Random, Incomplete Thoughts on Family, Expectations, and Education

I’ve never been one to put artificial emphasis on degrees. To me, “education” is largely created around our interest in and engagement with ideas, whether we are autodidacts or rely on the institutional process.

Several years ago, when I was pregnant, staying with my sister, trying to avoid the drama of my hometown, she asked me what I wanted to do with myself in the future. “I don’t know,” I told her. “I’m just interested in ideas.”

“You’ll grow out of that,” she said. “I did.”

I don’t care what she says. Our family is one interested in ideas, debate, and involvement. We aren’t a model family, we aren’t a perfect family, but I’m proud of us. And we’re damned interested in ideas.


I had my official graduation party tonight with the family at my favorite local restaurant in town. Two things were on my mind as we chatted about friends, family, and education over good food and lots of wine: achievement levels for teen moms and my family’s rather common generational relationship to the academic process.

Earlier this week, my sister alerted me to a recent profile in the Detroit Free Press by Desiree Cooper about a former teen mom who recently graduated with her master’s degree. One quote in particular stood out to me (emphasis mine):

Last Saturday, Johnson defied the naysayers and graduated from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in social work. Next month, she begins a job working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

But her successes are still bittersweet.

“People say I should be proud because of what I’ve accomplished as a teenaged mom,” Johnson said last week. “It’s so hard to live with everyone else’s low expectations.”

Finally graduating after six years of work has been a bittersweet experience. On one hand I know that I should be proud that I have finally achieved this long term goal, while on the other hand I hear how amazing it is that I’ve made it to and through college considering the life I live — after all, only around 1.5% of teen moms end up with a college degree by the age of thirty. But Ms. Cooper highlighted one thing in particular that has always irked me, the low expectations we have for teen moms. This sentiment also echoes so many of the low expectations we have for other social classes.

Between railing about the failures of modern marriage and the unfortunate rates of teen pregnancies, the graduation rates of white men and black women, the education rates between the poor and the rich, it seems we forget that real people live among the statistics that we so often cite. I remember when I decided to keep my pregnancy with E, people of all walks of life felt free to tell me how I was ruining my life, my son’s life. I toyed with the idea of giving E up for adoption when he was born, knowing that the chances of me being able to make us a comfortable life without leaning heavily on my parents was slim. I tried for a relationship with Ethan’s dad, a relationship that would eventually end amicably, but not without much strife. I worried. I prayed. I looked for God, for anything that would give me direction.

In the end I found books. I decided to give up some of my financial and emotional autonomy to aim for the optimistic hope that I had the guts to do it, to raise my son, to get a degree, to achieve real autonomy despite the odds. I chose college.

I’m getting to that autonomy, not there yet, but I’m getting there. Nonetheless, I find myself fighting against the stupid social restrictions placed on us for me having the gall to have a son without being married. Screwed if you do (have the baby and do your best regardless) and screwed if you don’t (have the baby and do your best regardless).

Education is very important to my family. As the children of poor folks, my parents achieved financial stability in no small part due to their college educations. My father, whose life was considerably improved compared to his parents’ dependence on cotton-farming landowners and various odd jobs, insisted that all three of his daughters get an education in a four year college. My mother, a teacher for over thirty years, imparted her values to us in many ways, most importantly being connected to the educational community and heavily involved in our academic lives. Both of my parents came from families whose educational experience was little, parents’ GEDs gotten long after the children were born, parents whose education was considered complete if they made it past the sixth grade. My mother recalls stories about being in college after my oldest sister was born, finishing papers for Dad if he could not, doing what they could to make things better, to achieve lives for their children that were more stable and less financially difficult than their own childhoods.

My parents modeled their intellectual lives for us in myriad ways. Dad still reads more than four books a week, a habit I myself have picked up despite my time restrictions. Mom worked with economically and developmentally disadvantaged children, trying to get them to achieve something beyond their goals, not stopping at the bunk expectations of others, another habit I intend to continue. Both imparted the importance of reading, volunteering, and community involvement on us girls. My oldest sister attended the graduation ceremonies of my parents. I remember attending the graduation ceremonies of my two older sisters.

Tonight, when we piled in the car, my brother-in-law gleefully asked, “How many degrees in this car?” Between the seven of us we counted eleven. Considering where we come from, this is a big deal.

One of the things that pissed me off the most when I was pregnant was my mother insisting that I finish high school. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. I expect she and my teachers pulled some strings.

I had dropped out because of morning sickness and depression, lived in a one-bedroom apartment with two roommates above an ex-convict who became my surrogate mother, across the street from a coke dealer on house arrest, and tried to figure out how the hell I was going to make it to the next day. My mother finagled me a spot in the local alternative school where I finished my high school diploma by the two week deadline. Though my acceptance to Oberlin was out the window, I figured that I might as well go to college. After all, there was financial aid, and I could take out loans to cover most everything.

Thirty thousand in debt compared to life with a dependent on minimum wage. I chose college, trying for a two-year nursing degree until I realized I couldn’t pass the anatomy class the second time I tried. I transfered to the local university fearing that I wouldn’t make it, that I wasn’t smart enough. I soon realized that college isn’t about being smart enough, it’s about being rich enough and determined enough to just make it the fuck through, even if the sitter falls through, even if the financial aid doesn’t come through, even though you miss twice the amount of suggested classes because you need a goddamned break for no reason without apology, even if you fail that Latin class because you don’t have the time or brainpower to study, even if your professors treat you like shit because they think you’re late to class because you’re out at the bars all night, or if your professors treat you like shit because they think you’re a whore for having a baby at eighteen, even if you think you’re stupid, even if those around you expect you to achieve, or to outright fail.

Any way you push it it’s scary. Nonetheless, I finished high school. I finished college. But I had help that others do not have the privilege of employing.


When I was student teaching this past semester, battling my Basic students’ resistance to the educational process, I finally asked my students why some of them hadn’t opted for that alternative school from which I secretly graduated. It was a more organic layout, just a few hours a day, individual work toward short-term goals. For those who needed a more structured day, it wasn’t an option. But the rest of them. The rest of them considered it a cop-out. This surprised me. I figured that many of them would be attracted to an easy way out with the same ends as attending eight hours of high school a day. I wondered what they would think of me if I dropped the teacherly facade and was honest about my high school experience.

At one point I raised the risk level and revealed that I had been no model student in high school, that I thought many of them had what it takes to get through a four-year college, especially if I could do so. They laughed at me, accusing me of being some goody-two-shoes that had no idea about the difficulties of their lives. I didn’t tell them about the teenage pregnancy, or the criminal record, or the drugs, or the stay in juvenile hall, or the two trips to rehab, the years in AA. Sure, I don’t know the poverty, but I do know the expectations of failure. What I did say was that I was not a model student, that I had a past that was comparable to their present, and that I was within weeks of my degree. You can do it, I said. Trust me.

I don’t think many of them believe that they can do it, but I hope they do. Though I know that many of them will not opt for post-secondary education in some form or another, I am confident that 80% of them could handle the self-management that it requires to maintain oneself in an academic sphere. Even if they choose not to go that route, I pray that they do not settle for the low expectations of others. In some ways I know that I am a special case in that I have always had family support despite my circumstances as a teen parent. In other ways I know that I am not so special. I also know that because I love the process so much I am far from finished.

Overwhelmingly, it is obvious that my educational achievement is as much about my own determination as it is about my family’s willingness to support me despite the financial and statistical risks. While I thank them for that, I remember that I have many peers in similar situations who are doing the same thing without the financial and emotional support offered to me by my family.

I know many of us are from varied family and educational backgrounds and I’d appreciate your thoughts here. How did you get where you are today? Were you always expected to achieve? Fail? Attend college? Follow a trade? What does your family’s educational background look like? How did family and peer expectations affect your life decisions?

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68 comments for “Random, Incomplete Thoughts on Family, Expectations, and Education

  1. Bill
    December 29, 2005 at 11:38 pm

    Lauren, seeing as I have no degree and I’m going nowhere in life, I don’t have anything to add. But I would just like to say that I really enjoy it when you post these personal stories, or whatever you want to call them. I hope you’ll write them more often. But I enjoy the politics as well. Congratulations for graduating.

  2. December 29, 2005 at 11:48 pm

    congratulations lauren!

    i come from a family of lawyers. so it wasn’t a surprise that i ended up with a law degree. i basically assumed i would be doing what i am doing now for most of my childhood. in that sense, i don’t really see my degrees as much of an accomplishment. i had it a lot easier than many others

    and i second what bill says. keep it up!

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  4. Ivan
    December 29, 2005 at 11:56 pm

    Both my parents have Ph.Ds. So college seemed to be a given.
    Even though my parents were divorced, they shared custody amicably, and I was raised in a very stable home(s) with a culture of reading. Which made high school pretty much a breeze.

    My dad felt like he was really limited by his humanities Ph.D and advised me to get a bachelors in “something you can use to get a job doing things other than teaching someone else that skill”. I didn’t plan on going to grad school, but fell in love with science and ended up getting my Ph.D.

  5. Ivan
    December 30, 2005 at 12:00 am

    PS- Congrats Lauren. Another grad the University I work for can be proud of.


  6. ilyka
    December 30, 2005 at 12:02 am

    That is so TEACHER of you, to hit us with a Q & A assignment at the end of this (fabulous) post.

