Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” takes on, defeats stereotypes

A couple of years ago, I wrote a very critical blog post about a book, and the author actually responded.

The author had appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and I lambasted the author and host Terry Gross because I thought the story the author was telling was a complete whitewash. The author had spent time in prison and had read lots of books. He had dealt with the fact that his father was an immigrant by becoming a drug addict and committing strong-arm robberies in New York City.

Now he was “reformed,” he said.

I called B.S. on it all. Negative biographies have been all the rage for the past decade or so, and the “up from the gutter” narrative seems to require drug addiction, crime and more without any consideration for the victims of the author’s past behavior.

In reading “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance, I finally realized that this was a story of someone who should be admired. He grew up in the most unstable of families, in an area of the country where poverty is endemic and even the “good economic times” aren’t so great, and with a drug-addict mother who repeatedly goes into rehab, recovers for a time and then relapses, and a rotating array of men who take up with his mother, and comes out the other side determined to rise above his upbringing.

Vance should be a positive role model for everyone regardless of race or color. He had a vast amount of help, though, and he admits that for all the government programs that try to mitigate the poverty and its negative effects, without a grandmother such as his in your corner, you might not win in the end.

She’s a “hillbilly” of the old school, Vance notes, but she moved out of Kentucky with her husband as a young woman to Ohio, where the husband went to work in a steel plant. This was back in the day when a man with little education could take a blue-collar job, stick with the same company for 30 years, and build a life and living.

She has lots of regrets, and this grandmother admits to making a horde of mistakes. Vance is drawn to her despite her toughness (and maybe because of it), and she pushes him to greater achievements. Her lack of education motivates her to push Vance to get an education. When he can’t afford the university, he joins the Marine Corps and achieves success there, then leaves and goes to college on the GI Bill.

One of the best stories, though, is about how he was going to take an advanced math class and needed a $180 graphic calculator. He didn’t have the money, he recounts, and tells his grandmother he’ll have to pass on the class. Somehow, she comes up with the cash, buys him the calculator and then makes Vance bust his ass in that class.

She wants her money’s worth, she tells him in ways that go beyond words. Vance doesn’t disappoint.

Wherever Vance goes, and whatever he does, it’s clear that his grandmother is the North Star who guides him toward success. He wonders at times what his life would have been like without her insistence that he do his best.

Unlike those who think education just gives people ideas above their station, Vance’s grandmother tells him those folks are idiots. She’s so plain-spoken as to be very un-politically correct, noting at one point that her daughter, Vance’s mother, could have done better than trying to kill herself with the family’s new car. She drove it into a pole in a suicide attempt, Vance recounts, and his grandmother notes that it was a waste, and if she really wanted to kill herself, she should have just asked to borrow one of her mother’s guns.

This plain-spoken determination might seem a bit shocking to many of us, but it’s part and parcel of the life the “hillbillies” lead. Opinions are held, strongly and – Vance notes – even when they’re wrong and disadvantageous.

As for the term “hillbilly,” it is to most of us a very pejorative term and one I would avoid using, but Vance uses it and almost embraces it to define a sense of self, family and community even in the midst of terrible circumstances. These folks are pretty strong when you get beneath the surface, I say, and remember that in the main industry of Appalachia, coal mining, it was not uncommon for labor disagreements to be conducted with weapons, and sometimes automatic weapons, borne by police and others in authority and aimed at not only men but women and children.

That breeds a toughness that we city folk will never know, and I admire it.

Vance is a man after my own heart in so many ways. He’s probably the only U.S. Marine to enlist in the aftermath of 9/11 and not get married and have several children during his enlistment. It’s not like in my day, when women and their parents seemed to prefer that their daughter marry federal prison inmates instead of people in the military.

But Vance is so focused that it’s scary. And he’s not alone. He tells the good, the bad and the horrible of how life can turn out, as layoffs destroy the community that the emigrants from Kentucky built in the Rust Belt, and how they battled to survive.

The scourge of drug abuse nearly destroyed their families and their futures, but Vance tells of people who emerged from high school drug-free, went to college or into the service, and eventually went on to great careers or came back to try to rebuild their communities. Beneath the photos of the drug addicted are the regular folks who go to work every day and try to build something against the odds.

