My mom and her family grew up on a farm that anyone would say, “Now that’s poverty.” It was, even for there. But it was also the 1920s and 30s on the high plains of Montana, and I don’t think a lot of rural people were doing a lot “better.” Maybe it didn’t help that my grandma’s view of birth control was denying little people their chance to live. She had a very vivid image to describe this, too. Little hands reaching out toward the light. So, ten kids, a husband who was (by all accounts) pretty eccentric, and a wife who struggled to recover from the loss of her little boy. I think they did great and their greatest achievement was 9 healthy, pretty happy, adult children.
My grandfather had a third grade education — pretty normal for farm kids (Iowa) born in 1870. Back then they squeezed a LOT into those three years of school and his third grade arithmetic book has triangulation as part of the curriculum. Well, you gotta’ measure hay stacks, right? The man read everything; his favorite writer was Thomas Carlyle. Try giving THAT to a third grader today or YOU read it (yikes!).
Two of his daughters had college educations. My mom and my Aunt Pat. My Aunt Dickie went to nurses school and my Aunt Martha went to business college. How did they pay? Well, my mom worked as a domestic servant. Back then, teachers went to school one year then taught on year, went back to school another year, then taught — it was an 8 year deal. I don’t know what my Aunt Pat, presumably the same. When my mom went to work at the lady’s house, my granddad used his savings to buy her a cookbook with fancy recipes so she could cook that for the lady and thereby not “disgrace the family” with the kind of very plain cooking she grew up with. I had that cookbook for a long time and it had such elegant items as petits fours. My Aunt Martha worked at a jewelry store to support her school which was two years. After that, she went to Washington DC and worked for the OSS. My Aunt Pat taught on Indian reservations because her husband was an Indian Agent. My Aunt Dickie was a nurse during WW II.
My mom persuaded my dad to finish college. He didn’t want to. He wanted to work for his dad’s construction company, but education meant a lot to my mom and my dad was truly a genius. For my mom and her entire family an education was the greatest thing a person could have.
I grew up believing that and I never thought of pursuing anything else. I started as an art major, but my mom, who held the spare cash purse strings, put the kibosh on that. Journalism. OK. Well, that didn’t happen but English was a compromise. I did like to read… English wasn’t going to lead me to a profession except teaching (my mom still hoped I’d become a journalist and never accepted that I was really a teacher). And, by the time I entered the field, colleges and universities had realized what a good deal it was to hire a stable of adjunct faculty rather than hiring tenured teachers. We saved them money. When the show was over, I ended up very proud of being able to teach well enough to keep working for 38 years and have enough to retire on. Believe me; that’s an achievement. Most of all, I was a good teacher; I was better than good. I was a great teacher. People lined up for my classes and waited out semesters until my classes had spots.
I was also a student. Some of my professors were assholes — there was the guy who told the class if we were a woman or a Jew we wouldn’t pass. I walked out. I failed, but whatever. I could’ve dropped but I forgot. There was the guy who ridiculed one of my papers in front of the whole class. I told him to get fucked and walked out. It was too late to drop so I had to make up that F in summer school. What a blessing! I got a professor who not only loved teaching, but loved Yeats, and had the most wonderful way to teach critical writing. I had no thought of becoming a teacher, but now I know that every class I took was teacher training.
Working at the college and university level was absolutely totally wonderful. When I started at San Diego State in the fall of 1999, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. When I became a contract lecturer, it was a dream come true. Attending professional conferences and sometimes presenting was a wonderful perk — not a duty or obligation, it was my chance to write what I wanted and share it with my peers. No one paid for me to go, though one of the colleges at San Diego State for whom I taught required I go.
The other day I had occasion to look up one of my former professors and to my immense surprise (and later, pride) I saw that my CV has more publications and years in the classroom than does his, though he’s an emeritus professor who was tenured. What that said to me is, “Martha, you’re the shit. You loved what you did.”
I did. I believe in higher education. I taught too many people who were like my mom or my aunts, young people and sometimes not so young from poor backgrounds for whom it was everything to have this chance.
One story stands out more than any. When I was a volunteer teacher in Denver for the Adult Education Tutorial Program — I was in grad school, 24 years old — I taught two nights a week preparing single students for the GRE. One of my students was a Puerto Rican woman about 45. She’d raised her sons and one of them was putting his mother through community college — her dream. She’d supported them through their school working as a cleaning lady in offices in downtown Denver. I was tutoring literature so they could pass that section. I had to teach them how to read poetry. OK, poetry scares people because they think they won’t understand it, so my job was to break that barrier. I knew the woman by the time we got to poetry. I took one of Langston Hughes’ beautiful poems and brought it to class. Here it is:
Mother to Son
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
She read it and looked up at me with tears in her eyes and held the paper to her heart. “That’s my life,” she said, “this man wrote my life.”
And THAT is something I could not have experienced — or shared — without the Ivory Tower.
My business students used to ask me, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” I answered, “You’re going to dinner parties. Do you want to be a crushing bore who can’t talk about anything but cost accounting or software design? Or do you want to know a little something about human culture so you can talk to your boss’ wife who happens to be a journalist or a teacher or a diplomat?” Usually that was persuasive.
My education was pretty expensive. I earned a scholarship to Colorado Woman’s College based on my high school performance, but that was only two years. For the rest? My dad had to be disabled and then die for me finish (GI Bill) I earned a “free-ride” (tuition paid) to graduate school because I already knew what my thesis would be about, but I had to perform to keep it. Was I lucky? None of this was luck. And I worked — I worked through undergraduate school and through graduate school and ever after.
If a person really wants it, they can find a way to get an education, but, sadly, we live in a society that has diminished the value of intellectual curiosity and that’s not right. Am I privileged? I think so, but not in my having gotten a good education, but in my family and its values.
I think of my grandfather who went after it every day of his life and wrote the best short story I’ve ever read. I have a couple of his books, Les Miserables and Thomas Carlyle’s book about heroes. Every Christmas he read Snowbound to his family. Throughout the year, he read. All of my aunts knew many long, long, poems by heart. What a gift he gave them! Better than being a prosperous farmer, in its way. My grandfather’s books — cheap editions, coverless, worn, brown and broken are as ivory tower as they come. In reality, no one needs a professor to teach them, but having one — having access to thousands of years of human thought and discovery — is a freeway to knowledge.
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had bad experiences in school. I did. You probably did, too, but that’s learning. It’s a pretty safe place to learn that out there in what is alleged to be ‘the real world’ there are all kinds and throughout our lives — students or not — we have to deal with that. Some of my students were real assholes. Some were scary. One of them pushed me against the wall and tried to choke me (he’d gotten a B and was angry about it; he also had PTSD from Iraq). Another told me to get fucked but he had to come back and apologize — and he did. Another student was so dangerous that I had to go to class with a security guy. She’d been in a car accident and her brain had been damaged; treatment, counseling, medication — wonderful woman, a pleasure to teach and to know. A couple of these scary people grew up to be…teachers. One of them because I inspired him by standing up to his nastiness and teaching him anyway. All the people in the Ivory Tower are human beings. I have a wonderful life now, but I’m one of the lucky people who can look back and say, “Well, sometimes it was hard, and sometimes it sucked, but at least I got to earn my living doing something I loved and believed in.”
I thank my family for that. My last remaining aunt — Aunt Dickie — wrote, “I’m so proud of you and what you’ve achieved.” ❤️
The featured photo is my mom’s brothers and sisters (and her) in front of the family home, probably 1923 or 1924. Two of the girls got a college education. One of them went to work for the OSS during WW II. My mom and Aunt Martha are the two little kids sitting on stools in the front row.