    Unfortunately I’d be here all day if I tried to answer them. Maybe when I have time to condense my answers appropriately, so I don’t write a novella, I’ll post them.

    For now I’ll just say the family situation is somewhat similar, though I don’t actually have a parent in education. But the first college degrees were earned in my parents’ generation; they, and all their siblings, are college graduates, and they’re enormously proud of that, considering that none of them come from particularly educated or wealthy parents. My father’s mother only completed the eighth grade. My mother’s mother dropped out at 16 to wed my grandfather. No bluebloods in my family, that’s certain.

    It’s one of the pressures on me to get a degree–I don’t want to feel like the kid who yanked the family educationally backwards.

    Congratulations, Lauren. You do have a truckload of things to celebrate and be proud of here at the end of 2005.

  7. December 30, 2005 at 12:06 am

    Well done. By planting the seeds of plausible possibility in those kids’ heads, you’ve measurably improved their chances to have good life outcomes.

  8. December 30, 2005 at 12:29 am

    Hard to add anything when here you have said so much so very well.

    “Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.” Kundera

  9. December 30, 2005 at 12:38 am

    As far as I know, I was the first person on either side of my family to ever go to college, though there may have been another cousin who went around the time I did. My father had, I think, an 8th grade education (my family was very secretive); my mother went to school in England and I think she got through whatever the first process was, but I’m not positive about that. I know she went to work when she was very young, and that she lived in poverty as a child.

    My father never talked with me about education; my mother assumed I would attend college, and I got a scholarship that paid for most of it. I tried to get a fellowship for graduate school, but had to settle for an assistantship, which means I worked all the time.

    Fourteen years later, with the economy really bad (Reagan years), I decided to get a second masters degree, and I was able to get a very small tuition stipend, a student loan, and a work-study grant. I also taught at the same school two nights a week, and I continued in my profession on a lesser basis.

    The hell began when I graduated. I got into a very stressful, very low-paying job, kept my teaching job, continued freelancing with a close friend as a partner, and eventually worked at my workplace’s free-standing weekend clinic. In other words, I worked four jobs. And still I barely got by.

    Things got better as I got more experience and became licensed, though I never made a lot of money.

    When I was a child, it was still expected that boys would succeed in professions and girls would type or be nurses, if they worked outside the home. I somehow managed to ignore these messages, but I also ignored my own instincts: I should have become a writer, but I think I was too afraid, and there was no one to encourage me. My mother was frightened of anything involving free expression, and my professors–as encouraging as they were–never engaged me in a discussion of what to do about my writing. So I entered other careers and learned how to do a lot of things, but didn’t work on my writing until about six years ago. Unfortunately, I am kind of lazy about it.

    I don’t think it should have been so hard for me, but it was nothing compared with what you went through, Lauren. That is an amazing story.

    As for teen moms, my general objection is not that they tend to be single mothers, but that so very many of them are narcissistic–they want a baby so someone will “love” them, which is a severe form of child abuse. But for those who want to keep their babies for other reasons–I hope they get a lot of support.

  10. Gxx
    December 30, 2005 at 12:54 am

    Really enjoyed your post. Congratulations.
    Both of my parents went to Uni. My dad is a prof. They were the first generation of their families to go to Uni. I always felt it was kind of expected of me, I grew up surrounded by books and loved going into to the Uni with my dad when I was little. Despite all that, I do feel that I squandered some of my undergraduate experience: I certainly didn’t appreciate how lucky I was to be there for the first couple of years. I pulled my head out of my ass by my final year and loved it. Waiting eight years before starting my MA was a great idea – I got so much more out of the experience with a bit of life experience under my belt. I’m applying for a PhD program now, a prospect that both excites and frightens me.
    I love ideas too. They are the foundations of everything. We read, watch, listen to, wear and use the various manifestations of these ideas everyday. What makes me really happy, other than the people I love, is when I manage to communicate my ideas well, when I feel like I manifest them outside of myself successfully.
    Congratulations again. Nice one.

  11. December 30, 2005 at 1:53 am


    I think that the low expectations thing is such a double-edged sword. On the one hand, practically speaking, sure: having a kid young, in this society, makes things tougher, especially financially. On the other hand, a lot of things make things tough, and the combination of low expectations and social stigma makes young single motherhood a lot harder than even the real practical difficulties of it do.

    I love this post, btw. I wonder why you didn’t tell your students the specifics of your life? I would have, but I often wonder about the wisdom of that; on the one hand, students often seem to find biographical detail like that really encouraging, and they do look for role models, but on the other, it runs the risk of turning the focus of the class onto the teacher, rather than on the students’ learning.

    I want to respond in more depth to what you’ve written here, but it’s late and I’m travelling tomorrow. Hopefully next week.

  12. a theoretical physicist
    December 30, 2005 at 3:46 am


    Well, despite coming from a not so ideal family (parents broke up and in deep debt), the idea of getting an education is deeply ingrained into our psyche by Mom.

    My brother got sent through college, partly funded by financial aid, worked a few years to help put *me* through college. He got back to school and now is finishing up his PhD.

    I also got sent through college with brother’s help and some financial aid. I worked a few years to shore up family finances, and then got back into grad school (free yay) to do a PhD.

    Our younger sister also got sent through college partly funded by aid and money from the brothers.

    All the time, the idea of higher education is a matter of pride in the family. Whatever family resources we have in the deep dark times when my father left the family in ruins, Mom insisted that they go into educating the family. She only had until grade 8 education, and she wanted to make sure that her kids get a better deal than her.

    When I have my own family, I am going to make education number 1. I don’t care what my kids want to study in the future, but I would make sure that they appreciate, and appreciate early, that education is not just a route to a job, it is a way of life.

  13. December 30, 2005 at 5:05 am

    Happy Graduation!!

    I wouldn’t have got through my university degrees without financial help from my father. I feel very uncomfortable when I’m around people who have had to juggle umpteen part time jobs to get their degrees. I’m very lucky in an age when education is getting more and more expensive.

  14. Harrison
    December 30, 2005 at 6:28 am

    Since it’s 3:23 a.m. here in San Diego, I can use the excuse of insomnia-induced exhaustion to account for the fact that I have nothing even remotely significant to add to this discussion. I am actually going to attempt to get some sleep after I write this. I did, however, want to congratulate Lauren and wish her all the best in her new career. So, Congrats, Lauren! Knock ’em dead, and please keep these wonderful posts coming!

  15. girlasshat
    December 30, 2005 at 7:30 am

    Five generations of my male ancestors have gone to the same (research one) university. The last three generations have all had wives who were first-generation college students in their families. My father values education because it’s what his family does; my mother values education because she fought her way through it, outlasting a couple of bad personal situations and graduating ten years after she started.

    I have been lucky. I like reading, I like writing, and I like ideas, so sticking with college hasn’t been hard. But it hasn’t been hard specifically because my mother fought her way through a decade-long B.A. My father’s inherited privilege meant that I _could_ go to college – at a state school, with a lot of loans – but I learned the motivation from my mother.

  16. December 30, 2005 at 8:01 am

    I always thought I got where I am today (undergraduate at Cambridge) by working hard and not giving in to considerable peer pressure and bullying not to.

    But then once I took up my place in September, all my thoughts on that changed; despite having had what many around me have called a “difficult few years” (death of my boyfriend at 16, dropping out of A-levels only to start them again at a college 70 miles round trip from my house, divorce of my parents, father’s alcoholism, etc.) I’ve had an easy ride. None of the above things affected me to the point where my work suffered because I’m lucky enough to have that middle class background where children can be cushioned from almost everything by privilege. I’d never have had to work to support myself, even when my mum was at her most hard-up, because we’ve always had enough.

    I was always expected to achieve, and whilst I moaned enough about the pressure as a teenager, I’m glad it was there. It meant my parents had faith in me, even if their definition of success is not mine. It took me a lot to admit, when I got here, that I’m not the atypical Cambridge student I thought I would be, with my vaguely struggling family, none of the wealth of my friends and 3 student loans. We’re pretty much all the same; we all had the benefit of the doubt, and the conditions which made achievement easy.

    Thanks for sharing this Lauren.

  17. December 30, 2005 at 9:56 am


    Second, this post really touched me. I wasn’t a teen mom; I had Puppy when I was 24. But I got pregnant, despite birth control, a few months after my spousal type moved in with me. We decided together to keep the baby and to get married. We’re still together. But when we got married, we were both working pseudo-jobs at the mall, mine the better, and then my doctor told me I should stop working because of my then-severe asthma. No insurance, 15K salary, and my soon-to-be husband forced to drop out of school.

    I went back to school, starting at the local community college, when my son turned 1. I ended up graduating from Michigan Law when I was 32. I’m not a single mother. I’m a married co-parent in a basically stable relationship. But we struggled financially so much, neither of us having a degree, me only periodically working while in school…and I was the first person in my family to get a four-year degree. I think my dad has an AS; he never used it, though. He spent thirty years on the line at a big three co.

    Even though I was only technically a “single mom” during 2/3 of my pregnancy, everybody I knew still had low expectations for my family’s future, based on where we started. And it’s funny–where we live, I’m one of the very youngest mothers in my son’s peer group.

