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COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER

Patricia Silver Quit Her Teaching Job At One College When She Tired Of Being " The Token Hillbilly." Now A Umass-Amherst Professor, She Offers A Course On Class In America And Has Collected Stories About Other Academics With Roots In The Mines.

 
 
March 3, 2002

THERE IS A SMALL YELLOW STICKER on the door of 166 Hills South, Patricia Silver's office at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "How much have you learned about class in class?" it asks her visitors.

A window of Silver's ground-floor office looks out on a courtyard of grass and trees, with red-brick dormitories in the middle distance. In the spring, she says, half-naked women soak up the sun among Frisbee throwers in this campus nook. In the autumn, rust-colored leaves cover the ground.

In front of the window is a small writing table where the professor of education displays some photographs. Among them is a faded sepia picture of a dirt road wending its way up a ridgeline past a dilapidated barn. Silver points to the stick construction and the cheap materials. "It's what we used to call a pole barn," she says. "It is typical of what hardscrabble farmers would cobble together."

The scene in the photo and the view from the window are each bucolic in their own way, but one reminds Silver of the poverty she grew up with, while the other is indicative of the privilege surrounding her now.

Silver's father was a coal miner. She was raised in and around coal camps in the hollows of West Virginia, enduring the physical hardships and psychological burdens of poverty. Her family hovered near the bottom of the heap in a society where class is seldom discussed.

But Silver, 58, is talking about it now. Last year, she taught a UMass course on class for the first time. She says that it has only recently become clear to her how strongly Higher education in this country reinforces class distinctions. She talks about the harsh price that social inequality exacts from students lacking basic knowledge about how to get ahead. Children from many poor families don't even know what a semester is, she says, much less think of college as a realistic option. Middle-class children take that kind of knowledge and confidence, which silver calls ``cultural capital,'' for granted. The term was coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who died in January.

 

Many people speak of poverty as a self-inflicted wound, she says. " `It's their own fault; if they would just be frugal, they wouldn't be so poor.' I used to hear that from teachers all the time," says Silver. " `Coal miners can't save money, because they spend their money on frivolous things like a TV' - that really shocked me." The ignorance and insensitivity with which people with inherited social standing can treat the poor have offended her throughout her career.

Even now, she sometimes feels like an impostor crashing a party.

In the midst of a battle with ovarian cancer, Silver wears a white head-covering to conceal the hair loss from her second round of chemotherapy last summer. She is a woman of medium height who fixes a visitor with a direct and earnest gaze.

In her demeanor, Silver is anything but a firebrand. She is quiet and calm, plainly dressed and plain-spoken. In her dual-track career at UMass as a professor of special education and as the founder and director of the Learning Disabilities Support Serv ices, she has been a stubborn champion for people marginalized by academia.

Facing her own mortality has made her more outspoken and less afraid to air her views on class consciousness despite career politics. "The game is over," Silver says, "and I'm not playing anymore."

She bristles at the suggestion that she "escaped" to a higher social class. "If you're escaping, then what you're escaping from must not be as good as something else," she says. The pride that she takes in academic accomplishments should not diminish the dignity of people who work with their hands, Silver says. The question that people ask, she says, the one that has grated on Silver during her entire academic career, is "How did you get out?"

But she is not immune to using that terminology herself during an unguarded moment. As she discusses academic colleagues from working-class origins, she talks of those whose "escape was self-motivated." Such people, she says, differ from those who had a special teacher to widen their horizons, like her.

Silver is editing a collection of essays in progress tentatively called Out of the Darkness: Stories and Reflections of the Journeys From Coal Towns to Aca demia. Even that title betrays some contradictions within her thinking. The book sprang from the chance discovery four years ago that two of her UMass colleagues have family roots along the same ridge straddling McDowell and Wyoming counties where Silver is from. They started talking with one another and found four other people on campus whose fathers or grandfathers mined for coal.

Silver grew up in Mullens, West Virginia. Her father, who retired in 1980, had tried to "get out of the mines" when Silver was a child in the 1940s. He moved the family to Gauley Bridge, 60 miles away, to try his hand at selling insurance. "It was awful; we nearly starved to death," she recalls. "What a joke, selling insurance to poor people, right!" Admitting failure and returning to his job prying coal out of the ground were devastating for her father, Silver says.

