Hillbilly Elegy – Stabilizing Influences Matter

I recently completed the best selling non-fiction book by J.D. Vance called “Hillbilly Elegy.” Briefly, Vance tells the story of his roots in the Kentucky hills and how his grandparents traversed with others into Ohio to work in various manufacturing jobs. While that migration helped a great deal, many were not successful or plateaued because of lack of opportunity, lack of money for a college education and lack of consistent support.

Vance eventually became an attorney graduating from Yale law school, but he was very much the exception. Why? He attests it is primarily due to three stabilizing influences in his life, the first and most important of which, was his grandmother. HIs mother was very unstable with continual drug problems and multiple husbands and boyfriends. When Vance and his sister tried to live with his mother, far more often than not, it was a chaotic and verbally abusive setting which caused his grades, attendance, and attitude to plummet.

He lived with his grandmother (and grandfather while he was alive) off and on and frequently visited when he did not. Vance says when he chose to live with his grandmother full-time when entering the 10th grade, he finally had the stabilizing influence and support he needed. He notes his grades and attitude improved, along with his desire and a safe place to study. Mind you, his grandmother was not perfect and cursed like a sailor, but she made sure he had good friends, encouraged him to get a part-time job and said he was capable of going to college.

The second influence he discovered when he decided he was not mentally ready to go to college after being accepted. He joined the Marines. Vance said clearly the Marines taught him how to be responsible and accountable. They also taught him how to be an adult by helping him set up a checking account, mentoring him to stay away from predatory loans and how to budget and save. His grandmother hated that he joined the Marines, but even she saw the difference it made in him. So, by the time he went to Ohio State University and later Yale Law school, he was more mature and ready to learn and do what it takes to study.

The third stabilizing influence was his wife, whom he met at law school. A key example is the influence she had on how he reacted to negative news or arguments. Throughout the book, he notes that hillbilly pride in family would cause him to defend his honor at the smallest sleight. His wife shared that he need not react to someone, even her, so severely to jerk her head off if there was a personal affront. She convinced him, even when she disagreed with him, she was still on his side. This supportive love and calming demeanor had an impact and made him a better person. He noted that family meals at his wife’s home were civil and interesting.

We all need stabilizing influences in our life, no matter where we are born. Yet, far too many Americans and citizens of other countries, do not have any or very few stabilizing influences. In America, where and to whom you are born matters more than it used to, in getting ahead. America has plummeted in global rankings in getting ahead. In my volunteer work with homeless working families, many of the children only have a mother to rely on. And, without a roof over their heads, the stability of a safe place to live, much less study, is compromised. By breaking the cycle of homelessness, a child has a better chance of avoiding homelessness as an adult.

Vance clearly states if he did not have the support and stability of his grandmother, he would not have ever gone to college and may have been a high school drop out. Two present and interested parents is far more the ideal, but with such a high divorce rate, with so many out-of-wedlock births, and with the temptations to drink or do drugs as an outlet when life gets tougher than you are prepared to deal with, that ideal may not be attainable for many. So, he argues that a childcare support system designed to serve kids in troubled situations needs to be flexible enough to confirm where those stabilizing influences are for that child. He had to fight to live with his grandmother rather than his mother and living with his father was not fruitful.

I encourage you to read this book which offers through example, what real and imperfect people are going through. It may challenge preconceived notions, which is always a good thing, in my view. It did mine.

The Mighty Casey – Tribute to a Great Teacher

Queen Latifah, whose mother was a teacher, is hosting a documentary show called “Teach.” The show highlights the passion, caring, capability and tenacity of several teachers at various grade levels. Peppered throughout the show, are small segments where actors and others come into view and highlight teachers that made a difference to them. It caused my wife and I to reflect on the teachers that meant so much to us. I had several in my K-12 years, but I wanted to highlight one from my college days, as I had his classes several times. I will call him The Mighty Casey, which is actually a nickname from another venue. More on that later.

Teachers come in all forms, shapes, and styles. Some are more demonstrative than others, while some are fairly studious even in front of a class. The Mighty Casey was actually more of the latter. He had a great sense of humor, yet did not use it as part of his teaching method. He was interesting beyond his subject matter skills (more on that later), but did not use those interests as props in his lectures. His gift was his magnificent ability to explain complex things for many to understand. And, if you did not get it, he was very generous with his time after classes to help you understand. He was quite genuine and approachable. This man, who could have had a large-size ego on exhibit due his reputation and authoring of books and papers, was not one to condescend and make you feel stupid.

We even drafted him to play on our basketball team at the college, which may have been the worst team ever. As one of our departing gifts at graduation, we framed a quizzical picture of him in a rag-tag basketball shirt. I reflect on that with an open question – how many students would give a picture of their favorite professor wearing a ill-fitting basketball shirt? But, that was part of who The Mighty Casey was and is. His love of sports was a reason behind the nickname he chose for a radio sports talk show he used to call into.

The DJ had a quiz format at the end of each radio show. Over a period of months which turned into years, when the questions were not answered by any listeners, our professor would call in and correctly answer the question. Instead of giving his real name, he chose the nickname “The Mighty Casey.” Many Americans know the reference to the Mighty Casey, from a baseball poem about a hero who strikes out to end the game called “Casey at the Bat” written in 1888 by Ernest Thayer. But, our professor rarely struck out. He became so proficient, he became the go-to guy on tough questions, not unlike his ability to explain complex topics to students. When the DJ needed to conclude the quiz part of the show when it ran long, the DJ would ask if “The Mighty Casey,”  “Casey” or even “Case” was listening. He usually was and would call in and answer the question correctly. And, it was not unusual for him to provide some deeper context to the events around a question.

Not using his name on the sports quiz show is a look into the character of this great teacher. He did not desire the acclaim for his name. He just loved to share what he knew so others could learn. I think that is the best way to think of him. His joy was helping people learn. He did not want people to only know the answer. He wanted people to be able to solve for the next answer using what he taught them. The Mighty Casey was a mentor and teacher to many. He made a huge difference to my career and life. His patience, understanding and love of learning and teaching are remembered well by many people.

Thank you – The Mighty Casey. You did not strike out when it mattered the most. All the best to you and your family. Readers, please feel free to share your favorites and why. I would love to hear your stories.