I didn’t know I was a redneck until Jeff Foxworthy identified me. Remember all of those Jeff Foxworthy “you might be a redneck if” jokes?
“If you’ve ever honked at chickens while pulling into your driveway . . .”
“If there are more than five McDonald’s bags in your car . . .”
Hey. I needed something to cover the bare springs on the front seat, and that cheap old tablecloth I hid them with was kind of pretty.
“If you met your spouse at a family reunion . . .”
Well, we didn’t actually meet at a family reunion, but we could have. It’s a long story.
So when I went to law school in my 1969 Volkswagen Beetle that left me stranded more times than I “forgot” to look for my toddlers while playing hide and seek, let’s just say it was something of a culture shock.
I remember getting my class schedule and wondering why I had a class in “torts.” Weren’t torts* fancy French pies? I’d only just learned that, you know, and I was still proud of being so worldly.
I sat through my first two weeks, reading opinions by Mr. Justice Black, Mr. Justice Douglas, Mr. Justice Stevens, etc. and thinking, “Boy, there sure are a lot of judges named ‘Justice.’” No. I’m not making that up.
And consideration? For almost a semester I thought that was just folks being nice to each other. Fortunately, I realized it was a term of art before I took the final in Contracts.
It wasn’t just the classes that had me feeling like I’d wandered into the Twilight Zone. It was the people. I’d just spent almost a decade living in the poverty culture of New Mexico with one foot on the street and the other on a banana peel. So when my upper class classmates would say they were broke, I would invite them over for dinner and send them home with the leftovers. That’s what decent people do, right? They thought I was insane. After a year or so, I finally grasped that “broke” in trust fund lingo meant going skiing at Copper instead of Aspen this week.
But the biggest shock of all was finding out that no one was out to get me. Living in a poverty culture, I became ingrained with the “They” mentality.
They are out to get Us, making mandatory insurance laws so we have to choose between eating this week and insuring our cars. They are trying to keep Us down by raising tuition costs because They don’t want Us in school with their kids. They are always profiling Us because They are afraid of Us.
Along with that perception was the idea that They never have to work for what They have. They are all greedy and privileged and look down their noses at Us.
Are you perceiving a bad attitude on my part? You betcha. I didn’t just have a chip on my shoulder, I was proud of having earned the chip on my shoulder. I went to law school to become a warrior for my people, the poor and downtrodden, against the tyranny of They.
As you might guess, I was not the only person who showed up on the doorstep of the Hall of Learning thinking that I knew something and wanting to teach the world a thing or two. I found, in fact, that law school was a distillation of bad attitude. A collection of shoulder chips, and, to my surprise, many of those resentments were directed at me.
While the majority of my fellow students of all races and faiths were stellar individuals, I also knew wealthy African-Americans who would not speak to me because I was white. A few wealthy Latinos told me outright they would not work with me because I was white. I knew Native Americans who treated me with disdain because I’m not only white, but also part Cherokee—apparently the universally hated tribe among indigenous peoples. And I knew people of all races and financial classes who would have nothing to do with any of us, not because of our races or our financial classes, but because of our bad attitudes.
image from openclipart.org
In summary, I was standing there pointing a finger at wealthy people of all races and faiths, only to turn around and find many wealthy minorities pointing a finger at me, finding me indistinguishable from the people I labeled as “They.”
Is this sounding incredibly stupid yet? It was certainly an enlightening moment for me.
That’s when I learned one of the most important lessons of my life. We are They. Each of us is a They to someone, and that someone is probably someone we don’t even know exists.
The fact is that I loved being different and special in my sense of persecution. I loved thinking I was important enough for entire groups of people to conspire against me at a governmental level. It gave me a tribe. A people. An identity, an enemy, and a purpose. But it was a lie. A self-deception of perverted elitism that kept me from succeeding in life, because the bottom line is that no one wants to work with an assclown.
I buried my chip and opened my heart. It was a struggle to find a new sense of self with so much of my identity having been tied up in being a poor redneck reject from a place where there were only two colors of people, Poor and They. But what I found was that, though people live and relate differently at different financial levels, there are genuinely good people everywhere, and very few of them are out to get me.
When have you been a fish out of water? When has your attitude held you back?
All the best to all of you for a week of harmonious integration.
Piper Bayard—The Pale Writer of the Apocalypse
*A tort, for those of you who, like me, didn’t know, is a civil negligence case. For example, if you bring a civil lawsuit over a car wreck, it is a tort.