I had one worry as I read “Hillbilly Elegy.” It was that Vance’s grandmother was such a force in his life. She helped him with her letters when he was in Marine basic training and his tours overseas. What would happen when she died? Would Vance revert to the way so many others had been?

As it turns out, his beloved grandmother’s death while he’s in the Marines doesn’t divert him from the right path. He mourns and then continues on, finishing his Marine service, readjusting to civilian life and attending college. After graduation, he goes to Yale Law School, though his biological father dismisses it as the “liberal” thing to do. He doesn’t care.

Today, J.D. Vance is married and a successful man working for a capital management company out west.

His story is an indictment of the many efforts to “help” the poor and white working class, and the allure of some political candidates who want those votes, promise much and deliver little.

Ultimately, Vance is saying, you have to go out there, find the best mentors you can and do the work.

That’s a great lesson for everyone, and I highly recommend you read this book.



November 6, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making the choice to be informed and educated

Back in my “hell” days at the post office, I was definitely unusual.

The Postal Service wasn’t a big fan of educated people, especially when they held “strong back and weak mind” jobs like mailhandler, as I did, and most people eventually realized that “showing intelligence in the presence of the ‘holy ones’,” as postal management liked to style itself, was not a good idea.

I suppose I was less sensitive to the views of my intellectually inferior superiors back then. When you’re a high school dropout and someone of a lower status than you starts speaking in a way that is way over their expected social class, your reaction is to get angry and declare that “the smarties” are ruining the organization.

In a postal facility where a high-level manager was an elementary school dropout and several managers never finished high school, it was an insult, I was told, to be openly and actively pursuing a degree.

The proper response, I was told, was to lower my eyes and remember that everyone in postal management was better than me, and always would be. Many other employees who had education chafed at the attitudes, and the feeling that we couldn’t fight back against managers who lacked education but had the rank over us.

As I got closer to my four-year degree, I realized that there was no advancement worth having in the Postal Service. Sometimes, you just have to move on in life, and this was one of those times.

In June 1994, I decided that it was time to cash in my education and my chips, and move on. I never regretted it.

“We’re too smart”
Last night, as I watched the Pluto “phone home” on NASA-TV and occasionally glimpsed Venus and Saturn through my telescope, I thought of a person I knew at the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility. It had been during a space shuttle mission that had developed a problem, and I had mentioned it to him.

He expressed the view that we should not be doing any science or exploring at all. We should just worship god and submit to authority at work.

I later found out that he was really broken down: not only was he a Jehovah’s Witness, he had bought into management’s view that workers were the lowest of the low, and embraced it. “We’re too smart,” he’d tell me. “We need to just worship god.”

I felt so sorry for him. No education, no options, no way out. Postal management had trapped him rhetorically and was determined to keep him down.

I had less compassion and respect for those in management – and there were many – who knew that what they were doing was wrong, in violation of postal policy and often unethical.

They were the types who knew that allowing the cheating on the Price-Waterhouse mail testing – hiring temporary workers to go through the outgoing mail, looking for the test mail – was totally wrong, but let it happen anyway because they were worried about what would happen if they blew the whistle.

They knew about the giant storeroom in West Palm Beach full of damaged and destroyed parcels, that was closed and locked.

They knew that running the mail through the machinery over and over again to “get the numbers up” and fool postal headquarters was wrong, but they did it anyway.

To me, they were no different from the guy recently convicted of being “the accountant of Auschwitz,” who saw what was being done to people and did nothing to try to stop it.

If you asked anyone in the Postal Service why they allowed things to happen, they’d say, “I’m just following orders.”

That’s why postal customers want to rip their hair out when dealing with the average postal manager. No one wants to take responsibility for anything, and even implying that you might be able to help someone is a violation of someone’s orders.

Changing yourself
I always determined that I’d be different, and that I’d never turn into a droid, no matter where I was.

It hasn’t been easy. It means taking risks and chances, and sometimes chasing down challenges. But the rewards are so awesome!

Because of my desire for self-improvement and awareness, I’ve literally invented a new future for myself. My postal bosses are doing the same nonsense they were doing 20 years ago. As for me, I’m exploring all sorts of new opportunities and still dreaming of where my skills, education and experience can take me.

