“I was one of those kids with a grim future,” author J.D. Vance begins in his book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. “I almost failed out of high school. I nearly gave in to the deep anger and resentment harbored by everyone around me. Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I’m some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today. With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullsh**. Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.”
And among those people, Vance credits, were his teachers. But not many of his neighbors were so lucky.
Vance believes many in Appalachia – the “Hillbillies” he references in his title – have watched a world pass them by. The spiral started with a loss of manufacturing jobs which burst the bubble of the American Dream; it’s now worked its way down to America’s youth who seem lost between what was and what will be. At age 32, he was on the crux of the fault line. Vance, I’m sure, wonders how he “made it” while others didn’t.
Vance believes many in Appalachia have watched a world pass them by. Click To Tweet
While it’s fair to say that the author’s stance can be impertinent with its emphasis on “pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” it’s not fair to say that it’s his sole obsession. And this criticism doesn’t lessen the importance of reading this book, especially if you teach in rural schools or if you’re having trouble understanding the rural revolution that propelled President Trump to office.
It’s “striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggle in school, the emphasis rests entirely on public institutions.” Click To Tweet
Instead, Vance notes how it’s “striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggle in school, the emphasis rests entirely on public institutions.” But the difficulties stem much further. It seems like all the stakeholders in education are Waiting for (a teacher to be a) Superman. Instead he insists it’s more: “As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, ‘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.’”
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. Click To Tweet
Vance takes mental recollections of what it’s like to belong to this wolf pack: “We (in Appalachia) don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools—like peace and quiet at home—to succeed.”
These issues in the wolves’ den are what sociologists call Adverse Childhood Experiences – or ACEs. To learn more about this childhood trauma – what I called “The School Plague You Never Heard About” in a previous article – take the test yourself to see your score.
Vance notes the impact of childhood trauma: “Children with multiple ACEs are more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression, to suffer from heart disease and obesity, and to contract certain types of cancers. They’re also more likely to underperform in school and suffer from relationship instability.”
For most of us in the field, Vance isn’t telling us anything new. Students who come from a neglectful home are most certainly going to do worse emotionally, physically, and mentally. The worst part about this is this neglect feeds “a vicious cycle,” and one that is substantially worse in Appalachia.
So how do we stop this perpetuation of poverty and under-performance? The answers aren’t so easy, and I’m sure if Vance had them, he’d run for office. (If one examines the constant political discussion on Vance’s Twitter account or notes that he’s recently moved home, they’d be naive to not see in a campaign in his very near future).
How do we stop this perpetuation of poverty and under-performance? Click To Tweet
But if Vance were representing his fellow Ohioans, I think he gives us a glimpse at what he would do with the keys to the school house: “We can build policies based on a better understanding of what stands in the way of kids like me. The most important lesson of my life is not that society failed to provide me with opportunities.”
He refuses to place blame on his educators, something many of his fellow Republicans can aptly learn from: “My elementary and middle schools were entirely adequate, staffed with teachers who did everything they could to reach me. Our high school ranked near the bottom of Ohio’s schools, but that had little to do with the staff and much to do with the students.”
Instead, Vance declares that “the real problem for so many of these kids is what happens (or doesn’t happen) at home.”
The issue at hand is hardly secluded to rural Southwestern Ohio. I grew up in a town just like Vance’s across the eastern border in the Pennsylvania coal region, similarly white, poor, and absent of opportunities. Plenty of black, Hispanic, Asian, Native Indian, or other ethnicities of American children grew up with similar problems in hamlets of helplessness across this country, too.
I’m reminded of an African proverb that says, “if you do not initiate your young men into the tribe, they will come back and burn down the village just to feel the heat.”
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And though Vance’s Elegy does not provide a solution to the problem, we need to remember that initiation is just another word for a beginning. J.D. Vance’s book begins a new chapter on the discussion for poverty and its impact on our schools, from Appalachia to Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico. Do yourself a favor: pick up a copy of his book (or at least watch the TEDTalk that predated his book) and initiate yourself in the conversation yourself.
And only when we begin that conversation will we find a way to brighten the lives of those struggling kids – not too different from Vance or me – who are dot the American landscape with with a similar “grim future.”
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