My last class for my undergraduate career is finished. It was a Political science class.
THe teacher seems impossibly old. But he tells a lot of stories. He tells them well too. One of the things about being an old person is having such a great amount of stories to tell.
He was actually a politician, so he had a personal viewpoint to speak from, when discussing all the branches of government and how they work.
He took a whole hour today to talk about the wonderfulness of the government.He was trying to convince the class to consider working for the government as a career. He said, “there are a lot of really sharp people in this class. For my own selfish reasons, I would like to have sharp people in the government. You should seriously think about it.”
But his story is the kind of story that has been heard so often it doesn’t seem like it could be true. He told us his whole life story, this time, not just the bits and pieces.
He was born to a young woman, 20 years old, and his father was 19. His father left them right after he was born. His poor mother, in the middle of the depression, had no skills and had to take care of herself and her child. THe only thing she could do was be a waitress. So she was a waitress, and supported her little baby. He said he remembers that once, when she worked at a hotel, she was able to buy the broken cookies for a discount price. So every once in a while, he was able to have the broken cookies. And he began to resent the broken cookies. He wanted a WHOLE cookie.
Later, he went to live with his grandparents. They were sharecroppers in Northern Indiana.
Sharecropping seems so remote. Almost as far away as medieval fuedalism. But it wasn’t THAT long ago…
He remembers sharecropping, and raising the pig and the cow. He described how they would put a barrel in the ground, wrapping up all their carrots and potatoes in newspaper, and use it for cold storage. He said some of the potatoes would be rotten, but it was the way they could preserve vegetables for the winter.
His major goal was to finish high school. NO one in his family had finished high school. In fact, going to high school was in some ways an act of selfishness. What you were supposed to do was find work and help out your family. But he did not do that. He went away at age 15 to live on his own, pay his rent and feed himself with a parttime job and finish high school.
Then came WWII. And the GI bill. That let him go to college. The poor sharecropping boy who used to sit in the Indiana sun with nothing on but his tattered trousers and watch the trains go by, wanting, wanting to go too, but not believing it.
He went to college. And he describes how once, when things were bad, and couldn’t pay his dorm rent because he didn’t have a job. He was living off oranges picked from trees in the town plaza. For WEEKS.
Then he decided that he was going to do whatever it took to get a job. He decided to walk down the street and ask for a job at every single place, every single one. until he got a job.
My god. I find that so admirable. Because, really, that is what a job is for: food and shelter.
In Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace, Pierre struggles to find contentment, and he only finds it after he figures out that food and shelter are not to be taken for granted.
I have been very close, very close, to living off oranges. When I remember that, it is easier to remember how blessed I truly am.
If you have food and shelter, all the other things are frosting.
In Russia, there is a cultural emphasis on bread. You must have bread at every meal. Bread was very important, even though not everyone enjoyed the bread or ate it. I asked why bread was such a big deal.
“Because if you have bread, you are not hungry. You have food, and you have enough, if you have bread. You will be satisfied, you will be okay”
It takes less than you might think to make it. A slice of bread, apparently. Or, in this land of sunshine, oranges in the park.
The important thing about my professor’s story is that he did not quit school to find a job. He stuck it out.
As he was going from business to business, he was turned down again and again. He went into an insurance broker’s office and told his story to the guy. The guy said, “i’m sorry. I have kids of my own I’m taking care of. I can’t use you. Good luck”
But as he turned to go, another man stopped him. He said, “You mentioned that you were taking classes in Political science at college. I might be able to use you.”
He was the insurance broker, and on some kind of drunken dare, he had been nominated to run for state senate. Only, he knew nothing about government.
They reached an agreement. THe broker would train him in the insurance field, and he would train the broker in how the government worked.
He threw his pride out the window; no need for pride. It’s just about the basics.