Writer’s comment: In Jayne Walker’s English 18 class I discovered my own voice and wrote essays in the first person for the first time. The range and limitations of my own abilities became clear to me, and I improved on them during the quarter.
When we were asked to read Richard Rodriguez’s essay “The Achievement of Desire,” I did not expect to relate to the author so strongly. The distance he had created between himself and his previous life was striking. And the question so frequently asked of Rodriguez, “How did you manage your success,” infuriated me. I believe that the question of how one rises from the working class is not as significant as the question of why. Writing this essay, I realized something I had not considered when I read “The Achievement of Desire”Ñit’s hard to write about these things.
Instructor’s comment: English 18, a sophomore-level course on style, was an exciting class for all of us. Reading and writing assignments encouraged the students to reflect on their educations and their membership in various discourse communities. The essays they produced were as intellectually adventurous as they were ruthlessly honest.
Karyn Gibbs’ work astonished me. She worked hard on rewriting her first essay, describing her circle of working-class friends in Pittsburgh, gradually transmuting a rich body of raw material into refined literary form. The first draft I saw of “Burned,” her next essay, was already almost perfect. Grappling with Richard Rodriguez’ essay helped her to discover a style that honors her past “simply” (as William Zinsser would say), consciously avoiding the formal diction and syntax that Rodriguez deployed, in his essay, to distance his past. This style, which may seem transparent until you read it aloud and hear its rhythms, creates a sense of immediacy so powerful that you can almost feel the physical pain of Karyn’s burns, the psychic pain of “breaking rank” and losing her old friends.
—Jayne Walker, English Department
The hot steam from the presses fills the room. By ten o’clock in the morning it is stiflingly hot and the back doors are open. Snow blows into the building and melts into rivulets that bleed back out through the doors. The cold air is choked off before it can touch my skin. I am stripped down to a tank top and shorts and sweating, a water bottle at my feet. The first machine thumps down over the collar and cuffs of the shirt. After fifteen seconds it hisses and ratchets itself open. I lift the shirt and turn to my left to slip the arms of the shirt over the sleeve press, which hisses and expands inside the shirtsleeves. Steam pours off the shirt. This is where I usually burn myself, plucking the hot shirt from the hot metal. I turn another ninety degrees to my left and drape the shirt over a padded cutout of a man, clamping it down so it will press smoothly, and pull a lever. The shirt slides into a casing and hot irons close over it. Steam billows from the machine. I arrange the still-hot shirt on a wire hanger, turning down the collar and buttoning the top button before I slide it down the rack and turn again to my left to pull a wet shirt from the basket and lay it on the first machine.
I am the fastest worker, and the entire process takes me sixty seconds. If I work all the machines at once, I can press 600 shirts in one shift. And earn $42 doing it. By the end of the day, I have a number of small burns on my fingers and am picking up the shirts between the fingers that are less burned. One day, though, my forearm brushes against the copper pipes that surround the machines, and I burn myself badly. The steam from the machines aggravates the injury for the next four hours. When I finally sit outside and pull away the reddened and blistered skin that has already lost feeling, the cold air against the damp, newly exposed flesh makes my eyes water. At this point I make the decision that I will someday go to college. I will separate myself from this life the only way that I know how. And the scar from this accident will serve as my motivation for the three remaining years of high school.
This sort of rise from the working class isn’t common. As Richard Rodriguez points out in his essay “The Achievement of Desire,” it is marked by consciously choosing to be educated. He, even before he became a “scholarship boy,” chose education to separate himself from his previous life. As did I. And Rodriguez admits that eventually, towards the end of his schooling, he found a desire to recover something of the past he had rejected in order to become a scholarship boy. So he returned home and found some bits of comfort in being with his family, while accepting the ways that things had changed. Things were different for me.
While Rodriguez fits Richard Hoggart’s profile of the scholarship boy in many ways, I do not. My family background couldn’t be more opposite. Although I spent my high school years living below the poverty level and working full time to take care of myself, I had grown up in an educated household. Rodriguez’ parents seem to value education, but hadn’t been able to attain it themselves. My parents valued their degrees above all; a degree was proof of intelligence. A person without a college degree was shiftless or dim-witted. My parents uttered the word “intellectual” with the reverence many people save for naming deities. If things had been different, I might have continued to grow up with this. But shortly after my fourteenth birthday, my parents divorced and our family crumbled. I found myself living alone in an abandoned house. And then I found my friends.
My group of friends carried the sense of home that I had lost when my family fell apart. Every waking hour that I didn’t spend at work or school I spent with them. Although I occasionally attempted to live with one or the other of my parents, they were in no condition to take care of me. My stays with them were always short, and always ended with my friends coming to rescue me. My friends understood all of this; these sorts of things were common threads in all of our lives, and as a result we were extremely close. Adding to this closeness was the fact that we were all working class, although they were mostly high school dropouts. When I chose to separate myself from the working class through my education, it never dawned on me that I would be separating myself from them as well. Rodriguez, on the other hand, knew exactly what he was doing, exactly what he was leaving. He felt embarrassed by his parents because they were what ignorant people might think of as common.
A high school diploma didn’t separate me from my friends. It didn’t separate me from the thump and hiss of the laundry either. Enrolling in a university wasn’t enough to cut me off from them; they even seemed proud of me. But the first few weeks of college created a distance between us, and now I cannot go back. I didn’t understand this until I went home to see them for a weekend. I drove up in a borrowed car, and when I got out they were all there. There was a pause. And then someone said, “Well, College Girl is back.” And nothing could make any of us recover from that. It no longer mattered that three weeks earlier we had been like siblings. The group was re-ordering itself according to what they perceived as my new social status. They dropped my old nickname and called me by my real name. They spoke more carefully around me, as if I might correct their grammar. The guys stopped asking me to help work on their cars, and the girls stopped asking me to sit in the waiting room at Planned Parenthood with them. Instead, they started asking me for my opinions, thinking that I would have the correct point of view on everything of importance. They even asked me who they should vote for. It took only a few more visits home to realize that this was the new order of things.
In a way, my return had insulted them. They were glad to see me, but I made them feel looked down upon. It didn’t matter that several of them were smarter than I could ever hope to be. It mattered that I had moved on to a realm they associated with nice cars and savings accounts. I was no longer the girl working the presses; I was on my way to being the girl who was too important to do her own laundry, much less wash the shirts of strange men. I had broken out of my rank in their eyes. Better to have simply abandoned them, as I eventually did, with no small measure of guilt.
Rodriguez clearly felt something akin to the isolation I experienced (and it is truly hard to find other people at my university with working class backgrounds). But any such feelings were certainly tempered by the pride his family took in his accomplishments. A few of my friends did feel proud of me and continued to treat me as they had before, but neither they nor I could endure the behavior my presence was beginning to elicit from the others. And while Rodriguez returned home to his family and still had some sort of place, I don’t go home at all anymore. My education has completely and irreparably divided me from the life I knew. And while I am getting a good education in a major I love and already earn enough money to live more comfortably than I did, a part of me wishes I had never burned myself and never left.
Richard Rodriguez, “The Achievement of Desire.” 1982. The Contemporary Essay. Ed. Donald Hall. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 1995, 456-73.