Too smart for our britches
One thing we all have in my immediate family is a somewhat questionable asset–high intelligence. Where it came from, none of us can say, but I have no doubt that it affected everyone in my family in one way or another. My brother, Lewis Arnold, Jr, called “Jackie” throughout his and my childhood—following arcane Southern nickname rules—was chosen as a child during World War II to be part of what would now be called a “gifted child” program. I grew up hearing him described as a genius and envied him that he had been allowed to skip classes and was encouraged and provided with the means to expand his mind freely. I, myself, was bored to tears until I went to college, not to mention harassed, shunned and hated for my intelligence.
Being a hopeless nerd placed a major barrier between me and any hope I may have had of popularity. It was a dynamic that continued throughout my childhood. On my first day of school, my schoolmates chased me home, throwing green avocados and rocks at me all the way. When I got there, there was no one to save me because my mother had started working. The original latchkey kid, I found the key in the hiding place while avocados rained down on me and only escaped when I was able to finally unlock the door. It was a preview of my entire childhood.
My first grade schoolmates hated me because I could already read. The first grade teacher also hated me because I could already read, thereby robbing her of complete control over how I would be taught. In the 1950s, there was a backlash against the accelerated programs that had been available to my brother and genius programs were now frowned upon. This meant that my teachers were mostly at a loss as to what to do with me. I spent many hours in school hiding my book inside my desk and reading it in bad light after finishing my school work long before my schoolmates had.
The bullying was probably aggravated by the fact that I was always the smallest and the youngest and the smartest person in my class. And, it was not just my schoolmates and my teachers who reacted negatively to this aspect of my personality. When my intelligence was tested in the fifth grade, my mother was told it was extremely high and she immediately launched into efforts to either stifle it or train me to hide it. It was definitely not, in her view, an asset in seeking a husband. If we are looking for the threads of rebellion, there is a good one, right there.
My father, Lewis Arnold, Sr., with his third-grade education, took a correspondence course and taught himself to be a machinist, no mean feat, in my view. He was careful always to state that, officially, he was a “maintenance man,” that to truly be considered a machinist required a college degree. But, he told me, he was often required to design or redesign machinery and did that well, performing the actual work that a machinist does. The fact that he could never be promoted to machinist because of his lack of a college degree was a source of great frustration to him. As a “Daddy’s girl,” I grew up knowing this. As a child, on days of great boredom, I would crawl under the desk, where our limited library was kept on a shelf in the knee space, and look at the books from the correspondence class, the only books I am aware that my father ever owned, and marvel at the intricate drawings of cogs, fan belts, pistons, levers and screws. The machines in our house always purred.
My father’s job also, I learned as a teenager, required enormous courage and nerves of steel. He made it a point at both jobs he had when I was growing up and past babyhood, to take me to his workplace and show me what he did all day to “keep food on the table.” He took me with him once to the paper mill in Miami when he went to pick up his check and I was very impressed by the huge machines and by the awful smell. But, when he took me to the mine, he scared me much more, I think, than he meant to. At that job, he was in charge of maintaining the second largest dragline in the world, strip mining phosphate. A dragline is a crane with a shovel. Over a huge pit six-stories deep pit, there towered a dragline at least another six stories high. My father, he told me, sometimes had to put on a safety harness and climb to the top of that crane hanging over that huge pit and work on it. Not only that, he said, but he had to train other people to do it. My fear for him, at that moment, overshadowed the anger I was then experiencing at his intransigence about my educational aspirations.
My mother, Annie Pearl Gentry, managed to make it to the eighth grade, a few years after which, as closely as I can make out through the family secretiveness, she became pregnant with my brother out of wedlock and married my father in what must have been a shotgun wedding, when she was 16 and he was 25. Each of us children had to piece this family shame together on our own, comparing my brother’s birthdate with the date of our parents’ wedding anniversary, a date I uncovered only by sneaking into my parents bedroom when they were at work and looking into the forbidden top drawer to view their marriage certificate. They never celebrated their wedding anniversary, though that was not especially strange, since no one I ever knew except my grandparents, did, and then only the really big ones. That fact was a clue for my brother and sister, but I only needed the marriage certificate and my file of things yelled during fights to figure it out.
