Because They Wouldn't Let Me In Their Club

Mary Grabar
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Posted: May 04, 2008 12:01 AM
Because They Wouldn't Let Me In Their Club

In my ignorance, I once held hopes of gaining entrance into a club more exclusive than any country club or nightclub.

Having been educated in public schools and therefore exposed to only one form of thought, I thought this club represented intellectualism.

My first exposure to intellectual thought was a shelf filled with dime store Golden Books. One of the American “ladies” had heard about the cleaning abilities of a Slovenian immigrant woman who was laid off from her job in a factory. So this lady picked my mother and me up and drove us out to her big house in the suburbs. The drive was a special treat for me, for I rarely got car rides; my family would not own a car until I was twelve.

As my mother cleaned upstairs, my eyes caught sight of a shelf, fairly glowing gold in the sunshine streaming through the large picture window. There were dozens of dime store Golden Books lined up! The children that lived here must truly be rich, I thought. My sister and I had one Golden Book between us, Hiawatha and Little Bear, that my father struggled to sound the words from. In later years I realized that he was probably functionally illiterate in his native Slovenian, having only a fourth-grade education. One of nine children, he slept with his brothers in the hayloft because there wasn’t enough bed space in the two-room straw-thatched house. No time could be spent on school when all hands were needed in the fields.

I skipped kindergarten so my mother could work in the factory and longed for the written word. After some catching up, I became a star reader in the first grade.

I also began noticing “class distinctions.” The children whose houses my mother cleaned often made fun of our ways. They mocked our language, my Slovenian-style braids. They made fun of the fact that I wore their older sisters’ hand-me-downs. These children were driven to dance lessons, music lessons, and outings by their mothers. They were fawned over and bragged about. They carelessly left their Golden Books lying about and later would complain about having to read. I was taught how to clean so I’d be able to earn my own money a few years down the road.

As soon as I could, I took advantage of what a library card could offer me.

When I decided to fulfill the dream of a life of ideas and books years later and pursued a Ph.D. in English, I found those spoiled kids grown up and teaching the classes I was taking. Their classes were exercises in demolishing the great works of the past with postmodern and Marxist theories. They lent an air of superiority to their deconstructions of Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot, and declared them guilty of the sins that afflict all Western white males from which they dissociated themselves. Yet, their own writing was puerile.

I also saw that these very same children who treated books cavalierly and left messes for the cleaning lady expressed in very emotional and public terms their concerns for the downtrodden of darker hues. As I struggled in graduate school to support myself and my son and opted for teaching the large load of freshman composition classes, I was told by the graduate director that it would be better to take a lighter teaching load. When I told him that I could not afford to, he suggested I economize by eating “more beans.”

Yet, when a potential black graduate student was to visit the school, a request was sent over the department’s email list calling for volunteers to pick her up from the airport. But I doubt that my services would have been desired, for my beat-up Ford Escort was not very reliable. I searched posters on walls around faculty members’ offices for grants. I saw the invitations from the Ford Foundation, the university itself, and others, but saw that I was excluded.

In the freshman composition classes I taught, I was ordered to use “texts” that celebrated such things as polygamy, child sacrifice, ancestor worship, and ritual suicide. Special sections were devoted to Chicano writers, African-American writers, Chinese writers, prisoners. In a decade and a half I have seen only one work by someone of Eastern European heritage, an unknown daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who wrote an anti-Vietnam short story. Scalp dances and rain dances in the anthologies I was ordered to teach from were presented by the editors as the highest forms of literature. Religions that practiced human sacrifice accompanied by the tribal beat of drums were celebrated as the highest forms of spirituality.

Yet my pointing out in a seminar that certain lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” were references to the mass and not signs of anti-Semitism, misogyny, classicism, or any other “ism,” was met with stares that had me pinned and wriggling with the question: Who let this fundamentalist nut into graduate school? I was ridiculed in class by the popular professors.

Yet, my thesis advisor (a devout Catholic who received tenure before political correctness) helped me revise my paper for publication at his house and over lunch—after he had retired.

The loudest advocates of “workers” and the “proletariat” in the graduate classroom were twenty-somethings who had generous allowances from parents. These students wrote odes to themselves about handing dollar bills to the homeless. They lounged around when visiting as I struggled to maintain my house and yard.

Yet, it was my neighbor whom they would have labeled backward because of her membership in the Pentecostal Church, whom my son called Mee Maw, who would get on her riding lawn mower and just show up in my backyard. She would sometimes watch my son during my evening classes. I remember walking home one evening to be greeted by her raking the grass in the front yard with my son.

When I later gave her my heartfelt thanks she did not write a Whitman-esque paean about it, but brushed it off and said, “That’s what Our Lord told us to do.”

My education, eventually, came not from the books on the syllabi of the popular professors, but from the authors they disparaged: T.S. Eliot, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley.

I also came to see that I had more in common with Mee Maw than my sophisticated colleagues who liked to continue their nihilism in conversation at parties fueled by drink and drugs.

Yet this group saw themselves as the saviors of humanity.

They have come to make up hiring committees and dedicate themselves to the goals of affirmative action. The snotty kids who made fun of my language grew up to embrace Spanish and promote bilingualism in the workplace and in schools. Most of them support Barack Obama.

They identify with Barack Obama’s statement in Philadelphia a few weeks ago about Jeremiah Wright’s outrageous statements because they agree with what Wright says. Wright may call this country “the U.S. of K.K.K.A.” The English Ph.D.’s use slightly more sophisticated language in literature textbooks as they point out for students, “the bloody truths of Europe’s colonial dreams” (Norton anthology) and “the imperialist and colonizing” mentality of late nineteenth-century America (Heath anthology).

Barack Obama said a short time ago in Philadelphia, “The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning.”

Really, Barack Obama? “The most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning”?

Not at the Baptist church around the corner from where I live. On my dozens of Sunday morning visits, I have heard the gospel preached, but never a mention of race or politics. When the black members come to shake my hand I doubt that they congratulate themselves for their generosity of putting their black hands into my white one. The same holds true for the Catholic Church down the road from me.

I think the most segregated church is the church of the liberal. His dogma is that racial bigotry exists. But it exists only in those outside of his club.