Amongst my admittedly small social circle are several folks whose career path has led them to join the ranks of academia as university professors. I’m sorry to admit I know little of their individual journeys and the challenges they faced and overcame along the way. So I really appreciated this post written by Dr. Colby King, recently ensconced at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. I’ve always had a great deal of respect for Colby, especially because he is one of my few left-of-center friends who is willing to actually engage in a serious discussion of some of the issues facing our nation. We rarely reach agreement but we do find on occasion some common ground or at least mutual understanding of our respective viewpoints. Most importantly, I always learn something new and for that he earns my gratitude. My respect and understanding were greatly enhanced after learning more about his personal story. I encourage you to give it a read.
Being the selfish bastard that I am, Colby’s story set me to thinking of my own. I grew up in an upper middle class area of Orange County, California. But our family was definitely working class. My father was managing a fast food restaurant when I was born. After a McDonald’s opened across the street from his store, “The Rite Spot”, there was a futile burger war (it’s hard to undercut a 15 cent hamburger) and my father moved on to driving a truck in route sales. My mother supplemented the family income first as a carhop and later working the night shift in a factory.
We always had food on the table (lots of fried chicken and ground beef). We had a roof over our heads (a rented roof of a 1940s era house surrounded by fancy new subdivisions). And we had clothes on our backs (in my case usually hand-me-downs). So we weren’t “poor” in the classic sense of the word, but comparatively speaking we were amongst the poorest people in our community.
Kids can be cruel, and they were at times. I recall classmates mocking “the shack” in which we lived. And since my clothes were functional but not fashionable (and cleaned at the local laundromat) I took some heat for that too. One painful memory from sixth grade was the day I wore some shoes my uncle brought home from the store where he worked. They were a little too large for me, but they were new. And I guess maybe they didn’t really go that well with the blue jeans I invariably wore to school. Anyway, we were lining up for class and all the other kids pointed at my shoes and started laughing uproariously. The teacher came out to see what all the commotion was, took a look at my shoes, and laughed too. Needless to say, that was the first and last time I wore those shoes. They looked something like this:
A painful memory. Looking back on it now, maybe I would have laughed too.
Then there was the 7th grade math teacher (Mr. Peter Boothroyd the bastard) who found it appropriate to discipline misbehavior in his class by announcing “keep it up McCrarey and you’ll wind up like your father–selling Jello out of a truck.” Suffice to say, by the time I finished high school I had developed a pretty healthy inferiority complex. Which I self-medicated with copious amounts of pot smoking.
I floundered around some after graduation, taking a few classes at the community college but mostly just getting high and doing whatever minimum wage gigs I could find. My daughter was born one week after I turned 20 and that kicked in a new found sense of responsibility. So, I found a job in route sales (fuck you Boothroyd!) and actually did pretty well at it. I took the Postal Service entrance exam and after a couple of years was hired as a letter carrier. I was finally on my way!
I subsequently added a son to my family, transferred to Prescott, Arizona, and bought my first house. I was living the American dream and was content to spend the rest of my life carrying mail and enjoying what for me was the best life I had known. Then the marriage fell apart and I wound up with custody of both kids. I started dating a grad student (I wrote about her in some detail here) and hanging out with her college professor friends at Northern Arizona University. And probably for the first time in my life I started to realize that these people I admired were not better, or necessarily smarter, than me–just more educated. So, it was back to the local community college for me!
The grad student relationship ended badly and left me pretty much emotionally devastated. Being a single father was more than I could handle, so I transferred to Oklahoma (technically Fort Smith, Arkansas) so my mom could lend me a hand with the kids. I was still delivering mail, but now I was doing it in stifling summer humidity and winter ice. Made the job a lot less appealing! Worst of all it was not mentally engaging. As I carried my mail route I’d imagine doing things that I’d actually like to be doing. And suddenly, I’d have completed my rounds and not recalled actually having done so. I was just in automatic mode, mental masturbation if you will. So, I realized that I needed to make a change in my life, but had no idea what exactly to do.
One perk of being a mailman (especially a single mailman) is that you tend to meet a lot of women along the route. One of these was Iris Breed, the Director of the Fort Smith Girls Club. One of the smartest people I’ve had the good fortune to meet on this road we call life. We began dating and I shared with her my general dissatisfaction with the malaise of my career. She said why don’t you take a management job? Well. I mean, who’d want a guy like me on the management team? Besides, I was the union steward. Working in management was against everything I stood for! But she continued to encourage me and pointed out that the only thing I truly lacked in life was the confidence to pursue my goals. So, when a job came open to manage the safety program I applied. I knew nothing about safety management, but at least I felt like I could continue to support the rank and file from inside the beast.
Bobbie McLane was the Human Resources director and I had met her often when I dealt with her on union issues. I guess she liked how I handled myself in those meetings because she took a leap and actually hired me. And sent to the USPS Management Academy in Potomac, MD for several weeks so I could actually learn how to do the job. I’m forever grateful to her for giving me that chance to be more than what I had been. But the rest was up to me.
And I did alright I guess. I was promoted to a labor relations position in Columbia, SC. I went back to school (at an actual university–Go ‘Cocks!) and finally earned my bachelor’s degree in 1991 (at the tender age of 35). After that, more promotions found me in D.C. where I took advantage of a management development program and graduate degree studies. Thirty-four years after first putting on that letter carrier uniform I retired as GS-15 Director of Human Resources for the United States Forces Korea.
What a ride it was! I had some luck along the way. And help and encouragement from people that saw in me things I didn’t see in myself. But ultimately, it was up to me to overcome my self-imposed limitations and find a way to achieve my potential. Being from a working class background made that more of a challenge I suppose, but I’d argue that it wasn’t really society that put me in the box. It just took some time to understand that no one can define who you are or what you can be, unless you give them that power. Which sounds pretty simple when I write it now. But learning that proved to be my life’s greatest achievement.