Some of Silver's earliest memories are of sweeping the coal dust that accumulated on her family's porch every day. The lesson she retains is not some romanticized notion that giving children chores instills responsibility. Rather, it is anger at the coal company for putting a processing plant right in town. "It was an indication that people's health and well-being was not a priority," she says, "or maybe not even a consideration."

The feeling that the people in her family and her community were "expendable items" was reinforced by the daily callousness with which they were treated. One of her jobs was preparing her father's lunch bucket. "One image I'll never forget," Silver says, "is of him holding his sandwich by one corner" when he ate. He had to keep the grime on his fingers to one small bit of his food, which he would then discard. And there was the unrelenting daily fear of accidents that routinely cost limbs and lives, and the diseases, black lung most notably, that came as part of having a steady job.

"There wasn't a night when I didn't wonder whether he was going to come home," Silver says of her father, who worked the late-night "hoot-owl shift" for much of his life.

Her grandfather, who lost several fingers in a mine accident and eventually died of black lung disease, went into the mines when he was 9 years old. In those days, children worked as "trappers," operating vents to bring air into the shafts. "They were human fans," Silver says. "Can you imagine a little boy standing in the dark all day long?"

When her grandfather started in the mines, Silver says, mules were used to cart coal out of the shaft. "If a mule died in a miner's care, they'd fire the miner; if a man died, the company didn't care."

Silver's teacher for the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, Sally Bower Neal, made Silver put the "ings" back on the ends of words. She also taught her that "a lot" is a plot of ground and is never to be confused with "many" among those who use the English language properly.

These were early and crucial steps in Silver's emergence from her working-class roots. Higher education seemed like a foreign and unrealistic goal. But her teacher put the notion into her head that it wasn't, and it stuck.

The Pygmalion moments that Neal introduced into Silver's youth were one part of her transformation from the daughter of "work in' folk" into a university professor with a working-class perspective. Another part was all about attitude. The teacher yanked Silver out of typing class and told her to study journalism instead. "Learn to write, and someone else will do your typing," she told the girl. She also gave her pupil a constant string of assignments involving presentations and short speeches, grooming her to be the class valedictorian. The only coal miner's child in the advanced class in her rigidly tracked high school, Silver, with Neal's help, also won a journalism award that helped her get a college scholarship. "I think her goal in life was to educate poor kids," Silver says of Neal.

Silver launched her career by rushing through a four-year degree in English and elementary education at Concord College in Athens, West Virginia, in three years while packing clothes in a coat factory in the summers. After graduating, she went back home to teach middle school in nearby Iaeger. At 21, Silver was barely older than many of her students and actually younger than some. She came face to face with a local bureaucracy that she soon realized harbored deep prejudices against coal miners' children.

Interested in students with reading problems, she went on to West Virginia University in Morgantown for a doctorate in education. A textbook she wrote on reading acquisition led to a post at Indiana University in Bloomington. After five years, she became a sought-after consultant and moved to New England and a job teaching special education at Wheelock, a small private college in Boston.

Her husband, David Silver, got a job as a caretaker on the Concord estate of Amilia Forbes Emerson, the widow of Ralph Waldo Emerson's last surviving grandson. The Silvers lived in a cottage there for two years with their young daughter, Jessica. "That was the first time I had been that close to wealth, trust funds, and many houses," says Silver. "I think my experience at Wheelock set me to thinking about the issue of class even more than I had before." The elitism she encountered manifested itself in disdain for working-class people. "As soon as someone found out my father was a coal miner," says Silver, "it just changed the whole dynamic." Appalachia was mocked.

There are certain topics that are off-limits for derogatory humor in aca demia, says Silver, but so-called hillbillies and Southern poverty "have always been something people feel they can joke about; that one's open season." During a discussion about the 1960 presidential election, she recalls, a fellow faculty member at Wheelock commented to her that John F. Kennedy could talk coal miners in West Virginia "into doing anything, because they have no brains."