My mother, nevertheless, before I was born, read avidly and I remember how envious I was of my sister, Audrey, that she could have conversations with my mother about books they had both read, in addition to movies they had all seen, places they had all been, and my mother’s father, Granddaddy Jack, whom they had all known. It was one more thing that put me on the outside. My mother believed so strongly that reading was the path upward that she taught all three of us to read and write long before we entered first grade. In the case of my siblings, attending as they both did, middle-class schools in the 40s, this was a good thing. In my case, due to the different history of the 50s in a poor neighborhood, it was disastrous.
Mama, as we called her long before “Mom” had been made the American word by TV, never had a full-time job before I entered first grade, though I have heard her refer to a part-time job she had once held coloring photographs by hand, long before color film. In Cleveland, throughout the early childhood of my sister and all of my brother’s childhood, she was a stay-at-home mother, though I suspect that that one part-time job had given her a little taste of what might be good about having one’s own job. When I have expressed to my brother my envy that neither he nor my sister experienced being a “latchkey kid” as I did, he has brought me up sharply.
His experience of her, expressed to me after we had attended not one, but two, memorial services for her wherein my sister and I had found good things to say but he had remained silent, was that all she had been to him was the person who saved up reports for my father all day so that when he got home from work he could “beat the crap out of me.” To him, I was the lucky one. I only had to spend my childhood alone or in hiding. I was too often and too late in life spanked, but, unlike my siblings, I was only beaten once with a belt.
Growing up, we all assumed the high intelligence, a dominant factor in the shaping of my personality, came from my father. It was only after years of militant feminism on my part that I realized we all probably made that assumption based on the verbal abuse my mother received in our hearing, along with the physical abuse I rarely saw but often heard, from our father. To the degree that high intelligence is genetic, it is as easy now to think of my mother as the source as it is my father. My brother, on the other hand, jokes that he likes to think that it came from our alleged Seminole great-grandmother—an infusion of true intelligence from Native Americans smart enough to have survived the white onslaught, into a line of whites much more likely to have arrived as indentured servants than entrepreneurs.
My mother began her own personal upward journey in earnest after we moved from Cleveland to Miami. Our already shaky fortunes having plummeted with the loss of my father’s union job, my mother had to work. She went to maid school–I forbear to engage in euphemism by using the modern phrase “housekeeper.” She was a maid at the famous Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami Beach for years, then moved up to seamstress at a dry cleaning shop near the Opa-Locka Marine Air Base, a mile from our home in Miami. This experience enabled her to later be hired as a Singer saleslady and sewing teacher when I was in high-school, a job she held and won award after award for, for 25 years.
This was her dream job. She wore to it beautiful suits she had made for herself, was treated with the utmost respect, was for years the sewing judge at the Polk County fair and her fellow employees at the store were her best friends. The respect was important, since she had experienced so very little of it from any other quarter before that. Her central goal in life was to be respectable, a fact that worked to her daughters’ great detriment, and she achieved it, coming finally to model herself after Lady Bird Johnson. It is sad that she is not now alive so that I can tell her that, according to one genealogy source, Lady Bird Johnson was a distant cousin of ours. (If I could tell her that, I would carefully avoid telling her that, actually, the famous person we are most closely related to, and through her line, is Jesse James.)
When she joked to me that many people assumed she had a college degree in Home Economics and that she was pleased to allow them to think so, I was evolved enough by then that I did not sneer, even quietly in my mind. I was and am extremely proud of her–the guts of it, the perseverance of it, her refusal to be beaten down spiritually by either my father or her patriarchal surroundings or her humble beginnings. She always knew what she wanted and, whatever feelings the three of us may have about her mothering skills, she, by God, got it in the end. Respectability, to her great chagrin, was not what I wanted, but I am proud that she got it.