    And it does bother me when people tell me how wonderful it is, how refreshing and surprising, that I rose above what I started out with. I try to hear it as a compliment but I can’t. It’s clear that they think I did everything wrong, you see, ass-backwards, and succeeded despite my errors in judgment during my youth. This is something that comes up alot with peers at my firm and did in law school too, where nearly everyone did the high-school to college to law school thing so cleanly.

    Sometimes, when people are patting me on the back for my “extraordinary accomplishments,” I get the feeling that they need my accomplishments, such as they are, to be extraordinary. Our ability to do life successfully on our own terms, despite doing things–in their view–wholly incorrectly, despite bucking at least the sequence of all of those college/marriage/kids upper-middle class scenarios, is threatening and frightening to them.

    Well, this comment got too long. Sorry! Thank you for posting this. You’ve inspired me to draft a post about it for my livejournal later. For now I guess I should get back to work.

    PS: I apologize for any typos/spelling errors/general ickiness. I haven’t had coffee yet.

  18. December 30, 2005 at 10:04 am

    I’m the first in my branch to make it through more than one year of college, and certainly the only one to work at an R1. Both of my parents have high school diplomas and some college. I know my paternal grandparents didn’t finish high school, but I think my maternal set did. One other cousin has gone all the way through, finishing with as a Doctor of Pharmacy a few years ago.

    My education has been paid for by employers, assistantships, fellowships, and a ton of loans. Since I worked full time throughout my BAs, they took six years. Graduate work has gone faster since I haven’t been working elsewhere. I never thought much about this at my previous institution, which was urban and commuter. Almost all of my professors were working class academics — my thesis chair was the daughter of a pig farmer. My teaching mentor was the child of oil field workers, and he remembered making himself sick one time by eating a whole can of guv’ment commodity peanut butter. Our WPA was also the son of oil field workers.

    Up here, it’s different, and those of us in the department who come from working class stock are a definite minority. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it in the past couple of years, and reading on the subject (of course). You might take a look at This Fine Place So Far From Home and Those Winter Sundays, which are fine anthologies by working-class academics. The latter one is written entirely by daughters considering their parents.

    Congratulations on graduating! There’s no degree like that first one.

  19. December 30, 2005 at 10:18 am

    My generation in my family is the first to have advanced degrees. We’ve followed the traditional progression– my grandparents on both sides did not finish high school, my parents both have four-year degrees, my sister and I both have Master’s degrees. In a lot of ways, I think my family still has very working-class ideas about education, even though they are both middle-class now, a teacher and an engineer. They both urged my sister and I to go to college, but offered no advice on how to choose one, and would never have considered a choice that would have put us in debt. My sister and I both attended state schools and did not think beyond that.

    My biggest privilege as far as education is probably that I went to college on a full scholarship, so that while I did work all through school and had to keep a stiff GPA, I never worried about whether the tuition check was coming next semester.

  20. December 30, 2005 at 10:20 am

    Mazel tov!

    I just realized that I don’t actually know whether any of my grandparents went to college. My maternal grandmother was an elementary school teacher, so I assume that she did, but I’m not sure and I have no idea about my maternal grandfather. On my father’s side, his mother was a milliner (made fancy hats) and his father was a truck driver, so I’d guess that neither of them did.

    My father is a professor and my mother got her masters’ degree when I was in elementary school. It was definitely assumed that all of us kids were going to college. And when I was in a total funk over my job last week, my dad offered to help with $$ if I wanted to go to graduate school full-time. So yeah, a lot of privilege here.

  21. Dianne
    December 30, 2005 at 10:54 am

    My family is so mixed up about education it’s hard to characterize them. My paternal grandmother had (I think) a teaching certificate which was more or less the equivalent of an associate degree. I think my paternal grandfather finished high school, but I’m not sure. Anyway, when my father wanted to go to college rather than stay on the farm with his parents, he met with a lot of opposition. In the end, he was only able to go because he worked full time while he went to school. He supported himself through college and sent money to his parents. Apparently, they were convinced of the advantages of education, because by the time his younger sibs graduated HS it was assumed that they would go to college too. My father went on to get a master’s degree, making him the first in his family to obtain a graduate school degree as well as the first to graduate from a four year college.

    Neither of my mother’s parents graduated high school. This was totally expected and even encouraged by my grandfather’s family. It’s easy for me to look down on them for not valuing education, but really, it was a matter of survival: they needed their children to help work, either on their farm or at jobs which might bring in actual money, or they wouldn’t be able to eat regularly. My grandmother dropped out of HS, probably in her senior year, although the story is a little confused, in order to get married. I’m not sure what her parents thought of this because she was estranged from them to the point of never even reminiscing about them later in life. Anyway, when my mother wanted to go to college, her parents’ response seems to have been more or less bemusement but not opposition. They didn’t seem to have minded her going and probably would have even helped her if they’d had any money, but I’m not sure they saw the point at the time. Later on they seem to have realized that a college degree has financial advantages if nothing else and encouraged my cousins (whom they raised) to go to college. They both did and both graduated. One of them had a baby half way through, but seems to have stayed more or less on track. Interestingly, I never heard anyone suggest that she should or would inevitably drop out because of the pregnancy. She married her boyfriend (happily, as far as I know) and my grandmother babysat her great-grandson while my cousin finished her degree.

    In contrast, my parents encouraged my sister and I to get as much education as we wanted. It was assumed that we would go to college and that my parents would help us financially. I confused them a bit by going to a private university instead of the state college and going on to get the family’s first doctorate, but I think there was general approval of my doing so. I had it easy: my parents helped me financially and emotionally and my college was quite helpful with financial aid.

    Although honestly, I’m not sure what else I could have done. I have no particular artistic or athletic talent, am clumsy enough to be a liability in most manual labor, and am way too socially inept to get married and be a professional spouse. I suppose I could have worked at McDonald’s until I was 65 or I dropped dead of boredom, whichever came first. But I think that no matter what my life circumstances I would have eventually found myself in college. Learning has always been my solace, my recreation, and my way of finding a niche in the community. I was just lucky that I was able to do what I wanted easily.

    Congratulations, Lauren. Don’t worry about silly people’s low expectations. Just do what you want to do and confound them by succeeding.

  22. Winnie
    December 30, 2005 at 11:06 am

    Congratulations on everything you’ve achieved. I don’t think anyone these days really does their education the “standard” way anymore. I was accepted into Oberlin, but moving away from home set on a near-suicidal depression, so I came back home went to Univeristy of Pittsburgh and had a very erratic campus experience because of the times I couldn’t bring myself to go to class because I couldn’t get out of bed and other problems related to my non-diagnosed Aspergers syndrome. The practical upshot is it took me six years to get my B.A. and I graduated after my younger brother did. In the meantime considering my younger brother’s demons during high school which included some heavy drug abuse as a form of self-medication it’s a miracle he even survived high school-we put him into a private school of individual classes so he could catch up and then he did the Johnson program at a college in California. He’s now working at a tiny paper in Iowa-the money barely covers his gas bills but still he’s writing feature stories every day and thinking of grad school. I’m already planning on getting an M.A degree in Community Leadership through an online program so I can do an Americorps Vista position at the same time in January. I realize an online degree isn’t exactly a “name-brand” education but I also have come to realize that while I firmly believe in continual self-improvement I didn’t give a damn how “prestigious” my degree was as long as I thought it better prepared me to work in the non-profit sector which is my goal. My best friend’s issues are far worse than mine. She’s manic depressive and has been hospitalized multiple times which is one reason she will be 26 before she gets her B.A. and then plans to spend another year in a grad program to become a teacher. My parents I suppose are more “typical” my father was a professor’s son who went to law school and became a professor himself and my mother is a lawyer like her father was-but she set up a huge family drama by announcing she wanted to go to law school. It just wasn’t something my grandfather saw as “fitting” for any of his daughters. She already stirred up some controversy when she transferred from the prestigious (but at the time terribly stuffy) girl’s school Wesleyan to the less highly ranked co-ed Northeastern. Sorry if I’m rambling on a bit, but reading your post made me think of all the ways things have changed in the pursuit of higher education at least for my family.

  23. December 30, 2005 at 11:37 am

    I’ve been exploring an isssue for the purposes of publication, using the blog to free associate a series of posts about my relationship to learning and doing things considered a part of “boy space.”

    LIcense to Ride is one such exploration that answers some of your questions, though there’s much more.

    I taught college for 8 years and I have a good deal to say, from a feminist perspective, about whether it’s a good idea to share who you are with your students, particularly by taking the tack of “I used to be like this, look where I am now.” There has actually been some research on the topic.

    I had the interesting experience of coming from a working class background and going on to teach students at elite liberal arts colleges. I was often bemused by what I encountered but I listened and learned a lot from my students. I then took up teaching at colleges catering to the working population, both traditional age students and ‘non-traditional’ students at an extension campus.I learned a great deal there — and found interesting systematic differences which I may find time to write about, too. :)

    Congratulations Lauren. You are indeed lucky to have had your family’s support. I’m the first person to attend college, let alone get an advanced degree. My family and friends have very mixed reactions, trying to be supportive, but finding it hard to be so given the way that this culture beats people into the ground if they lack a degree. But, having taught non-trad women for awhile, I found that I became a source of inspiration to women in similar situations and sometimes worse. There are women out there, still, who have had to do things like hide their schoolingfrom their husband. I did a version of that trying to keep my marriage together in grad school.

