Hillbilly Elegy is the story of the author J.D. Vance growing up in Middleton, OH and being cared for by his two grandparents who migrated from Appalachia Kentucky to Ohio to take advantage of the steel manufacturing shortly after WWII.
He describes the Hillbilly culture – a deep sense of loyalty to and love of family and country that could not shake the effects of poverty and violence – that stayed with his grandparents throughout their years and is evidenced in his mother’s constant struggle with drugs, jobs and relationships. Vance comes to understand growing up in this environment as having lived in trauma for so many years. Though he served in the Marines, graduated from The Ohio State University and received a JD from Yale University, Vance ‘still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.’
He writes about the improbabilities that a public policy solution will fix or heal the deep scars of this history, infers that the plight of the poor will always be there, and suggests that a more appropriate solution is through nurturing, caring social connections:
People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to solve the problems of my community. I know what they’re looking for: a magical public policy solution or an innovative government program. But these problems of family, faith and culture aren’t like a Rubrik’s Cube, and I don’t think solutions (as most understand the term) really exist. A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and cares deeply about the plight of the working class once told me: “The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things. They’ll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumbs on the scale a little for the people at the margins.”
His story, rooted in the culture and tradition of poor, white Appalachia, is similar to that of African-Americans and Latinos in other urban areas who struggle with poverty. The complexities of his story align with that of our students. Generations of learned behaviors can not be undone overnight or even in a lifetime, especially if alternative dispositions seem to ignore, dismiss, confuse or contradict your identity. It is difficult to accept claims that what you have seen or been taught is wrong when those experiences and lessons are foundational to who you are. Even if you choose to move away from the destructive elements of its grasp, emotions of abandonment and isolation and love and loyalty bring you back to the people and places that have been your home.
When he was in college, Vance began to learn about vast amount of research being conducted on individuals living in poverty including a study by Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). In his book, Vance reflects on the long list of ACEs in his upbringing and the influences that would counter these experiences.
I had not hear of the ACE study prior to reading the book and then this past week a principal in the Coalition emailed me to see if I knew of any schools that administer the ACE test to assess factors in their students’ lives in order to respond with the most appropriate and necessary supports. (I haven’t heard of any school doing this so please let me know if your school does use the ACE test to make the connection.)
Ultimately NativityMiguel school communities become one of the “thumbs on the scale” for our students. We need to know what is weighing on our students, realize how difficult it is for them to let it go, and present and support a new reality that honors and integrates, rather than forgets and separates, who they are and where they have come from.