My intelligence, as well as that of my siblings, could have been inferred just from the fact that we were reading in kindergarten, but mine and my brother’s were also quantified and I am sure that affected us both. If my sister ever knew her Stanford-Binet score, I am not aware of it, but Jackie’s was surely known when he was placed in the accelerated program and mine was known when we were all tested in the fifth grade. The number, whatever it was, was carefully concealed from me, anti-intellectualism being then at its height, but I got myself tested again as a freshman in college, trying to decide if I should try to join MENSA, and the number was 145.
I was only allowed to know two things from my fifth grade test. One was that I was reading at the level of a freshman in college, higher than anyone else in the school, and the other was that I had a very active imagination. One of my mother’s central goals after that was to stamp out the vivid imagination, if possible, and teach me to conceal the reading level. She would invalidate almost anything I told her by attributing it to my “overactive” imagination and ridicule any creative efforts I made by whatever means possible, to thwart any dreams I might have had of being anything but a good wife.
The reading itself, strangely, did not alarm her. I was free to read whatever I could get my hands on, as were all three of us, and books were, indeed, my only escape from the fear, violence and threats of violence that colored my childhood. I spent the summer after the fourth grade in the next door neighbor’s closet, attempting to read her entire set of the World Book of Knowledge encyclopedias because she, a closet intellectual, appearances notwithstanding, had told me if I read them all I “would know everything there is to know.” They were stored in her closet because her house, like ours, was tiny and cramped and, in her case, there were far too many people in the house, none of whom had any use for encyclopedias.
Moving on up
My family was of the class Vance Packard, in his book The Status Seekers, calls “upper working class.” According to Packard, that group consists of people with jobs requiring some training, but not higher education. They are frequently foremen, supervisors, skilled workmen, and retail sales persons, but never management. In terms of both occupation and education, that is an exact description of both my parents during my adolescence and after all their children had left home. As far as I know, my generation in my family was not only the first to go to college and the first to obtain graduate degrees, but also the first to graduate from high school. It is possible that some of my father’s siblings might have graduated from high school but, if so, I am not aware of it and I know that my mother’s siblings did not.
Luckily, my parents had not read Packard and so were not discouraged from struggling up the class ladder. My immediate family’s history is a saga of one generation flinging itself and the next one over that line and my own personal saga is one of beating my head bloody trying to get over that line and then saying “to hell with it,” and joining the counterculture, which claimed to be outside the class system.
From the standpoint of money, we were poor, but respectable, a status my parents protected ferociously. They were very concerned lest anyone consider us “poor white trash,” a characterization they had no compunctions about applying to certain affinal relatives. When I applied for financial aid my second year in college (which I did not get), my family was classified by the financial aid office as being in the lowest category of poor. There was no question that I qualified in terms of need or academic promise. Why I did not receive the financial aid has never been clear to me, though I suspect that my by-then sullied reputation may have been a factor. But, if we were poor, we were extremely upwardly mobile.
I did not learn until I read Packard that the line from upper working class to lower middle class is the hardest one to cross, but my experience in life and my observations of my colleagues certainly confirm that idea. If my parents cannot be said to have crossed Packard’s line into the lower middle-class in any way but appearances, there can be no doubt that my siblings made it. The intelligence probably fed into the upward mobility and everyone but me ended up solidly in Packard’s lower or middle middle-class. Audrey married a career Marine stationed at Opa-Locka and, not without unbelievable struggle on both their parts, ended up an officer’s wife. He had worked “up through the ranks” to… I am not even clear what rank he is, now, retired. Strange it was to visit them after his retirement, go to the Px with her and be in a car that was saluted everywhere on “the base” in Jacksonville. It made me very uneasy.