    Hmmm. Why don’t I confest my life story!

  24. December 30, 2005 at 11:39 am

    What a great post.

    I think I would sort of echo one sentiment above, that the low expectations thing is double-edged. On the one hand, I want to point to my mother, who raised me as a single mother for most of my childhood, had a high school education, and excelled at her job, got me to/through college, etc. I want to note that what she did is hard to do, becuase I think it is, and I’m proud of her.

    But then I also want to acknowledge that, while difficult, raising a kid when you’re young (my mom was quite a bit older than you, Lauren, but still) as a single parent is do-able, and as such, should be thought of as a viable option.

    How does one express both of these sentiments at the same time? Not easy to do, I think…except that you pretty much did just that in your well-written post.

    Congrats on getting your (first?) degree, and for being what appears to be (only from reading the ol’ blog) an extremely conscientious parent at the same time.

  25. Tex
    December 30, 2005 at 12:01 pm

    Congratulations, Lauren!

    This is a really great post. I especially liked this part:

    In the end I found books. I decided to give up some of my financial and emotional autonomy to aim for the optimistic hope that I had the guts to do it, to raise my son, to get a degree, to achieve real autonomy despite the odds. I chose college.

    Imna be unpacking the conflicting versions of autonomy, especially leading up to “real autonomy” for a while, and I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the multiple autonomies.

    Both my parents were the first generation to goto college in their families. Both of them even got advanced degrees. There was never any question that I was expected to go to college. At the age of six, when being scolded for using profanity, mom would say, “when you go to college you can talk like that.”

    In college, I double-majored: one major to please dad and one to please mom. With prodding (and financial support I should add. No point in denying privlege) from my mom, I went thru grad school. Now that I have a trade tho, I feel like I can finally come into something resembling adulthood.

  26. December 30, 2005 at 12:03 pm

    (oh-oh.. a seriously long comment!)

    You know Lauren, I chose to have a child on my own nearing my late twenties – and endured the very same attitudes about it as you apparently did in your teens. Perhaps it was because I looked young, but it is also because single motherhood is looked upon extremely negatively and garners great measures of prejudice. I’ve never experienced such an overwhelming amount of unsolicited advice and soapbox lectures from complete strangers, on the train, getting groceries, even from potential landlords who would state clearly that they would not rent out their properties to me though their ads stated “kids and pets OK”.

    I’ve noticed however, that single fathers are quite admired. This, to me, can only support what you are addressing in terms of low expectations. Mothers are not expected to provide secure, healthy homes but instead, will produce delinquents and (as I was told once) neighbors can expect strange men to be lingering around all the time. Fathers are heroic for breaking the stereotype and taking on parenting without a spouse. This comes down to economic and class concepts that permiate our culture – partly based on some truths. The fathers are naturally expected to be able to provide for thier children because it is commonly observed that men make more money, whereas the mothers are not for the opposite reasons. Nonetheless, it is sexism that founds the rationale that a woman without a man cannot provide a healthy family life, while a man without a woman can.

    You evidently defied one or two stereotypes, and it is certain you will continue to. You should feel good about this…

    I too have realised the impact of low expectations, indeed. My family members migrated from farms and reservations (in Canada) into labour (for the men) and childrearing with part time service jobs (for the women). My father with a grade three education, my mother grade eight – both from extraordinarily large families. My father has only learned to read and write to any standard level in recent years. It was not until my generation, that education became perceived a ‘neccesity’. In fact, as the eldest and a girl, it was determined that there was no point to furthering my high school education as I wouldn’t need it and could otherwise be contributing financially.

    I set out on a fantastic journey of learning, from the street level up. I eventually nurtured myself a career in the arts complimented with contracting for social justice org’s (NGO’s) and started my own family. It was only a couple of years ago that I ‘hit the ceiling’ between time and money – and determined that I couldn’t get past it without a degree. So now I both work at and am enrolled in a university program. Strange enough, only my sister and I are seeking degrees while my brothers continue in labour. While it was they who were encouraged and supported in getting an education. I think this is because they make a lot of money, to be honest. They haven’t the same fiscal incentives (which contributes to self motivation) as my sister and I do.

    When considering why more women are getting degrees than men – it must be noted that men without an education, can make more money than a dentist and as much as a corporate lawyer – at least while they are young enough and if they are willing to travel for work. Oil fields, transportation, mines and factories – many a job women either don’t want or can’t get.

    Keep up the good (and hard) work, you’re changing the future – for yourself and your child.

  27. Kristjan Wager
    December 30, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    My parents came from fairly different non-academic backgrounds. My father’s parents were fairly wealthy grosserers in Denmark, while my mother’s parents were dead-poor working class in Australia.

    My father was always expected to achive, while my mother was expected to go out and work. Neither my father nor his brother made it through college (only my father attempted), and my father spend his youth bumming around in Autralia, and didn’t get any education until he became a journalist in his thirties. From that he became a quite succesful financial journalist. Now, he is retired.

    My mother was the only one of four siblings to get a university degree, but she didn’t get that before meeting my father, moving to Denmark, having two children, and taking her high school degree as an adult. She has ,pved back to Australia, and now teaches science.

    My brother and I was always expected to go to university, and this presured us to start before we were ready. I first started a business college, and stopped after a couple of years. Then I started studying economics at the universty – again without making it through.
    After deciding that university wasn’t me, I started on a 2½ year course in systems development/programming – pretty much on an impulse. It turned out I was fairly good at it, and since then I’ve started on studying computer science at university, and expect to get my bachelor degree next summer. I will be aged 31 at that time.

    To give an impression of how much the pressure was affecting me – I didn’t tellmy mother that I had stopped studying economics until after I had finished the other degree, and started on computer science.

  28. tas
    December 30, 2005 at 12:20 pm


    I think it’s interesting that you note that many of the students you were teching don’t think they’re able to pass a four year college. I had the same feeling when I was a student in high school, and it extended into my adult life until it finally dawned on me, in my late 20s, that I can get a bachelors degree as long as I applied myself. I’m not sure if it’s something about high school that instills these thoughts, or maybe it’s everything we hear about the pressures of the college application process, how we won’t get into the college we want if we aren’t perfect and thensome in every way, shape, or form.

    As far as personal background goes, when I get my bachelors three years from now, I’ll be the first in my family to have a four year degree. It’s not that education isn’t valued in my family; my mother certainly pushed to get me all of the special education and development classes I needed when I was a child and I’m very thankful for that. But, I guess the best way I can describe my family background is “working class”. You get a job that gives you decent money and keep it for a while. Americans used to have that option, but it’s decaying. I suppose, in my family, it’s going to be my generation that gives higher education a bit more of a push to our offspring.

  29. December 30, 2005 at 12:56 pm

    Congratulations, kiddo.

    I’m actually third generation college-educated, but my family was poor nonetheless (I was raised by a single mother who was a artist). Growing up, we didn’t have money for many of the extras. However, we always had access to books.

    No, it was more than just “access.” My mother instilled in us an early love for books, for ideas and for learning. And I think that made all the difference.

    There was never any debate in our household about going to college. It was just expected. There WAS discussion about which university I could attend based on our family’s financial health (or lack thereof). There were numerous private (and even one Ivy) universities I was accepted to. But I ended up at a state institution, albeit a California state university, because the money just wasn’t there for me to attend a top school. And even that was a struggle. I worked 20-30 hours a week, carried a full load and it took me 5 years to work my way through all the undergraduate courses I was interested in. Alot of blood, sweat, tears, and meals of 12-cent/packet Top Ramen.

    I wanted to continue my formal education, but the overwhelming need to make money took me down a different path. No regrets, though. I’m one of the lucky people. I enjoy my job, make an above-average living and am proud of the industry I work in.

  30. December 30, 2005 at 12:57 pm

    I too had a hard time going to college. i married right out of high school to the wrong guy and stayed a SAHM. we had eight kids. then he left us for greener pastures. i jumped into community college feet first and after two and a half years of: welfare hell and a pittance of child support, two warring bipolar children of the eight, the oldest’s teenage pregnancy, i got my two year degree and a white collar job. now i have to battle against low expectations on my kids behalf. i’ve watched my four oldest kids, girls, get nudged through the cracks. it’s hard to have hope when everyone around us is insisting they should settle for less than what they are capable of.
    as for my family history: my parents both had GEDs. only one grandparent went to college and it was after a 20 year stint in the navy: he became a teacher like both of his parents.

  31. Sina
    December 30, 2005 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks so much, Lauren. This is a great post. I like that you point out that many of the same barriers to achievement that you faced (and overcame) are still out there, not only personal barriers but political ones (and perhaps they are not so distinct), and that you can help the kids in the classroom face them and overcome them too. Part of what makes me so anxious as a teacher is precisely the fact that I know how influential teachers can be. A good teacher at the right time can change everything.

    As for my family educational history, my maternal grandmother finished high school while my grandfather left at the 8th grade to work on the farm. He went back to high school after he lost the second farm and retired, which everyone was very proud of him for. My paternal grandparents, I’m not so sure. My grandmother worked in radiology, so she likely had an education, though it was probably radiology that killed her when my father was young. My grandfather worked the farm he inherited, so I’m not sure how much education he got.

