make offhand comments that would hurt others? Do they judge others? Do they value money over all else? Or were they only so big-hearted as to care about those in dire poverty but dismiss people who lived humbly within average means as unambitious or not valuable?

Which isn’t to say my parents and family are perfect. My father earned an undergraduate degree, but he could certainly educate himself more. He loves to complain about highly educated people, but if he were more educated, his criticisms would be better articulated and received. My mother could always work toward passing a High School Equivalency Test and then earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. She says she doesn’t need it and I know, too, it would be very difficult for her (whether from the years away from school or the trauma of having lost opportunities).

So when the president-elect talks about being fond of the poorly educated, I listen. He doesn’t fault them. No one says don’t stop trying or hoping, but maybe some things may not come to pass—and for very real reasons. In which case, why vilify those who already had so much less to begin with?

And therein lies the next problem. The knowledge and history of my mother’s lack of access to education exists for her in the present day and, subsequently, for our family. When I go to work at public schools in the United States, I see fountains of opportunity—even in the most run-down schools. These schools exist! They are free! Any child can go to them! And when teachers are forgiving of students when they aren’t up to standards—either academically or behaviorally—I become distraught. Usually the leniency is with respect to students who are not white or are ethnically Hispanic. And my thought is, be tough on them! They are given the very opportunity that so many in this world don’t have. Don’t go easy on them because they may have less than their white American peers. Be just as strict! Hold them to high standards! They can do it! They want that for themselves.

That’s the divide. In the present, there are those who are nursing the past and those who are on the precipice of their own futures. Never confuse them, unless you want them to become the same people. There are things that are right to do when people are learning, and there are things that are right to do when people are making what they can from what they have.

My parents—they seem so happy, or satisfied, now that they have done too swell of a job moving past their own difficulties that we don’t know those barriers ever existed. Maybe that was their plan all along.