When I break out one of the telescopes and look at a planet or star cluster or galaxy, I feel like it’s a privilege, one that I’ve worked for and earned, to be this intelligent and able to do so many things.

Like me, you don’t have to wallow at the bottom. You can strive for more. I know, I sound like some smarmy motivational speaker, but if I leave behind anything it has to be this – and I know it sounds so cliché – dare to dream; hell, dare to do more: dare.

July 15, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

April 30, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Climbing the public education ladder

It’s always seemed odd to me that when people are looking to attack American public education, their main targets are the teachers who actually do the hands-on work with the children, and not the giant, groaning bureaucracy that sits atop the teachers.

I suppose it’s like the Postal Service, where many people believe there are three job titles: letter carrier, window clerk and “the back.” As I learned in 11 years and five months, a lot goes on in “the back” that affects what happens up front, and there was an enormous bureaucracy of managers and administrators who never went near the mail and never got blamed when things went wrong.

Teachers, because of their union representation and their low status, often are blamed for everything wrong in public education. No matter how good a job you do, all it takes is the story of one stupid teacher making a bad decision anywhere in America, and you are tarred with the same brush. Somehow, the best teacher for every teaching job is the one who doesn’t have the teaching job, yet, but then the cycle of blame begins anew.

Oddly enough, few people ever go on a long rant against assistant principals, principals, curriculum specialists, school board members and others who also work in public education. In fact, assistant principals and principals love to tout themselves as teachers, even though they have abandoned the classroom and most direct contact with students for higher-level jobs that pay vastly more than line teachers get and offer the chance to be acclaimed as a genius if students perform well on standardized tests.

In the realm of superintendents, you find people pushing into the $200,000 range in pay in Florida, and more if they have never taught in a school. Indeed, superintendent selection and contract negotiations can be even more fraught than negotiating with a teachers union because of fear that the desired candidate, who usually is acclaimed as the greatest educational genius since the previous superintendent, might drop out of the running to take another job with another district.

Superintendents often begin a job search as soon as they arrive at a job, just in case. When I was in Vero Beach, the Indian River County School District had to replace a new superintendent after just six months. Once upon a time, he was the greatest educational genius in the history of the world, but a half-year of screaming and cursing later, he was anathema to some and pushed out. Later superintendents fared better, though.

Manatee County replaced its superintendent with a man whose main qualification seems to be that he served 23 years in the Army as a logistics officer, and a few years as the top person in a school district up north, with no real experience in teaching. Yet, he’s considered an expert on education.

Since he’s retired military, he’s believed to be competent at everything, and that’s all that really matters nowadays. We worship the military, and that was the deal-maker in the competition to fill the job.

According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, on the near-coronation of the new superintendent:

“He seems warm … and receptive,” said Peggy Delegato, the chair of education for the Manatee County NAACP, who met him for the first time Wednesday. “Most of this country’s sound management policies originate from the military — I am looking for good management skills.”

Like the recent mess-ups in Iraq and Afghanistan? Obviously, Ms. Delegato has never served in the military.

When I was attending Palm Beach Community College and majoring in management information systems, and then journalism, I’d see the students beginning their education majors with such textbooks as “A Child’s World.” I wondered about what they were doing, and if they thought they were making the right choice.

At the community college, I was active in the Phi Theta Kappa chapter (PTK is the honor society for two-year colleges), and was one of the few who actually participated in the organization’s activities – to the extent that I could with my work schedule. Most people who were invited to the ceremony were inducted, attended a couple of meetings and then stopped coming. I soon found out why. The chapter head – and later a high official in the chapter — was a woman in her late 40s who was the most unpleasant human being I have ever met (and we’re talking all the way back to boot camp, and maybe even the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility).

She treated fellow members disrespectfully, ordered people around as if they were her children and had some serious personal issues. For example, she had more than 10 children with several different men, and I met one of her ex-husbands, a contractor whom she lied to in order to get him to work on a project of repairing a man’s house. She had described the work to him as a simple repair, but the house turned out to need major structural renovations, especially in a part of the roof. He had to do it for free.

I was stunned when I found out she was majoring in education because if there ever was a person less suited to teaching and contact with children, it was her. Someone assured me, though, that her goal was not to teach that much but to be a school administrator like an assistant principal or principal.