    My parents both got four-year degrees, in nursing and in environmental safety (I think?), for which the military partially paid, and for which they also worked part-time in civilian jobs. Interestingly, the only people in my family to get graduate degrees have been the women of my grandparents’ generation who took holy orders and became nuns. I was expected to go to college, as well; I was lucky that my mom always kind of let me do my own thing, though she had high expectations. I qualified for a lot of aid (and a lot of loans, of course) from the small private school I fell in love with, so I was able to go there instead of the big state school in my hometown, a move I was grateful for. All of the rest has been hard work and good teachers. Now I’m getting my PhD and learning to teach, which is by turns thrilling and terrifying.

    One thing I still find difficult is the transition to a different class which comes with getting a PhD. As a graduate student I make enough money to count as among the working poor, yet I dress, drink, and have aspirations that are more upper-middle class. The tensions between where I come from and where I am heading are still difficult to sort out. So thanks for the book recommendations, Krista. Because the only way to sort it out is through books, right? Right…

  32. palamedes
    December 30, 2005 at 1:28 pm

    Until my generation of the family (dad’s dad’s side) came along, the men were farmers and steelworkers. College wasn’t much of an issue, though, ironically, the steelworker branch came into being because of a relative that was going to Valparaiso University in Indiana to study telegraphy engineering (so, yes, we’ve needed Network Admins for a long time ;-)) and worked a summer in the steel mills to pay for the coming fall’s tuition. He passed the word down to my farming relatives in southern Illinois that there was good money to be made.

    This was the early-to-mid-1920s, and farms were foreclosing left and right back then (the Great Depression happened long before 1929, but farmers then, like farmers now, tend to get ignored for the most part by the larger society). Most of the women on my dad’s dad’s side of the family were housewives, but the matriarch of the family, supported by other women relatives, pressed very hard to send as many of the young men as possible of the families up north so that the mortgages could be paid, my gandfather was among them, and that was that. Saved the farms (until we found coal and, to a lesser extent, oil there in the 1940s, which led to big problems, but that’s another story), and then we had two branches, defined by job category for the most part.

    College and the slow death of the steel industry played a role in my own and subsequent generations of the steelworker branch of the family. My dad was the first member of this branch to actually finish getting a college degree, and it took marriage, two children and two career changes before he decided that college might be a better way, over the long run, to provide for his family and feed his curiousity of the world (from which I get some of my own). (The telegraphy engineer-to-be just couldn’t walk away from the easy money then available in the steel mills.)

    My dad taught high school and worked concurrently as a steelworker (again, the lure of easy money through hard labor…) Pulled 28 years as the former, 18 as the latter.

    Of the eight grandchildren in my immediate branch of my father’s side of our family, only three got college degrees immediately after high school, but one more or less fell into a trade that pays very well (he’s a rail controller (think flight controller for trains) at the Chessie System), one became a CPA without ever finishing college, and my two sisters are presently working towards their degrees – one in Nursing, one in Physical Therapy. I’m the first member of my clan to ever get a technical degree (BSME ’85, Purdue University – hate the alumni association, but I sweated blood for that motherf**r, thankyouverymuch… Lauren, always keep in mind from where you graduated – I can’t vouch for your specific degree, but in technoland, a Purdue degree outside of the state of Indiana carries weight, not because it’s a prestige school, but because it has a rep as a place where you work your ass off, period…that you made it through Purdue in any capacity is a higher achivement than you might think.)

    My parents paid for one semester’s tuition, and the rest I took care of myself. I worked in the libraries at Purdue, ran the New York Times concession for Tippecanoe County, worked as a store detective at LS Ayres for a bit (are they still around, Lauren?), which in turn led to some leg work for a PI, was an ambulance driver, etc… It wasn’t easy, but I slugged through it, and walked out of the university with a degree and only four grand in the hole, which I paid off fast.

    Not one of us eight will let our kids think about anything other than going to college after high school – two of my nieces are already done with college, in fact. Even my cousin who fell into a deep, dark hole with crack for a decade (and who has been clean for another decade, thank God) has made it crystal clear that her son, who is very bright, will go to college.

    Washington state, where I now live, has a prepaid tuition program called GET. I’ve already bought and paid for 400 credits, enough for four years at one of our first-tier public universities. ( I want her to feel that she needs to earn this degree too though, so I will have her be at least partly responsible for board, though.)

    And as a side note, having been a single dad for almost a decade now, I can tell you flat out that this society has a very, very poor attitude towards single moms, no matter what they achieve or don’t achieve. Endless times I was cut more slack than I deserved, and I know that it was in part because they considered me too naive to be an effective single parent because I was male. In the meantime, I would see single moms in similar situations essentially treated like yesterday’s newspaper, essentially made to feel responsible and, more than occasionally, especially by other women, treated beneath contempt. That attitude by larger society has got to change. Period.

    My four bits…

  33. Joe
    December 30, 2005 at 1:31 pm

    Out of my parents and two siblings:

    Dad–BS, MBA, JD
    Mom–High school graduate
    Me–2 BS’s, BA, JD
    Sister–2 BA’s, JD

    All three children are married. All spouses have graduated from college, and in two cases, graduate school. Except for my brother, you’d probably consider all of us wealthy (independent of any family money), or at least very affluent. We all received minimal parental assistance putting ourselves through college–both my sister and I went to college on mixed academic/athletic scholarships and borrowed an arm and a leg to put ourselves through law school; my brother worked like a dog to get through school and took out massive amounts of student loans (I think my parents may have cosigned for him).

    Incidentally, Dad’s dad died when he was very young, and Dad put himself through college and supported his family by working on offshore rigs for months at a time until he had saved enough to go back to school for another semester. It took him a little over eight years. Mom and Dad married right after high school and had me shortly thereafter, thus ending my mother’s fledgling academic career. She’s worked since I was a teenager–not because they need the income, just to give herself something to do. My guess is that if they took an IQ test, my mother would score substantially higher than my father (she’s also the one that my sister and I got our athletic abilities from). It was just a different time back then, I guess.

  34. December 30, 2005 at 1:48 pm

    Congratulations Lauren!!! =)

    I’m the first in my family to get a degree (but I want/need to go back for more — it’s only an Associate’s). I remember being hell-bent on going to college after high school as a kid, but it always hung over my head how it would all get funded (my father was enlisted in the USAF and enlisted pay isn’t all that…great). When the time came to start looking, I knew my parents still didn’t make enough to help fund my college expenses, so wherever I chose to go, I knew had to get a job ASAP to pay for everything myself.

    Working and going to school (both full-time) has been, what I’ve thought, pure hell, but I’ve always loved being in the classroom setting. I love learning, I love the interaction, the discussion, everything about school. There were so many days when I just wanted to go home after a long exhausting day at work, but instead went to class. Once I got there my mood would suddenly change, and I would feel so much better about myself and what I was doing. It was during those times when it all didn’t seem so tough, seemed so worth the effort. Of course, it’s really easy to feel burnt out while working and going to school full-time, which sucks.

    Now that I’m currently not enrolled in school, I miss it. A lot. I want to go back, but I honestly can’t decide what I want to study. I have entirely too many interests. =)

  35. zuzu
    December 30, 2005 at 1:54 pm


    I don’t know much about my father’s family more than a generation or so back, but Dad, Uncle Jack and Poppy were all engineers.

    On my mom’s side, her mother’s mother emigrated from Poland and remained illiterate and unable to speak English all her 90-some years, but she made sure her kids went to college or learned a trade. My grandmother was a nurse.

    My maternal grandfather’s parents emigrated from Ireland with nothing, even though they were from an educated, landed family (second sons got squat in those days). My great-grandmother lined up her nine children and told them what they were going to do with their lives and how the entire family was going to make sure everyone got through school. I don’t know if my grandfather wanted to be a dentist, or if his older sister wanted to be a lawyer, but that’s what they were expected to do, so they did it.

    My family always expected that my siblings and I would go to college, but we weren’t pushed or overly encouraged. I guess there wasn’t much at stake, like there would be for the first generation going to college. I have one sister and four brothers, and it’s the attitude of my family toward my sister’s and my educations that showed the 1950s mentality most. When I was young, people in my family asked me what I wanted to do for a living. They asked my sister who she wanted to marry. The assumption was that because I was fat, no one would want to marry me, so I’d better have a career. And my sister, who outscored me overall on the SAT, really suffered from the lowered expectations put on her — she dropped out of college and took many years to finish her degree. Her marriages haven’t been that successful, either. I haven’t done that well with the lowered expectations put on my personal life, at that.

  36. human
    December 30, 2005 at 1:55 pm

    I grew up smart and middle class and privileged. Both my parents had masters degrees in social work. I was tested for the school’s Gifted and Talented program when in the third grade and remained in it until high school when I elected to attend the school I was zoned for instead of going to the local magnet school. I could have gone to my state’s boarding school for math, science, and the arts, but I didn’t want to live away from home so soon. I resisted and resented all the attention that was heaped on me for my academic success. I didn’t feel that I had earned it because school was so easy for me. I knew lots of other kids who had to work harder for grades worse than I got, while a 4.0 came to me almost without effort. (Almost – calculus did make me sweat, and I think if I had got a B in it and spoiled my 4.0 I would have had a nervous breakdown. So I really valued those accolades a lot more than I admitted or understood.)