This particularly upset Silver when she considered that the endowments with which many elite institutions like Wheelock were founded came from people who had made their fortunes in industries that sucked the lifeblood out of miners and other working-class people. "They took the money out of Appalachia and never put any back," she says. Tired of being "the token hillbilly," Silver says, she quit without having another job lined up.

"Escape" is a theme that resonates for several contributors to the anthology that Silver is editing. Some express

pride in having vaulted out of a working-class upbringing and into the rarefied arena of university teaching and research. Others view their positions as a responsibility to work for those who didn't have their luck.

Each came to UMass by a different route.

Joyce Vincent, 46, who di rects the Josephine White Eagle Native American Cultural Center on campus, grew up in New York City but spent summers with extended family in West Virginia. Vincent's father was a construction worker, and her mother spent 35 years in factories producing everything from shoe polish to Ty-D-Bol toilet cleaner. Her grandfather mined coal.

Coming from a Cherokee, Blackfoot, and African-American background, her family was about as low in the social hierarchy of a mining community as one could get. "Below them were the catfish in the river," Vincent says during an interview at her studio apartment in Sunderland, a farming community bordering Amherst. Being black meant her grandfather was dispatched to the crawl spaces in the mines, she says, where the men "had to lie flat on their backs with water dripping in their faces."

A member of the professional staff at UMass who also teaches and conducts research, Vincent holds a degree in psychology from Queens College in New York. She came to Amherst in 1993 by way of a variety of clerical and administrative jobs. She was an insurance auditor for an HMO in Worcester when she was asked to serve as a liaison between Native American students and the university administration.

Vincent says she has "a working-class chip on her shoulder" concerning colleagues who profess to have moved beyond their origins. "These guys feel like they've arrived," she says. "I've never left, and I'm not leaving."

John Hewitt, 60, the chairman of the UMass sociology department until he retired last year, has a different take on his upbringing. He describes an essay he contributed to the book as an "escape narrative."

A self-described "wunderkind" who tested well as a child, Hewitt felt as if he mastered the ways of aca demia early on. He hadn't given much thought to his working-class roots until Silver approached him for this proj ect, he says, but looking back, he wonders why he "got out" while others didn't.

His father mined for coal in Morrisdale, on the Allegheny Plateau in Pennsylvania, before moving his family to Buffalo when the mines started closing. "I came to understand Morrisdale as a closed world from whose clutches I had luckily escaped," Hewitt writes in his essay. "Now I wonder about childhood friends and if the road that opened briefly for me closed again and kept them there." A boyhood teacher tried to "cut me down to size [with] her strident voice and wooden paddle."

A quirk of geography enabled him to attend an upper-middle-class high school in Buffalo, where he worked hard at getting rid of his accent. "No one ever did Pygmalion with me," Hewitt says. "I figured out on my own that I didn't want to feel like I didn't belong."

He got his foothold in the world of higher education at the State University of New York at Buffalo and eventually earned a doctorate in just three years from Princeton University. "I was not the fastest they ever had," he says, "but one of the fastest." Being able to say he escaped his working-class origins became a source of pride, Hewitt says.

He is analytical about why he overcame poverty when childhood friends didn't. "It may have been my father's quasi-Marxism that set me at odds with my world," he writes in his essay. His father was still trying to organize fellow workers during his last job, as a school custodian.

However, Hewitt saw "dogma" and "bitterness" in the leftist rhetoric his father cast in terms of "social justice." His goal as a professor was "not to change the world but to understand it," says Hewitt. "I certainly did not become a flaming spokesman for the working class."

The opposite is true for Nicholas McBride, 47, a journalism professor who grew up in Springfield. "Poverty is not a crime," he says, objecting to the escape analogy. Some of his colleagues, McBride adds, "want to look at it as if they've escaped something, when in reality all of their experiences give substance to what they are doing now."

His father mined coal as a young man before heading north to work in a slaughterhouse and then in construction. "My father had the three most dangerous occupations in the US," says McBride.

Like Vincent, McBride spent many childhood summers in southern West Virginia. The leftist views he heard at home weren't necessarily cast as Marxist rhetoric but in a decidedly "us and them" view of the world. "Labor consciousness was a secular religion in my house," he says. Early on, he learned that "there are people who have to bust their ass to get their food, and there are people who have advantages."