You can’t even begin to imagine how unpleasant this person was. On one occasion, when I was forced to bring her neck brace to the ladies bathroom, I very nearly left a Phi Theta Kappa convention. I so wanted to belong. Finally, I just stopped being active in the group.

Funny, but a year or so after graduating from Palm Beach Community College, I was walking in the breezeway at Florida Atlantic University and heard a familiar voice. It was her, with a bunch of other college of education misfits. I hid behind a pillar.

See, there are those who teach and do it well and make a long career of it, like Frank McCourt, and those who decide that they’ll do a token year or two of teaching, and then climb those golden stairs. Michelle Rhee was one of those. So long as their students’ test scores go up, they leave behind the lesson plans and the kids and the abuse to become administrators and take the credit for everything good that happens, and blame the teachers for everything bad that happens.

Soon, they are being acclaimed as the greatest of the greats and achieve their goal of a big school district that pays in the high six figures. They get their pictures taken with kids, curse teachers unions and pretend that the kids got high scores because of their presence. Often, a test score increase is the stepladder to an even bigger district. The best part is to do like Obama appointee Rod Paige and tout higher test scores that were obtained through changing answers.

In fact, the only thing that really matters in public education is higher test scores. It’s the inevitable coda to nearly every education story, especially on National Public Radio: “And after the program was implemented, test scores went up.”

And the top administrators all get promotions and six-figure pay raises.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Education, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Going to college: Smart. Borrowing to pay for it: Possibly risky

One thing I’m not known for is my humility, and I have always been proud of the fact that I went to college and did not borrow a penny to pay for my education.

Granted, I was beyond the traditional age for college education and I was a blue-collar worker, but my degree is just as good as if I had lived in the dorms, got drunk at fraternity events and emerged owing $75,000 for my degree.

I majored in communications, a field not known for generating great salaries at first. I was able to pay as I went by working at the post office and was able to trade a postal job for a job that paid less and still cover my bills, and then some.

Today, students are encouraged to go very deeply into debt for their education. Even back when I went to college, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were those mandatory financial aid orientation lectures, where we were told that debt was part of the college experience. In addition to the regular loans, there were “Stafford emergency loans” for when it was Friday and you had a big weekend planned, and were broke. With a few hundred in your pocket, you were ready for fun, and it would be added to your regular loan.

Students who finally graduated found themselves with a crushing debt and I often wonder if there’s anyone out there who has ever paid off a student loan without going through gyrations, or just defaulting. Actually, you can’t default. They can always try to collect. That’s something that’s not mentioned in the brochures, by the way.

I tried to advise people on the dangers of student loan debt, but no one listens to an old man in his 50s who has never snorted cocaine or shot heroin, or defaulted on a debt (yet).

Law school is the biggest scam of all. A New York Times story (Is Law School a Losing Game?, Jan 8, 2011) noted that law schools pack in students like mad because they’re all getting student loans and paying up front. They all think they’re going to be Perry Mason or something, and most will end up working in fast food. The thing is, the law schools know it but many won’t tell their students. They just want that money.

It saddens me when I read about a really smart person who is determined to go to law school no matter what, and the student loan mavens are eager to help. “So what if very few of them will land good-paying jobs?” they figure. Someone has to beat the odds, and it may as well be them.

But often, the result is another indebted student. I’ve even read about students who double down and figure they’re so deep in the hole, they might as well go deeper and go for a master’s degree, and then a doctorate. I can hardly imagine owing more than $250,000, not having a job and knowing that you’ll be paying it off for 30 or 40 years. At least with a house, there’s something tangible out there that you’re paying for.

I just think that colleges need to realize that the working student who goes through the process slower, but comes out without debt, is not a liability but an asset.

Now that the kickbacks to college personnel for selling loans have been exposed, I hope that things have changed, but I doubt it. Marketing the wonders of indebtedness to college students is an effort that continues. Even when I was taking my brief classes to become a teacher, I saw pitches for private student loans featuring photos of smiling people working at careers funded by debt at high interest rates.

Young people have a tendency to sign things without reading them, and the marketers of debt know it. As someone who is not only boring as heck but also someone who has bought things on credit countless times (several cars, four houses, other stuff on credit cards), I know from experience that you must, must, must, must read everything presented to you for signature. It’s a lot of time and effort to do the reading, but it must be done. And when you’re signing for a student loan, you have to know what you’re getting into.