    From the time when I was very young my teachers expected great things from me. Each one had an opinion about what field I ought to go into. I won some writing prizes; my english teachers generally thought I should write. My math teachers thought I should go into computers, because that was going to be the hot new thing.

    By the time I got to high school I was focused on my own goal which was music: I wanted to achieve excellence at my instrument, and play with a major American symphony orchestra. The Chicago Symphony would have done me just fine. I was very good but there were those who were better. I started college with the goal of a music degree and, from there, a symphony job.

    But I quickly realized that a life so focused was not for me. It was not that I lacked the discipline: I had gotten used to practicing 3 hours per day in high school. But life as a music major meant I was expected to live, eat, sleep, and breathe music. As much as I loved music there were many other academic interests I wanted to indulge and many other college opportunities I wanted to sample.

    But my father, who was paying, wanted me to just finish the education I had started, because he didn’t want to pay for extra time backtracking. So despite that I wanted to change majors after my first year, it took until my third year to get around to doing so. I finally just did it, and told him after the fact. He was pissed. But history it was.

    Something went wrong somewhere along the line. Maybe it was dealing with my controlling father and other family issues. Maybe it was ghosts from the past or just biology, but I gradually slid into a depression that left me unable to function in school and after increasingly worse performance, I finally just left, before they could kick me out. I left right before finals, so I failed all the classes I had been enrolled in that last semester.

    I lived at my parents’ for about six months, then moved to a big city I’d always wanted to live in. I worked for a while then made arrangements to go back to school. I made the mistake of picking a private school. It was a really good one, but cost way more than I ought to have spent, most of which was in loans this time. I’ll be paying on that debt for years. My mother died right before I started back to school. I lasted a little over a year before the second flame out that was very similar: money problems, family problems, depression. Left at Thanksgiving, didn’t finish the courses, failed all but one of them.

    I lost most of my possessions in that move and was 26 years old, starting over from scratch. It has taken me most of 2 years to get back on a solid financial footing and it will take a lot longer to wipe out the debts I incurred. But somewhere in there I found a calling – political activism. It turned out I needed a degree to be well regarded by many, so I got a job at a local university and will be starting classes again in the spring, this time for free.

    It took me a while to get to the point where I realized it, but I’m satisfied with my life so far. It hasn’t been conventional but I have achieved some significant things. I have travelled and had adventures. I’ve been to Europe and all over the US and seen and learned things and met people. I learned a lot more in my college classes than my transcripts reflect. I’ve gained a broader understanding of the world than many people have. And a member of congress knows my name. So does a state governor. I helped get them elected. Those are my proudest accomplishments.

    People give me a hard time sometimes about not having a degree. It has made it very difficult in terms of finding a job. But what I have started to realize is that the way you present yourself matters more than anything else. I just wish that I hadn’t spent so much time believing that my failure to follow the “conventional” process of getting a degree, getting another degree, and getting a job, means there is something wrong with me or that I am lesser. That’s my biggest regret, that I’ve spent so much time limiting my own horizons and abilities just by thinking of myself as not good enough.

    But I’ve got a lot of gifts and talents. And I like my life. I’m looking forward to doing the school thing again, and I know it’ll work out better this time, because I’ve fixed the problems I had before. My brother, four years younger than me, will probably have his master’s degree before I have my bachelor’s degree. But that’s okay, because I’ve been largely living the live I want to live.

  37. December 30, 2005 at 1:56 pm

    I am also the first person in my family to make it this far in college. Almost done with my Associate’s and going for my double major in the fall at a university and then my Master’s.

    You are amazing taking on all of that responsibility and still coming out on top with a beautiful, well-educated, caring son.


  38. Kristjan Wager
    December 30, 2005 at 2:05 pm

    I find it interesting to see the issue of funding coming up all the time. It’s not an issue when you live in a country with free public education. We even get a monthly student grant as long as we more or less passes exams on time (you can get up to six years of students grants).
    Because of my lack of direction, I have long time ago used up my grants, and now have to work part time to make it through school, but at least I don’t have to worry about having to pay for school also.

    Speaking of making it through, I owe it to myself and my friends to make it clear that it is to a large degree because of my friends that i can continue studying. They are always willing to step in with loans, free meals etc. when I am running low, even though they know that it might (have been in some cases) years before I can pay the money back.
    I might be able to study without my friends helping that way, but it would be much harder, and I would get much less out of my studies.

  39. fiat lux
    December 30, 2005 at 2:09 pm

    Looking at both my and my husband’s families, I think so much of what gets people through the school system is familial expectations. Families who put a premium on education from Day 1 tend to end up with more education than those who do not value education.
    I can’t easily think of a singe family member who does not have at least a college degree, with the sole exception of my maternal grandfather. In my generation, we have one and a half MBAs (I graduate next year), a PhD, two JDs, a MA, and probably a few more I’m forgetting about.I can’t remember a time when it was not assumed that we would get as much education as possible. My paternal grandfather would even pay us $100 for every “A” on our report cards. It was simply part of the environment as we grew up.

    On the other hand, my husband’s family has zero advanced degrees and only a few who completed college. I worry that my nieces are not going to grow up understanding how vitally important education is.

  40. Thomas
    December 30, 2005 at 2:25 pm

    Zuzu, I noticed this:

    On my mom’s side, her mother’s mother emigrated from Poland and remained illiterate and unable to speak English all her 90-some years,

    My wife is from one of the established Polish enclaves in Connecticut. Her grandparents speak Polish. Do you have much of a connection to your Polish or Irish roots?

    I often wonder how various ethnic approaches to education travel through generations. My father came to this country from Scotland as a tradesman, and my mother was a dirt-poor ethnic Scot from New England. Neither had any college, but it was understood from birth that both my sister and I would get degrees. This is consistent with the Scottish pattern, where universal education has roots to the 1400s and became nearly a reality after 1639 (Scotland, by some recent measures, produces the most University graduates per capita of any European nation). I could and did learn my father’s trade, but everybody assumed that that would provide a fallback and a way to make money through school, and not be my career. Likewise, when my sister told my mother she wanted to keep her post-college job at an investment bank and didn’t want to go to law school, it took a while for me to get my mother off her case. My mother understood she’d do fine financially but it boggled her mind that one would choose not to get an advanced degree? (my father’s parents had a different perspective: mortgaging the house to put me through school made perfect sense, but educating a girl?).

  41. Kristjan Wager
    December 30, 2005 at 2:26 pm

    I worry that my nieces are not going to grow up understanding how vitally important education is.

    I think it is necessary to be careful about making such statements. I have several very succesful friends without any higher education. However, one should be aware of the potential costs of not getting an education.

  42. Marksman2000
    December 30, 2005 at 3:52 pm

    I’m pleased to hear that you’ve completed your degree, Lauren. Despite what troubles you may encounter, never forget that you’re better off with your degree than you are without it. An education opens doors for you, giving you options that others may not have. Some of these options you may not yet be aware of.

    Also, do not be discouraged by those who set the bar so low for you. Instead, make them look foolish by exceeding their expectations. My father wanted my sister to be a secretary and pursue low-level clerical occupations. Instead of fetching coffee for some bald-headed grab-ass, she went on to graduate first in her class in college, and first in medical school.

    We often look to our families for support, but sometimes they’re the ones who can hold us back more than anything or anyone. Sometimes it takes a certain degree of selfishness to succeed in this crazy world. It sounds wrong, but that’s the way it is. Look deep and ask yourself what will make you happy, What can you do really well? Then keep your eyes on the prize and find a path to get there.

  43. zuzu
    December 30, 2005 at 4:22 pm

    My wife is from one of the established Polish enclaves in Connecticut. Her grandparents speak Polish. Do you have much of a connection to your Polish or Irish roots?

    New Britain, by any chance?

    Actually, I don’t have much connection to the Polish roots other than the food (and from what I understand, the pierogis my grandmother made were actually Russian, since her mother had worked for a Russian family after she came over here at age 11). My grandmother forgot a lot of her Polish over the years and only spoke it at home. I think the byword back then was assimiliation.

    I’m a lot closer to the Irish roots (and if you ever saw my face or heard my real name, you’d guess why), but even then, it’s fairly far removed. My father’s people were all potato-famine Irish and my maternal grandfather was first-generation.

  44. Thomas
    December 30, 2005 at 4:50 pm

    My wife’s family make pierogis from a family recipe — we make a gross or so and it takes six or seven of us. As to the location, I was cagey because I include a lot of personal info on this blog and I’ve probably spilled too much — I’ll tell you which town in private e-mail (if you have an address you’ll send to me from — I keep several to keep anonymous/personal/professional separate). Which reminds me … I remarked some time ago about similarities between us, and I probably put too much information in one place, for which I apologize.

  45. Aldea
    December 30, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    I didn’t go to college until my daughter was 2. I had no help from family or friends, but her father was a god send – he was flexible and changed his visitation schedule as well as paying for night time sitters for me to go to school. I was given a scholarship to my university, but in order to accept such an incredible gift I had to attend full time. I attempted to take 18 credits that semster while working full time and raising a toddler. Needless to say I never finished college, but this week I took my now teenage daughter to planned parenthood for guidance on birth control, and have an ongoing open and honest dialogue with her about sex and relationships, as well as grades and the importance of college.

    I applaud you. You’ve done an incredible job, and I wish you the absolute best.

