Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The paradox of becoming educated

Recent news at the newspaper where I work caused me to think a lot about education, and my past efforts to improve myself and my lot in life.

A top person at Florida Polytechnic University recently took the top job at Palm Beach State College, one of my alma maters. I graduated from PBSC, as it’s known now, when it was Palm Beach Community College, and attending the place was one of the greatest things I ever did. At a time in my life when so many wanted me to fail and so few wanted me to succeed, I succeeded brilliantly and moved on to Florida Atlantic University to finish my bachelor’s degree.

But the seeds of that achievement were planted by the dedicated teachers at Palm Beach Community College.

There’s a tendency in some segments of society to dismiss educated people and people seeking to improve themselves through education through a variety of dismissive and abusive terms and phrases. Believe me, I’ve heard them all and nearly all were directed at me at some time in my life. Even the venerable high school diploma can, in the right hands, be dismissed as a waste of time.

I first became aware of this derisive attitude when I reported to my first duty station in the Marine Corps in early 1979. I had finished basic training at Parris Island, then aviation and electronics training at the naval air station at Millington, Tenn., and was sent to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif., to get my next assignment.

It was an adventure for me. I flew on a 747 from New York to Los Angeles, and the plane blew several main landing gear tires on touchdown. We taxied to the gate and debarked, and saw the rubberized mess that was the planes’ main landing gear.

At El Toro, I learned that I would be going to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona, and after a couple of weeks was given a ticket on a flight to Yuma. It was a night flight, and I remember looking out and wondering just where we were. It was pitch black outside. The plane landed and I eventually found myself at the receiving barracks. Mind you, it was a Saturday night, and the duty Staff NCO was watching a TV show that featured Prince.

He checked me in, got me assigned to a barracks room and I settled in. On Monday morning, I reported to the famous Hootowl hangar at the base and began checking in to VMA-513, a Harrier squadron.

Upstairs in the hangar, where the administrative offices were, the mood was typical office of the late 1970s. I handed over my orders and my service record to a corporal who didn’t seem all that receptive to new arrivals. I was a private first class at the time, I think, and was used to being intimidated by people above me in rank.

The corporal flipped through the thin record, then stopped and looked at something.

He looked up at me and declared, “Well, just because you have a high school diploma doesn’t mean you have any common sense.”

I was stunned. I hadn’t done more than hand over my papers, and suddenly judgment was passed.

I figured that the corporal was probably a high school dropout – as was common at the time – and he was just establishing that while I might have the piece of paper, he had the rank. So there.

A few weeks later, I was up in the administrative offices for something and I noticed that he had taken a magazine page, cut it out and taped it next to his desk on a wall. Hustler magazine then had a feature called “Asshole of the Month,” spotlighting some politician who had earned the ire of publisher Larry Flynt. Taped over the caricature of a politician was a picture of me, taken for a new ID card. He must have grabbed the second shot taken and appropriated it.

I could never understand the reason for this hostility. I mean, I didn’t brag about my educational accomplishments to him. Maybe others hurt him and he realized that I couldn’t fight back so he targeted me, or maybe he targeted others, too.

The military is notorious for the ridicule heaped on educated troops, especially if they are enlisteds with either some college or an actual college degree. A familiar taunt aimed at those who try to act above the lowest military station in life is, “If you’re so smart, why are you in the Army (Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, etc.)”

Indeed, showing too much intelligence could border on insubordination, and some folks hid their intelligence, though it hurt them, to be more acceptable to their superiors.

I found it odd that this also happened in the Postal Service.

Brutalized for brains
It often shocks people when I describe the way the Postal Service viewed workers with an education. While my orientation in New York was normal, the one in West Palm Beach included a declaration that we were not to consider ourselves above anyone else in intelligence. It was not uncommon to be told, “People come to work at the Postal Service because they’re too dumb to get jobs anywhere else.”

There were almost no self-improvement programs or even formal training programs available for postal workers, and the few I found were correspondence courses that offered no formal recognition or training for understanding postal operations so you could do your job better.

Managers would tell me that the worst thing you could ever do to a worker was train them to do their job better, because it gave them “ideas above their station in life.”

There weren’t even very many formal management training programs in the 1980s and 1990s, though there was a college course through Palm Beach Community College in postal operations. I took it, and it was mainly a postal manager reading from the Domestic Mail Manual. Boring with a capital B. I took the course and got an A, but it offered no road to advancement for me.

I soon realized that if I was going to do anything useful and productive with my life, I’d have to get a college degree. I began the long, challenging process of getting myself into Palm Beach Community College. It was pretty intimidating, even for me. I had to fill out a lot of forms, study for and take the American College Test, get a number and wait on line to register and then finally begin taking classes. Since I worked at night I could take daytime classes, and soon found that I was finally respected for having intelligence.

People think my fondness for community colleges is because I’m going senile, but it’s because that was where things really started to swing my way and I found myself. It sounds trite, but it’s true. I began to see a world of possibilities where none had appeared before.

It was blasphemy in the post office to even imply that you might be qualified to work somewhere else, and I still had to deal with the negative vibes at the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility. My break and lunch times were spent munching meals and studying while listening to classical music on my Walkman, but I couldn’t help but hear the derisive and disrespectful comments.

“He thinks he’s better than everyone else,” I’d hear co-workers say to each other.

One boss told me, “Henry Ford said workers need to know just three things: what time to be at work, where to be and what to do. Everything else is just a waste.”

I’d hear one fellow declare loudly when he saw me studying, “You’re wasting your time.”

Everyone seemed to have a relative who had attended college and graduated, but “ha(d) no common sense” and was working at a minimum-wage job.

Postal bosses, many of them high school dropouts (and one elementary school dropout) would lord it over me that I was busting my ass in a “futile” effort to advance. “Look at me,” one female supervisor said. “I never graduated high school and now I supervise supervisors. Education is a waste of time.”

Many of those bosses who lack formal education are now high-level postal officials. If people wonder why they can never get a straight answer from the post office on a question, it’s because the organization doesn’t reward knowledge and education.

The great escape
Those who are negative about education and your attainments at school are just the losers of our society, and there’s a simple reason for their attitude.

They’re jealous.

I realized this and it motivated me to carry on.

When I quit the Postal Service, I was taking a leap into the unknown that was even bigger than when I left the Marine Corps. I was scared, but I did it, and I never regretted doing it.

It might seem that I was jumping from an airplane when I left the Postal Service, but that college degree was my parachute, and it has helped me to many a soft landing. I wonder about those who ridiculed me for my educational pursuits, and how their lives turned out.

Not as good as mine, I bet.

Never let others define your success. Keep at your education and remember that even if it takes you 10 years to get that degree, it’ll be worth it.

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April 30, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , ,

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