Credit is a tool that can be used for good, but while a tool like a screwdriver can assemble something good and useful, it can also hurt someone grievously, and needs to be used with extreme care.

October 21, 2011 Posted by | Education, Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sign now … and regret it later

Culinary students hoping to be the next Emeril Lagasse or Rachael Ray have discovered that while whipping up a soufflé in front of a TV camera – and getting paid big bucks for it — may be a snap for the big kitchen stars, the ordinary chef at the steam table may be drowning in debt while stirring the gravy.

A New York Times story some time back told the sad tale of some people who had signed themselves deeply into debt to attend culinary school, then found that not everyone gets a cooking show, a cookbook deal or even a good-paying job in the industry. True, there are plenty of cooking jobs out there, but the pay won’t set the world on fire, or make a big dent in those student loans.

More recently, I read a story in the Tampa Tribune about university students who showed up at a job fair, but found most of the jobs were minimum wage and no benefits, in the fast-food industry, or commission sales jobs. Several students said they had tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to pay off, and those jobs wouldn’t cut it.

With all the stories about student loans, it’s more important than ever that young people think before they sign up for a loan for college.

I consider myself very fortunate because when I went into career change mode in my mid- to late-20s, I had a job at the post office that paid me enough to support myself in a decent middle-class manner and leave enough left over for a public college education.

True, it took me more than six years to land a four-year degree (and I also did some graduate work), but when I left college for the last time in my mid-30s I owed nothing to no one and was able to take entry-level jobs in journalism that paid me just enough to live on and offered great work experiences.

I can still remember attending the community college and university orientations and having to sit through the presentations for financial aid, which were more like “50 Ways to Go Over Your Head into Debt” than anything else. In addition to the regular loans, there were emergency loans for those times at the end of the month when you were out of money. Few students asked about the interest rates, the terms of payment or the consequences of defaulting.

Colorful brochures showing happy young people working in highly-paid and fulfilling jobs told of the wonderful things that could happen if you borrowed money for your education. But none mentioned that the smiles of the loan personnel could turn to snarls if you couldn’t make those payments, or the consequences for the future.

Even worse, credit cards were marketed intensely all over campus. It saddened me to see students filling out applications for the plastic just to get a sun visor or drink carrier. One ad for a card, on the bulletin board in nearly every classroom, featured your typical male college student, circa 1990, declaiming, “I was like, ‘Just because I’m a college student doesn’t mean I can’t have a life.’ ”

Lesson: Credit cards mean having a life. Makes you wonder.

There were stories back then of credit card companies figuring Mom and Dad would cover their son’s or daughter’s debts, and that was the logic for issuing the cards. One student’s fondness for Mexican food plus a place that delivered and accepted plastic added up to a lot of trouble, a story reported.

Oddly enough, the two colleges I attended, while they permitted the companies to pitch the cards relentlessly, did not have the facilities to accept credit cards for either tuition or the on-campus bookstore. It was better for me to pay my tuition by check, but going on campus to buy books and having to carry a wad of cash was a dangerous endeavor. Right after I left school, though, I heard that they started accepting plastic for tuition and books.

I have often wondered just whatever happened to working your way through college, and attending part-time or stopping for a semester or two if you lack the time or resources to go full-time. We’re fixated on the four-year college experience as if it were engraved in stone somewhere, when more flexibility can stretch out the cost and lessen the stress as well. In these days of longer life spans, taking two or three more years to get a degree cannot be such a disadvantage. At no job interview I ever went on did the interviewer ever see my unusual college experience as something negative; indeed, working one’s way through college – even if it was slower than the norm — shows discipline, commitment and focus.

The culinary school experience mentioned in the Times reminded me of the boom, several years ago, in technical training schools for computers and networking. I was interested in learning some new skills, so I set out to obtain certifications but was working full-time and had other commitments. I discovered that there were self-paced courses you could take at home, and I even bought a second-hand computer to use for practice and training.

The biggest expense was the cost of taking the tests, and a local test administration facility’s personnel were disappointed to hear that I did not want to take out a loan (at 18 percent interest) to take their course, but just take their certification tests. They let me take the tests, and going self-paced I passed them all.

