Routes out of Poverty and Dysfunction

Monday, March 08, 2010

Routes out of Poverty and Dysfunction
We had the pleasure of hearing Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, speak this week. The Glass Castle is the current memoir that most resonates with my own childhood. It reminded me a a comment I made early on to my younger sisters, "There are several routes out of our family---religion, therapy or education. Choose one and take it." I now know that it takes all three and more! Below is the section of my upcoming memoir that addresses how education was part of my journey.

 Path Number One toward Wholeness and Authenticity

Having learned at an early age that I was good at school, I also absorbed the message like good body lotion soaks in that education was my ticket out of poverty. School, with a few exceptions, became a refuge---a glorious island of organization and positive experiences in a sea of chaos. I don't remember ever going through a stage in which I resisted going. I grieve and feel burdened by the fact that all children of poverty do not get this message as strongly as I did or are unable to receive the message. I maintain that school is still the first ticket out of poverty, if not the best.  

I suppose with these feelings about school---in spite of fourteen different elementary schools---it's not surprising that I blossomed in high school. I was still shy but functioned well in class, in several extra-curricular organizations and with a small group of friends. One of my boyfriends later told me they called me the "shy Univac." For younger readers, the Univac was the first significant iteration of a computer. Those years constituted the beginning of my desire to define myself and it wasn't easy. Although I was shy, I was a performer. Although I was good at school, I didn't have a self definition of being smart. In many respects, I didn't know who I was or who I wanted to be. Although, I had the religious piece of my identity firmly in place when nominated to be in a beauty pageant, I was thrilled. It's humorous to me now that one of the judges when he read that I was going to be a Southern Baptist missionary asked, "Then why are you in a beauty pageant?" I didn't understand why the two needed to be mutually exclusive.

The influence of the religious goals sealed my choice of Georgetown College. In spite of the gradual move away from missionary plans due to marriage, birth of my son, Husband Number One's illness, the Georgetown environment and culture during the Sixties proved to be a safe environment for a young woman trying to find herself. I never had a curfew until I arrived at Georgetown! I applied only to three Baptist colleges, was admitted to all three and chose Georgetown because it was close to our original hometown, Evansville, IN and it was where Aunt BJ had gone to undergraduate school.
Another story about one of my high school acquaintances illustrates how I might have made other choices if I had attended one of the California schools so many of my friends chose.

Kathy Soliah was our football coach's daughter and a friend through various classes and activities. Kathy was an all-American girl of the Sixties. President of the Pep Club. Big Ringo Starr fan. Middle of the road family. Kathy went to a California college up north. She became politically radicalized and had more than fifteen minutes of fame as the person helping to hide kidnapped media heiress, Patty Hearst, when she was found with the Symbionese Liberation Army. At the time of Hearst' capture, Kathy had gotten her sister, Josephine and brother, Steve involved with the SLA. Kathy escaped prosecution at that time by disappearing and she lived for decades under an assumed identity, Sara Jane Olson, in Minnesota. It was not until the last decade that she was found, prosecuted and had to serve prison time.

Granted, it's a big leap to think if I had gone to a California university, I would have become a radical terrorist. But I am reminded that my Mother was quite fond of telling people, "If Brenda had been as hell bent on being bad, as she was hell bent on being good, she would have been just as good at it." I suspect she was right. Mom also noted that I "seem to have blinders on so that nothing distracted from my goal of finishing college."

I left for college with one suitcase full of clothes---a suitcase for which I had saved and redeemed Green Stamps, a popular affinity marketing program in which you actually pasted stamps in books and saved the books to redeem for all manner of items. Naivete played a significant role in my financial planning for college (actually lack of planning). I had every kind of financial aid known to humankind---a variety of scholarships, grants-in-aid, federal student loans, and jobs on and off campus. I even had funds provided for meals and books. My roommate swore that every time I went to my mailbox, there was a check from some Women's Missionary Union or other church group. I went to college on dreams, others filled in the financial realities. It still wasn't easy. I would sometimes cry when my mascara wand emptied.

My sophomore year when funds got tight, I considered dropping out and becoming an airline stewardess. Instead, I went to see the Financial Aid Officer, Harry Snyder. He questioned me about how I was affording to pledge a sorority (Aunt BJ was funding that on a missionary's salary!), cautioned me that the guy I had a crush on didn't have any more money than I did (didn't occur to me to think about that) and connected me with a Kappa Delta Sorority Alumna who wanted to share a college experience with a young woman who had pledged Kappa Delta. So Francis Bennett provided me with scholarship money and I shared my experiences by writing to her, visiting with her when she came to campus and, occasionally, through phone calls. We kept in touch for many years. The closed doors seemed to have a way of opening even if at the last minute.

One final serendipity was one of my roommates. I had very few clothes but they were store bought and I like to think I had good taste. My junior year roommate, Lynn Burga (now Bova) wore exactly the same size that I did in everything. We went home to her house one spring break. In the basement, where her Mom's sewing took place, there were ten---count them, ten!---new dresses. Here's the catch, Lynn had no choice or voice in what those dresses would be like. It forged a delightful sharing of my few store bought clothes and Lynn's larger wardrobe not of her choosing.

In later years, my sister became acquainted with other Georgetown alums through her career in Lexington, KY. She reported back to me with a chuckle, "Bren, your self-image does not fit with the image your classmates at Georgetown had of you---at all." The people she worked with perceived me as pretty, popular, and very self-assured. Ha! Even with the great influence of Georgetown, I was still in the process of finding me.    

updated: 7 years ago