    Sign me, a former lurker…

  46. Thomas
    December 30, 2005 at 5:02 pm

    I forgot that my e-mail does not appear on this blog. I’m t525881@verizon.net.

  47. zuzu
    December 30, 2005 at 5:04 pm

    Thomas: no worries. It’s a big city, and I don’t use my real name or email here. I’ll gladly email you, though I don’t see an address for you. Let me know how to reach you.

    No real need to be cagey if it is NB — you say “Connecticut” and “Polish” and anyone who’s lived in that state will say “NB.”

  48. December 30, 2005 at 5:44 pm

    WOW — what an absolutely incredible post and congratulations on graduating! I am looking forward to completing the assignment although I’ll probably end up posting on it at greater length on my blog.

    The portion about the low expectations we impose on people struck a chord. When my paraplegic husband graduated from law school, the assembled crowd of hundreds of people gave him a standing ovation as he collected his degree even though plenty of other students graduated with higher academic honors than he. It was as though people thought it was amazing that he could just get out the door much less obtain a graduate degree. In reality, it was his disability that led him to focus more on his intellectual strengths than he would if he had never been in an accident.

    On my own account, I had every academic advantage a person could possibly have from parents committed and able to provide my choice of boarding schools (I went to the same school as the shrub) and four-year colleges. There were definitely times when I became paralyzed with anxiety over the high expectations I faced and the fact that I had absolutely no excuse for not doing well. I think it’s good to recognize that higher education is hard no matter how you slice it. But we shouldn’t automatically label people based on race, or early motherhood, or disability or what have you, as somehow completely unable to hack it.

    Haven’t read everyone else’s comments yet but I’m looking forward to it!

  49. Catty
    December 30, 2005 at 5:45 pm

    Congrads on the Graduation!


    Well, I’m going to de-lurk myself. I’m actually the only member of my family without a college degree. I hope to get one someday, but it’s not *personally* an immediate goal for me. All my immediate family members have graduate degrees (2 Ph.ds and 1 MA), all of my cousins and uncles at least have BAs.

    I loved college- I had to pay my way through because my parents hits a major financial hole in my teens, through no fault of their own. I loved learning. I started out in community college and ended up owning my own business before I was even close to graduating. My parents were upset that I chose to work over going to college- we had a lot of fights over it.

    It’s interesting how many people assume you’re less than intellligent when you don’t have a degree. I am politically active, and I volunteer within my community. With some of the organizations, I’ve had to “prove” my intelligence. The most frequent “compliment” I get from others are along the lines of “I never expected you to be so smart.”

    I’m in the opposite situation- I don’t want children, marriage is not a priority for me. I preferred a job with freedom over stability… and I’ve gotten my wish. As long as I make enough money to pay the bills, have time to do the things I love and volunteer, rescue some stray animals and put away for retirement… I’m happy. I loved school, I still enjoy takes classes at the local community college when time allows. One day, I hope to get my degree. I understand that having a degree is important in securing a job. I encourage education with the kids I work with constantly, whether it’s trade school or college.

  50. spyder
    December 30, 2005 at 5:52 pm

    I was happy to link over here from Cosmic Variance. I am a retired teacher of teachers and was so delighted to read Sean Carrol’s post on your life experiences.
    How did you get where you are today? Were you always expected to achieve? Fail? Attend college? Follow a trade? What does your family’s educational background look like? How did family and peer expectations affect your life decisions?

    I was always expected to be where i am today, from my earliest memories. My family was very serious about academics and academic achievement. As you mentioned the eleven degrees in the car, it reminded me to count my family’s (lots); and i realize that it isn’t so much a matter of class or social environs, as it is about having a family focusses and supportive of achieving a university education. When teaching my students i strongly recommended that those who became elementary teachers make every effort to get their students to visit universities and colleges. I can’t count how many i visited as a kid, but i could always envision myself in those worlds. Even when i was thrown out of high school(early 1960’s), risking my scholarships (i still got them), i always knew i had to go to the university. My brother, sister, and myself all have bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees–we always knew we were going to complete the “cycle.’ I think we benefited more from our community (neighborhood even) than from our parents. Everybody we associated with, hung out with, even partied with, achieved similar successes–it was expected of us in the sense that the municipality had been developed to house professionals(engineers, aerospace scientists, academics, medical and legal professionals, etc.).

    I was, and still am, a radical leftist anarchist. This was very much at odds with my family and most of my ‘friends’ growing up. But none of that took away from the impetus to attend universities as an undergrad or graduate. I worked to get my scholarships, my fellowships, my academic credentials and positions–more so given my politics. Was that spite? maybe but i don’t really think so.

  51. December 30, 2005 at 6:08 pm

    A very heart-felt congratulations to you!

  52. December 30, 2005 at 6:11 pm

    Congratulations Lauren!

    Grandfathers both had graduate degrees – one PhD, one JD
    Grandmothers might have finished high school
    mother -BS, 2 MSs, teaching certificate
    father -BS, MS, PhD
    me – BFA, all but thesis for master’s

    Given family background it was assumed I’d go to college and had lots of support to do so. Grad school was different – changed fields although it ultimately didn’t take but went while running a business w/spouse and with 2, then 3 small children. Irony is that going back to grad school (in tech mgmt) ultimately pushed me back into my original field of fine art – and was far more challenging in some ways than college with balancing everything.

    I salute your accomplishment – I know how hard it is to go to school while being a parent of smalls – and I did it with a partner and no financial issues.

  53. djw
    December 30, 2005 at 6:44 pm

    Marvelous post, and congratulations.

  54. shadou
    December 30, 2005 at 7:03 pm

    Friday, December 30, 2005


    I went to college for over ten years before finally getting a BFA, majoring in Philosophy. (I chose the concentration because I finally realized I wanted something solely for me, something that could not be taken away, something that I’d never “use” in a conventional sense.) Subsequently I found that I could have just as successful a life as I chose.

    My wife raised kids, worked full time, put me through school, wound up working on an assembly line and then, at age 54, she graduated with a degree in computer science. Her last two semesters were 39 hours straight A’s. I never even had lunch with someone so dedicated let alone having slept with one for more than thirty years!

    I am meandering through a masters program in American History. Perhaps I shall decide to write a thesis, perhaps not. I already have twice as many hours as I need. I even take courses wherein a professor might simply let me sit in the class or seminar. The point is that I have found my true love, being educated. I am old, so old that my young peers tell me that I am not studying history, I AM history! My wife would dearly love to go back but due to some strokes she is a bit impaired. That has not stopped her from becoming a “Master Gardener”.

    Neither of our children managed to find the will to graduate high school. Both sailed through GED’s, one before her class graduated. But both work dead-end jobs with little chance of reaching that pinnacle of choice, being as successful as you wish. Their fate is not under their control and they still don’t seem to get it.

    In my working days I hired many folks. At first I relied upon resumes as a major tool for selection. I looked at grades, areas of concentration, made my decision and was often quite disappointed in the choice. Just on a lark I made a change. Instead of matching a person to the job description I decided to find out what made the candidate tick, what turned her on. The first time was rather limited because I needed someone to fill a data processing spot. There were many great applications, all with paper qualifications. How to choose?

    After vis a vis discussions, I found one young woman particularly interesting. So, I asked her to go home, take some time and write me a letter. She was to tell me or explain something about which she was dearly interested as long as it had nothing to do with the specific job for which she was applying. What an eye-opener! The topic wasn’t important, but her presentation was magnificent. This young woman could communicate! Heavens, we could teach her the job but we could never teach her to communicate with such enthusiasm.

    She was hired and we lived happily ever after. Due to certain government regulations I couldn’t really scrap the normal application-resume-interview procedure, but henceforth I used the “letter” tactic. Worked like a charm. If the person could sell me on their love, how could I refuse them?

    Too bad I have never been able to work that approach with my kids, but it is their loss. The freedom I have felt will not be theirs until they wake up.

  55. December 30, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    Congratulations on graduating. Enjoy teaching! The students will be lucky to have you teach them.

  56. Jimmy Ho
    December 30, 2005 at 7:56 pm


  57. morfydd
    December 30, 2005 at 11:11 pm

    My father was in the first generation of his family to go to college – but he and his brother did it up right, getting full rides to Harvard. My mom’s family has college degrees going back into the mists of time. However, she probably would not have been sent to school, as a woman, except that she was an only child. She also went to an Ivy, where her family had been going for generations. She wasn’t allowed to study architecture, though, as who would hire a woman architect?

    My parents met at her school, where he was doing some post-MS, pre-PhD work. She never finished her thesis, but finished all the coursework for a MA. They sat down and decided that it was more cost-effective for him to get his PhD than her to get a JD, again because it would be harder to get employment as a woman.

    Both my parents were teachers – math, history, science, computing, English, Chinese, Latin – at levels from elementary through graduate school and adult literacy. I was *absolutely* expected to excel at school and go to college – the only question was which. My parents went through a great deal of financial stress to put me and my brother through expensive private schools. I felt (and feel) guilty about it.

    I skated through high school, and didn’t do well in college. I refused to quit the hardest major in the school, and successfully graduated, but I spent too much time having a social life for the first time to get the grades that would get me into grad school, much less the med or law school my mother still nags me about.