Others went deeply into debt on the promise of lucrative jobs and signing bonuses, but when the tech job market crashed they were left in a deep, deep financial hole. I felt sorry for many of them, and hope they’ve regained their confidence and good credit. As it turned out, I did not use those technical skills but I did learn a lot about setting up my own personal home network, so it wasn’t a total loss.

With all that’s going on in education lending today, people need to take a step back and think of the consequences before signing all those papers and borrowing all that money. Credit is not a bad thing if it is misused. Maybe I’m biased because I’ve bought six cars on credit (and paid them all off early or on time) and four houses (sequentially) through mortgages, as well as using credit cards (sometimes too much, but always paid off on time) responsibly.

But you have to be careful when borrowing money for anything, as today there is little flexibility among lenders and they have a lot of power to affect your life for decades to come if you don’t pay them back on time. They may not break your legs like on “The Sopranos,” but they can do a number on your finances and your future.

October 11, 2008 Posted by | Education, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kick education students out of school

I try to avoid commenting on K-12 education, mainly because I don’t have children and there’s something weird about a single guy with no kids being concerned with how the local schools are run.

When I lived in Vero Beach, there was this one fellow who had recently moved to town and found himself a cause: the way the school district was spending construction money.

Actually, he was onto something. In the good times, a lot of Florida school districts took school construction money and blew it on an administration building. Palm Beach County’s was so elaborate, locals resorted to calling it “the Taj Mahal” or simply “the Taj,” though the superintendent on whose watch it was built never liked that phrase for some reason.

Anyway, this fellow in Vero Beach used to get arrested at school board meetings for filibustering at the meetings, and eventually moved on to other causes.

I do have an opinion, though, on why I think so many teachers are engaging in sexual misconduct with students. The problem is not, as some local news media and teachers unions have said, the poor pay teachers get. 

I think it’s that colleges have a bad habit of assuming that everyone who wants to be a teacher should be a teacher. Let’s be realistic, there are some folks who just should not be around children or teenagers in any capacity, either because the prospective teachers lack maturity, judgment or intelligence, or because the prospective teachers are deficient in education or morality.

And that goes for other parts of public education as well. We’ve all heard of school resource officers, some barely out of high school themselves, who have had improper relationships with students.

So I think that colleges of education should periodically review each person seeking a degree in education, and those who are deficient in the above ways should be prevented from attaining such a degree. If a person manages to slip through, there is always a chance that a college of education could simply not recommend that person for a teaching job, saving the students from being around someone unsuited to teaching.

When I was at Palm Beach Community College, there was one person who I thought should not even be a student at the college, let alone one majoring in education.

She was in a high position at an academic fraternity of which I was an active member, and even I eventually stopped attending the meetings because of her.

I believe she was in her 50s at the time, she had had several children by several men, and she was in my view morally unfit to be around children. She treated the other members of the fraternity in a very high-handed manner and even roped one of her ex-husbands, a building contractor, into a project to fix a World War I veteran’s house that turned out to need far more work than she initially let on so she could get credit for helping the veteran.

When I found out that she was majoring in education, I was stunned because I could not picture a child encountering a teacher like that and not being damaged in some way.

My sharpest memory of her is an incident at a big convention at a hotel in northern Palm Beach County. She had had a car accident and had to wear a neck brace, but had left it somewhere, and I was told to bring it to the women’s bathroom to give to her. I refused because I would have to bring it to her, and I really didn’t care about her or her neck. I think they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and when I relented and took her brace to the door, she answered in just a bra and slip.

I was furious and withdrew from the group after that. I later saw her at Florida Atlantic University, but ducked behind a tree so she didn’t see me.

I was not the only one who disliked her since the fraternity had elaborate ceremonies welcoming students who achieved a certain GPA, and very few attended after getting a blast of this woman’s attitude. I shudder to think of what she is doing now, and hope she has nothing to do with the education of children.

October 1, 2008 Posted by | Education | , , , , | Leave a comment

Talking down to the community college

As someone who came to the college experience later than normal, in my late 20s instead of my late teens, I was always of the view that learning was learning, whether you got it in the Ivy League or at a lesser institution.