Outlines of his destiny took shape when he was 5 years old. His father, working on a crew constructing a dormitory at Westfield State College, determined then that his son would someday go to college. In 1972, the year McBride graduated from high school in Springfield, universities tried hard to recruit urban youths. He was, he says, part of the "biggest class of non-white people" ever to enter Westfield State College, where he studied for two years before transferring to UMass for a degree in political science.

As he made his way through a career as a reporter for publications like The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor, picking up advanced degrees from Columbia and Harvard along the way, "fitting in" never became his goal. Instead, he honed an analysis of academia that was critical of its role in perpetuating elitist privilege.

"Education should be a democratic right rather than a luxury for people who have money," he says, leaning back in his office chair. "It is a way to participate fully in a democracy."

What sociologists call cultural capital, or in grained knowledge about how to advance in the world, McBride calls "counterfeit currency." He rejects the notion that the world of ideas should be a place to advance socially based on inherited pedigree: "To me, authentic intellectualism is about making the country true to its creed of fairness." As far as he is concerned, higher education is failing in the challenge to equalize opportunity. Instead, it reinforces existing stratification.

"For every one of me there are a thousand in the graveyard or in prison," says McBride. "There's a lot of genius in the working class that's going to the penitentiaries, into dope dealing, and into dead-end jobs."

To understand why fitting in never became a goal for McBride, you may not have to look any further than what he calls the "marginality on sight" experienced by African-Americans. Erasing a working-class accent and adopting certain manners won't make them fully blend into aca demia, he says. "That's the white man's privilege."

Three years ago, Silver and Vincent returned to Wyoming County and neighboring McDowell County in West Virginia, this time with a group of UMass undergraduates on an "alternative spring break." Silver's father put them in touch with an Episcopalian mission in the town of Keystone, where the UMass students were to learn about grass-roots community development by helping to build a food pantry.

This was not far from where Silver had taught English to middle schoolers after college and before she embarked on graduate studies. To her dismay, poverty was just as dire then as in the past. "There's no infrastructure, no sewage-treatment plants; there is pollution in water and in the air from coal-processing plants," says Silver. "People live in shacks, coming to food pantries to stock up or to the mission to look through a box of used eyeglasses." And not much had changed in the attitude toward the children of coal miners.

During a seminar Silver arranged, one local teacher said that the miners' children didn't advance because they were lazy. "The union ruined the miners," Silver heard her say. "They don't want to work, and the union supports them. The children just don't care."

Silver seethed and left the room to collect herself. When she returned, she explained as calmly as she could that she knew about teachers' attitudes toward coal miners and their children from her time teaching in Iaeger in 1964. "I told her that many of these children do not perform because teachers do not expect them to, and they sense the negative attitudes toward them," says Silver. "I don't remember her response to me, because I was so angry."

The "darkness" in Out of the Darkness: Stories and Reflections of the Journeys From Coal Towns to Aca demia refers to the ignorance the educational establishment perpetuates among poor people, says Silver.

As a member of that establishment, she constantly asks herself about her own role in it, both as a participant and as someone who can never quite put her past behind her. The feeling that she has had of being an impostor traveling in foreign circles is the opposite of the entitlement that people born into the credentialed classes bring to their lives.

Throughout her career, Silver has always been astonished by how easily professors stereotype poor people, making generalizations about bad habits of the "lower social classes." Academics, she says, "are very quick to become middle-class morality officers." Not long ago, at an art-show opening, someone asked her "the famous question." Explaining how she got out of West Virginia, Silver gave a slow and careful account of her escape: "I took Interstate 64 until I got to Interstate 80, on which I traveled east until it met up with Interstate 95. Then when Interstate 91 branched northward, I took that for about 80 miles, and before I knew it, I was here."

Only later did it dawn on her that the question that has angered her throughout her academic career was not the one people were voicing. "They were asking, `How did you get out?' " she says. "What they really want to know is `How did you get in?' "

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

(413) 835-1248 - eric.goldscheider@gmail.com