    Congratulations on your degree. You’ve succeeded against tough odds. I understand the frustration at low expectations. I think in a few years you may look back and wonder yourself, “How did I do that?” because it’s hard to have faith in just putting your nose to the grindstone and ignoring the possibility of failure when you’re not in the situation.

    I’m also curious as to why you didn’t talk about your past with the students – I think you would be an excellent role model.

  58. p
    December 30, 2005 at 11:33 pm

    In my family, you must attend college. A parent’s job is not done until every child gets a 4 year degree. All my grandparents and aunts and uncles (11 of them) and both parents have at least a bachelors. All my cousins (all 12 of them) will get a degree. The only cousin that can’t afford it is going anyway with expenses paid by the grandparents even though they’re eighty and long since retired because a grandchild without a degree is simply not an option. You are not an adult until you get one. Academic perfection isn’t required, but finishing college is. Once you get a degree (whatever the subject) you can do what you like with it, a trade or teacher or lawyer or researcher or whatever. For me, going to college was inevitable. To not go to college would require fighting massive familial pressure for the entire rest of my life.

    I grew up very privileged.

  59. Another Jeff
    December 30, 2005 at 11:50 pm

    Congratulations to you.

    Both of my parents graduated from college and one has two advanced degrees. That I am expected to graduate isn’t the right way to put it. It is assumed that I will graduate, it wasn’t ever said outright as far as I can remember, but I’m dropping out anyway.

  60. Bill
    December 31, 2005 at 12:53 am

    Lauren, have you read this –> http://www.girl-mom.com/node/126

    What are your thoughts? It’s about expectations for black teen moms vs white teen moms, sort of.

  61. Nonie
    December 31, 2005 at 1:03 am

    Congratulations, Lauren.

    I’m normally a lurker, but finally I can’t help myself – this is something I consider extensively – coming from a family that cherishes education and living with someone who is scorns academic achievement as over-valued.

    My mother’s family is extremely well-educated, several generations back, my father’s siblings are the first to go through college. Interestingly enough, my mother was the 60s single mom and my father quit seminary and waited 20 years to start his bachelor’s degree.

    My father got his PhD in his 50s – he’s our pride and joy. When we’re not trying to one-up each other in debates, we’re talking up our academic achievements. My partner’s family is so different – it’s frustrating to respect his perspective that education doesn’t make one better able to handle the world at large…I have learned to appreciate it more, but I certainly fight my familial instinct to assume that education makes right, so to speak.

    I could go on and on about the differences and challenges with our different backgrounds, but I’d like to instead with you, Lauren, the best of luck with your career and a big hooray!!

  62. December 31, 2005 at 2:34 am

    Bill, I love Girl-Mom — it was one of the first places where I got any sort of support from fellow teen parents. And yes, I love that essay, nor do I deny anything that she says.

  63. Julie
    December 31, 2005 at 10:33 am

    Congratulations Lauren!! I think this post is great and one of the most thoughtful ones I’ve read in awhile.

    My own experience? A little bit different… I grew up in a family where no one was college educated, but my father was extremely bright and he and my mother both intsilled in me a love of reading, politics, etc… It was always a given that I would go to college, so at the age of 18 I headed to a four year Christian college. I was there only because it was expected, not because I wanted to be, so I rarely attended classes and ended up with a 1.9 GPA. Yikes! My second semester I found myself pregnant, and then miscarried. I wound up in a depression I couldn’t shake and left school, moved in with my boyfriend (which consequently got me disowned by my father) and took a job doing direct care with the developmentally disabled to help pay my half of the bills. After 9 months I decided to head back to school, part time at first and then full time. I was married at age 20, finished my associate degree with a 4.0 at a community college at age 21, transferred to a four year school where I took summer classes and huge course loads and graduated with a BA the summer after my 22cnd birthday. I worked probably between 30-40 hours the whole time (doing direct care, working in afterschool programs for kids with disabilities, babysitting a young boy with autism). I now work for a non-profit agency that helps people with developmental disabilities (sort of my passion, can you tell?) as the developmental disabilities specialist. I have a sister that will graduate from the University of Rochester with a degree in neurobiology next May and a sister who will be attending college next fall with a double degree in English and Communication disorders. All of us have put ourselves or will put ourselves through college because my parents don’t believe it’s a parent’s responsibility to do so. (Although I did get 5000 my first semester because the college I was attending was so expensive and they had just sold our old house).

  64. December 31, 2005 at 10:50 am

    Congratulations! You’re going to be a great teacher.

    Have you ever heard of the book “Limbo” by Alfred Lubrano? It’s about folks from working class backgrounds who entered the realm of the middle class—and how they did, or (mostly) didn’t assimilate. It’s a good read, and very familiar to me. My folks are “limbo” people—both have degrees (working their way through school on factory jobs), neither had a traditional route to the place they are, and both were the only people in their families who had degrees, until one of my aunts, a single mother of four on welfare whose husband was incarcerated, made the long journey towards becoming an RN, beginning with earning her GED. I could relate to the writer above who said that although her parents had degrees, they still had working class ideas about education—like a degree being a ticket to a better paycheck and less physically dangerous/demanding working conditions. And not knowing how to instruct their children to run the obstacle course of applying for college, or what constitutes a good college, or whatever. I was an adult before I realized that different colleges were “known” for different things—I had always assumed that if a college was known as a “top” school, that meant it was “top” in everything! Anyway, my parents never have assimilated into the middle class, either culturally or financially. Neither have I. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    I chose the path that I did (apprenticeship in the trades) for several reasons, and the prohibitive cost of college was only one of them. Job security was a major motivator for me, because although work in the trades can be spotty at times, especially during a bad economy, it’s a skill that travels well, and with a union card, you don’t have to run the gauntlet of job interviews—a plus for me, because I positively suck at selling myself and schmoozing with folks—just let me work, y’know? My visual/spatial ability exceeds my ability to turn a phrase, sooo…I thought the trades would be just the right place for me. I also wanted the more relatively level playing field of the trades—your work is visible on a daily basis, and no matter who you are, the scale is the same—my paycheck doesn’t reflect that “lack-of-penis-penalty” that it would if I were in a white-collar (mostly nonunion) field. As a woman in the trades, I have to walk a fine line between masculine/feminine traits, and yes, I do have to put forth some effort with tradesmen I haven’t worked with before—but I have never had to wear the type of mask that would be required of me in a different realm. And I like that, because I have no talent for that (mind you, I’m not making a judgement call here—it is a skill to be able to do that—code-shift—and while I can do that in speech, I can’t in manner or appearance, and that can make all the difference.)

    My choice was supported by my father, but I don’t think my mother has ever come to peace with it—every time I blow off steam about my job, she always makes reference to “what I should do with my life, instead of what I’m doing—and trust me, I’m doing what I love. I don’t dig the sexist attitudes of the superindendents, but I love my work and the brothers and sisters I work with. I think it’s a status thing with her. She never assimilated, but she was still able to internalize certain middle-class mores, such as “if you don’t have an official education, you’re not really educated”. She was the one who was vehemently opposed to my taking Industrial Ed. in junior high and high school–she refused to sign the permission slip, so I couldn’t take the courses. (no, my father wouldn’t sign either, but that was more about my mother’s “line-in-the-sand” attitude). So, when she gets together with the other retirees, and they brag about what their kids have done with their lives—I guess she doesn’t get to say much. Even though in our (very-extended) family circle, she brags quite a bit. She knows that what are considered accomplishments in our world, aren’t considered anything in other worlds. She is very proud of my making it financially on my own though.

    I’d be very careful about assuming what someone’s attitude toward education is based on how formally educated that person is. (not that you do this, Lauren. It’s just a common theme.) My large, extended family has (for the most part) a great attitude toward education, and loves to talk and exchange ideas. Most are very articulate, read a lot, and are superb critical thinkers. But let’s face it—a college degree doesn’t guarantee anyone a job these days, much less a good paying job with benefits. For a person without that middle-class financial safety net, attending college is more of a gamble than entering a trade, going to technical school, entering the military, or taking a union job such as say…..prison guard. There are a helluva lot of working-class autodidacts. (There must be. Somebody is keeping all those midwest Barnes & Nobles afloat!)

  65. January 1, 2006 at 11:11 pm

    Congratulations Lauren! This is such a wonderful, thoughtful, warm essay. Happy New Year – the world is yours!

  66. fh
    January 2, 2006 at 6:42 am

    First of all, wow and congratulations, I have the utmost respect for people who live up to their potential despite adverse backgrounds. I certainly didn’t have to (I’m one of the theoretical physicists that wandered over here from Sean’s post at cv).
    I have found those who have kept and nourished a love of ideas despite a difficult/converse background to be among the best humans I have met (and I consider myself fortunate to count many among my close friends).

    In fact in my family things were rather the other way round, I and my little sister succeeded effortlessly but my middle sister didn’t. She had to struggle a lot through highschool years, and ended up finishing a lower branch of highschool (I’m from Germany). There were some (emotionaly) brutal years because this was a catastrophe to my mother, for whom it was granted that her kids would go to university. But it suited her better and she is going through college (which is kind of lower branch university in Germany) now.
    So I heartily second your observation about alternative routes that fit you better (even if coming from a different angle). I believe the important bit is to stay in the process to not stop learning and loving ideas.

    Thank you for this post! It’s an inspiration.

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