Social Class in the Heartland

I grew up in a small town in the middle of dairy farm country. On still mornings, you could smell the cows from my house. The tallest structure in town is the feed mill; the biggest employer is the state prison.

When I was growing up, there were two family-owned bakeries on Main St., two hardware scores, two “dime stores”, two jewelry stores, a shoe store, a few clothing stores, and lots and lots of bars.

The bars are all still there.

One jewelry store is still open. The storefront that was a bakery is now a tanning salon. A few stores have been given over to serial , seemingly doomed, small businesses (a scrap booking supply store just opened). A developer has opened a sales office for the new subdivision out on the edge of town. In three years, he has sold 3 lots.

Out of my graduating class of almost 400, about 30 of us went to college. A few went to private church-affiliated schools in the next state; the rest of us to state schools. A few went to the flagship state university, but at least of few of those got lost in the crowds and dropped out before graduating.

Most of us figured out how to get to and pay for college on our own. Our guidance counselor saw her work as essentially clerical: handing out brochures when we asked for them, mailing out our transcripts, writing formulaic letters of recommendation. She was very proud of those of us who aspired to college, but it never occurred to any of us that there were possibilities beyond the University of Our State -Hyphen schools. We talked among ourselves about which school had the best business or education programs, as if we had access to such information, as if there were substantive differences among any of them. Somehow, we just knew that we were supposed to have those sorts of conversations about picking colleges.

I Googled my high school yesterday. On the school website, you can sign up for email updates on the athletic schedule with one click. You can get the “hot lunch” menus. You can link to each of the 12 student clubs (Future Farmers of America, Future Business Leaders of America, a French Club and a Spanish Club) and find photos of students working on homecoming floats.

But you can’t find a syllable about the curriculum, the resources available to families with college- bound kids, the scheduled visits of college reps, about any connection between the school and the lives that graduates might pursue.

You can link to teacher profiles, and here you can find lists of courses that each teaches.
In these individual teacher pages, I did find three that the school now offers three AP courses.

AP History is taught by the social studies teacher that I had for two years. He must be near retirement now. We had a great time in his class. We learned almost nothing about history. I remember how easy it was to goad him into fury by simply disagreeing with him in our “Current Issues” class. He told me where to find ethnic restaurants in the town where my boyfriend was going to college. I felt terribly sophisticated, knowing such things, even though I never made it to any of those restaurants.

AP Calculus is taught by the second wife of a distant relative of mine. None of their kids has gone to college.

I don’t know anything about the man who teaches AP Calculus. His webpage mentions that he also coaches several sports.

Every single teacher is a graduate of one of those Hyphen state schools that my classmates selected from years ago.

The nearest bookstores for kids in my high school is small Walden Books in a small mall about 20 miles away (but of course, they do now have Amazon). If people who live there were interested in live music of any genre, they’d have to drive about an hour, unless some arts group brought their summer tours to the slightly-larger towns a half hour away. Live theater? An hour, minimum, and people speak with some trepidation about the traffic, the crime, and the size of that distant city. Any films beyond recent-release adventure or horror blockbusters (three small screens, at that mall with Walden Books) would have to come in the mail, if people even knew about them.

Does any of this matter?

It does if we continue to talk of level playing fields, of hard work being the only thing separating the successful and the stilted, of the new opportunities in a global economy when so much of even mainstream American culture has bypassed places like this.

I’m sure that kids in my high school are tested more often now (Learning Goals under NCLB are linked there to that website).

But it’s not clear that they’re learning how to sustain family businesses when Walmart opens in the town just down the highway, about entrepreneurship models less dependent upon storefronts on Main St., about the range of ideas out there for thinking about their place in the world, about what it might mean to become educated in ways very different from what even their own teachers imagined.

In essence, they’re not learning anything more about class that I did when I lived there, believing as I did then that those A’s in Current Issues and English were my ticket to the world just over the horizon.

I had no idea.

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