Yet, for all the weight my mother put on teaching us to read early, my parents were skeptical when my brother went to college and downright apoplectic when I proposed going to college. By the time Audrey went, they were only mildly bewildered. In my case, there were endless arguments, some physically violent, questioning why a woman would need a college degree. I had a “good” job as a clerk-typist, why couldn’t I do that until I got married? This argument was rendered somewhat weak by my unpopularity with the boys, but I was only 17. (All the women in my family up to that point had been married by age 16, except my sister, who made it to 18.) Perhaps there was still hope that I would land a husband.
Jack married a future lawyer, settled in D.C. and worked himself so high in the Department of Justice that I am not even allowed to know what exactly he did before retirement. It had to do with computers. I only know that during the Vietnam War, when I was a peace activist student in Berkeley, my mother called me on the telephone and begged me to stop what I was doing because it was “endangering the careers” of both my brother and my brother-in-law, then in Marine Intelligence in Vietnam. Each time either was up for promotion, she said, another security clearance would be required, one which would once more turn up the subversive little sister in Berkeley. The purpose of her call failed, since I was unable to see why their careers were more important than my activism, not to mention my integrity.
Another factor in our push to move up was certainly our work ethic, which in my case backfired by giving me the experience of early independence. When placed in a social environment composed of over-protected middle-class females who had never worked, it turned out to be a formula for mutual resentment. As a child I had an allowance as far back as I can remember that was directly related to my doing my chores. If I did not do my chores or complained about them, it was very simple. On top of other punishments, I was sure to lose my allowance.
I got my first job, along with my Social Security number, at age 13, doing part-time seasonal inventory at a “merchantile” store. I began working part-time as a waitress and curb- hop at age 16, paying for my own room and board, which gave me the feeling of, if not the reality of, complete economic independence. Because of this early experience of independence, I was especially sensitive thereafter to infantilization because I had been, in my own mind, supporting myself since age 16. I was far more used to adulthood when I entered college than universities and colleges were at that time accustomed to seeing, at least in females. I was, therefore, pre-set to rebel against authority because college was, for me, a major step backwards in maturation. It was a set up for conflict with college administrations based on the concept of in loco parentis.
A somewhat related concept deriving from my family status and history is that all of the women married early. Marriage at 14, 15 or 16 was possible because women were considered adults at that point and ready to take on the work of women, which was only possible through marriage. It is true that they were still dependent as women, they had just traded their fathers for their husbands, but they were expected to handle adult women’s responsibilities and work. There was no such thing as a teenager in my family history, for either sex, in spite of the rise of this concept during my childhood.
In my family, you worked at your appropriate age level, starting before your memory starts. Your goal in life if you were a man was to get a job, a good paying job if possible, but any job. Your goal in life if you were a female was to land a man as early as possible, a man with a good paying job. It was only in my generation that “as early as possible” became “as early as possible after high school.” I have no doubt that this family tradition of work, early marriage for women, and early adulthood, which was so strong that all three of us children were pretty much thrown out of the nest as teenagers, provided me with confidence and a sense of independence that precluded my ability to accept rules and authority that seemed quite arbitrary to me.
In Robert Cohen’s biography of Mario Savio, he quotes Mario as saying that most participants in the Free Speech Movement entered college as dependents (Pp. 89-90).* Nothing could be further from the truth in my case. I was not at all dependent. It was a big difference between me and them but not between me and other work study students, though at least one of those I knew was an heiress. How she got on the work-study program, I could never figure out and even though she was a good friend of mine, I always harbored a bit of resentment that she was occupying a position intended for poor students. I did not know if any FSM leaders worked, like me, and it did not occur to me to wonder until much later. But, I could see that they were coming from the middle-class, unlike me. My work history gave me a certain cachet in Berkeley as a real working class intellectual and I must admit that I played that card but I have forgiven myself on the basis that I really did not have much else to play socially.
Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, Robert Cohen, New York, Oxford University Press, 2009.
© Jentri Anders, 2016