“Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.” J.D. Vance
He has become the voice of an unheard America. A part of America that has lost the American Dream. The dream that, if you work hard, you can make a good life.
J.D. Vance grew up in Rust Belt, USA. His grandparents had migrated from Kentucky to Ohio–but never escaped their hillbilly roots–until Vance graduated from Yale Law School. Yet he doesn’t seek to disassociate himself from his forebears. He carries with him lessons they taught.
His journey to Yale is remarkable. But many of his peers remain in Appalachia living unremarkable lives. Their dreams are not remarkable. They have lost hope.
Many analysts blame the economic downturn for this lack of hope. But as with every sociological phenomenon, there are many factors.
The economic downturn coincided with the sexual revolution, which coincided with a freer availability of drugs–marijuana, heroin, then crack, now opioids.
There are not only few good jobs, there are also few fathers–fewer male influences to pass down a concept of hard work and traditional manhood. And since the military draft ended, few young men enlist. Few learn, as Vance did in the Marines, what their true capabilities are.
Vance points out that there is “a lack of agency”–“too many young men immune to hard work.”
Small town America changed too. Gone are the locally owned mom and pop stores. Those places where everyone knew your name.
But there is always someone who does know your name–or at least someone who can find it out.
What made the difference for Vance? A handful of loving people–a few who cared. There were his grandparents; one was an alcoholic. They divorced, but never severed themselves from each other or the rest of the family. He had a series of father figures. His own father was largely absent.
But his grandparents pushed him to work hard. His father took him to church–at least briefly.
And the Marines made sure he knew how to balance a checkbook. How to buy a car. How to choose healthy food. How he could go to college. Basically, they taught him how to function in life. How to move beyond his limited background.
He navigated the Marines; he accelerated through college; he realized low-income people get a tuition break at Yale Law. He dreamed big; he applied.
And he worked hard. Teachers encouraged him. He met a girl.
She was the one he called once when he needed an answer fast. He was attending a high-stakes dinner where prestigious law firms sorted through prospective associates at Yale.
From the men’s room, he asked her what to do with so many forks beside his dinner plate. She gave him a quick lesson on how to work through his place setting.
That’s something you don’t learn in a typical household in Appalachia.
But in other ways, he was smarter than his Yale peers.
He and some friends went out to dinner. He and another student from a modest background were appalled at how their group had left the table. Vance knew what it was like to clean up after people who were careless and sloppy. There are those who never fathom what it’s like to do a dirty job.
The elite students grew up knowing they would go to college. They assumed success in the world. They learned how to fit in with other elite crowds. They knew which fork to use. They had manners.
Vance and his friend helped clean up the table. They had courtesy.
What if society could take the good from Vance’s adversity and the good from elite life? I suppose it’s a bit of a dream to envision a life where people have courtesy and hope, no matter their life status.
If we could do that, we would change the world.
And it might only take a handful of people. A handful of loving people.
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