Circumstances — such as an insistence that I make my own decisions after graduating from high school — led me to join the Marine Corps at the ripe young age of 17 in 1978, and then my efforts to make my way in the world after my four years of service led me to the Postal Service. It wasn’t until around 1988 and I was beginning to tire of the sameness of life in the Postal Service that I realized that to take my life and career to the next level, I needed to go to college.

And Palm Beach Community College was there. Close to my house, on my way to my job at the post office, and willing to let me drink at their fountain of knowledge. I worked nights at the post office, and was able to take day classes almost like a real and traditional-age college student. Thanks to good pay and benefits at the post office, I was able to pay for the whole thing out of pocket without taking out student loans.

Honestly, I could have gone to Florida Atlantic University first, but I was a little uncertain about whether I could handle college work and wanted to stick a toe in the water, so to speak. I eventually did go to FAU after I graduated from PBCC, but that’s another blog post.

Because I had to attend PBCC part time, it took me three years to finish the two-year course, and in that time I became more than just someone with a bunch of credits, but a more educated and cultured man. I still had a lot to learn, but I was on my way.

So when I read things about community colleges that tend to dismiss them as inferior places of learning, I get kind of defensive. It hurts more when someone acts as if attending a community college is a sign of failure that will have to be explained in a job interview.

When a community college tries to rise above and be a major player, it seems like there is an attitude that the leaders of the place should recognize their inferiority and remember their place in the educational pecking order.

That hurts. I learned so much from the instructors at Palm Beach Community College, and received encouragement to do more than just attend college. At PBCC, I worked on the newspaper, took courses whose lessons remain with me to this day, and have a cup running over of memories. Maybe I never pledged an “Animal House”-like fraternity or engaged in hi-jinks, but that was because I was paying the freight on my education and needed to focus on that. I was active on the newspaper and in the PTK chapter as much as I could.

Indeed the same folks who run down community colleges also tend to run down adult students such as I was, and throw words around like “career student.” I changed in a lot of ways during my time in both community college and at the university, and sometimes that upset people at the post office. Suddenly, I was studying on my breaks or doing homework. After work, I’d go home instead of going to a local bar to whine about management. Often, I had to get up the next morning for class after working late. Believe me, it wasn’t the easiest path, but it was one I willingly took.

Community colleges labor in obscurity and their successes are not immediately apparent, but those who have a negative view of them are wrong. The people attending them are intent on success and determined to get ahead in this world. Sure, that’s a threat to some people, but the students just want a better life, and are willing to invest their time, money and effort into it.

For that reason alone, community colleges should be cheered, not dismissed, and their staffs should be honored, not belittled.

Indeed, one of the greatest teachers of English literature worked his magic for decades at Palm Beach Community College, Watson B. Duncan III. You may have heard of him. Once, he encouraged a smart-ass student in the back of the class to try out for a play. You may have heard of that student: Burt Reynolds. See the Wikipedia entry for the full story:

Duncan could have taught anywhere, but he seemed happy at PBCC, where more than a hundred eager students would crowd into the Duncan Theater at PBCC to hear him explain the wonders of English literature. I still remember the names of those classes: “English Literature to 1660” and “English Literature After 1660.” The textbook you had to buy, “The Literature of England,” sits in a bookcase in my house. I should open it more often.

Back before Web-based signups for class, you had to line up and give your proposed or dreamed-of schedule to a clerk, who would check to see if there was room. Those hoping to attend Duncan’s class would line up early, and I know I punched the air when I got into Duncan’s class. His reputation preceded him, and he taught people, their children and even their grandchildren.

Like everyone, I loved his lectures, and loved to kid him. One time, I was sitting in class and he was declaiming on the wonders of the man he called “The greatest writer in the history of the English language: William Shakespeare!” Well, this time, I decided to have some fun, so when he said “… language,” I burst out, “Stephen King!”

He looked mad. I apologized after class, and he accepted it with good humor, noting that his wife, Honey Duncan, read King’s books, but he couldn’t see why they were so popular.

Duncan was a great man, and his passing in 1991, before I graduated, was mourned at PBCC. This long diversion into Duncan was just to show that there’s quality in community colleges, and it’s the people who make it so.

So next time someone says, “Ah, it’s just community college,” reply this way: “It’s way, way better than you think.”

September 20, 2008 Posted by | Education | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments