At a long-ago National Honor Society reception for newly inducted members, I was confronted by George, my boss at the Super Valu, where I bagged groceries and stocked shelves after school and on Saturdays. Though I had just pinned a pin on George’s daughter’s collar and escorted her to the stage, he wore a look not of gratitude but of disbelief.
“What the hell are you doing in the National Honor Society?” he asked. “You can’t even stack margarine.”
I stammered something about margarine-stacking not having been covered in class yet. I’d actually been asking myself a less-unflattering version of the same question. How could I be so good at school and so hopeless, hapless at any practical task? If I were so smart, so off-the-top-of-the-charts on all the diagnostic tests, why couldn’t I stack margarine?
Though the question often occurred to me, I didn’t really need to answer it, because I was in school, in my element, from the time I entered kindergarten until I donned my Ph.D. hood 30 years later. By that time, college teaching jobs, so plentiful when I’d entered graduate school, had all but completely disappeared. To supplement the income of my tenured wife, I took a part-time job as a church custodian.
So there I was, in the middle of my life, highly trained in research and in the organization of ideas (my dissertation adviser said in a letter of recommendation that I had done a “brilliant” job!) — thrust into the world of margarine-stacking. My bosses were the members of the church’s property committee, retired blue-collar workers who made George look positively diplomatic.
Yet they were eager to tackle any repair job that was too much for me, as most of them were. I would watch in wonder as they tore down a circulation pump into a bewildering array of parts, figured out why the sucker wasn’t working, and had it fixed and reassembled and running like new in a couple of hours.
Yet in Adult Education class, these same wonder workers couldn’t extract the simplest idea from the most straightforward paragraph.
Hmmm, thought I: These guys are smart in a way I’m not. Mechanical intelligence. Not an oxymoron.
Their wives meanwhile were very good at preparing and serving food and conducting events and managing children and maintaining friendships. I discovered that the church was a collection of sustaining relationships, a community, and that, more than the council or even the pastor, the members of the Kitchen Committee and their female friends ran the church.
The women of the church were smart in a way that their husbands were not: smart about relationships, about nurture, about community. Their investment in children and friendships and the community of the church sustained these women and kept them active and engaged with life-long after their retired husbands, for whom not even a mechanically inept janitor could provide enough repair projects to relieve their boredom, had subsided or even died.
Hmmm. People intelligence. I had more of this than of the mechanical kind, so I learned more from the women of the church than I did from their handy husbands.
For the first few months of the year that I spent on my second margarine-stacking job, delivering papers for the Minneapolis Star, I did my own billing and discovered in myself a lack of aptitude for conducting business. It took me almost as long to do the billing as it took to deliver the papers, and my reluctance to terminate problem customers meant that I never made as much money as my district manager had promised. Then my billing was taken over by a woman who did bookkeeping in the time she could spare from running a successful cleaning business. Soon my route was free of problem customers and was paying me more than the district manager’s projections, even after my bookkeeper had taken her cut.
This business whiz was a thoroughly unpleasant person, confidently ignorant and strongly anti-Semitic. Since that time, I’ve met successful businesspeople who are well-informed, good-hearted and tolerant, but this woman taught me that a person needs to have none of those qualities to run a business.
Business smarts, people smarts, mechanical smarts: lots of different ways of being smart in this world, most of them paying better than the schoolhouse book-learning scholarly academic smarts I was so good at.
Finally, the college teaching job market opened up enough to give me an adjunct job at a community college. A temporary gig, I thought, to give me some teaching experience until a real job opens up. I was, after all, a Ph.D., destined to teach upper-division classes at a four-year college or university.
It didn’t take more than a couple of academic quarters to pop that particular bubble: Lakewood Community College had an excellent English program and an expert, well-qualified faculty.
But it was the students who really won me over. The variety of their ages and backgrounds was completely new to me, a graduate of a residence college where all the students were middle-class 18- to 22-year-olds. The average age among Lakewood students was 27; students in my classes ranged from 16 to the mid-70s — one of my American lit students was in her mid-80s, taking the class with her 50-ish daughter. It was after a perceptive remark about Holden Caulfield by a veteran parent that I first realized I might be working a different job than the one I had foreseen, but it was an interesting job, maybe even a real job.
And many of my students were not, or not yet, members of the middle class: Some were working their way out of poverty, while others, recent immigrants from Africa or Asia, were acquiring proficiency in English and the job skills they needed to get their families off public assistance.
The variety of backgrounds and ages and kinds of intelligence I encountered in this community college were like the varieties I’d encountered during my 10-year exile from the academy, in my blue-collar work and in the community-service volunteer work I was able to do. Those 10 years were, in fact, not an interval of underemployment but a preparation for this very job, as important a preparation as my doctorate. I went after the next full-time job offered by my college, and stayed in it for 24 years.
So, stepping out of the white, middle-class academic life that seemed to be my destiny has greatly enriched my life, and I recommend this kind of bubble-popping to everyone, especially in these times when so many of us are surrounded by people like ourselves and are so afraid of, so threatened by, people who are not like us.
Befriend these others: Have lunch with them, spend an afternoon with them, go on a day trip or to a ballgame with them, mentor their children, teach them in a class or take a class from them. Get to really know them, to the point where, beyond the different kinds of intelligence or different-colored skin or different accent or native dress, you see that what we all have in common is greater than, more important than, our differences.
I say this having recently had to pop another of my bubbles. As a white, middle-class, more-or-less liberal academic, I’d imagined that the civil-rights movement was successfully concluded: There was the Civil Rights Act of 1964; there were laws against discrimination in housing and against hate crimes; there was Oprah giving away cars; Morgan Freeman being the uncle of us all. Black athletes and entertainers were everywhere; white kids were imitating black styles and listening to black music; blacks and whites were mixing freely, even in the South.
Yet there were signs even in my own white suburban life that all was not well, signs I should have seen: a white student married to an African-American, shaking with anger as she told me that I had no idea what he has to put up with, every day. An 11-year-old friend who as we passed a police car said he hoped we wouldn’t be stopped because he was black. Angry conversations overheard among young black men standing jobless on the street in the middle of a workday.
I should not have been surprised when I read of the appalling social and economic disparities between blacks and whites in this most progressive state of ours. Median income for blacks is half what it is for whites; homeownership for blacks is less than a third what it is for whites. Academic achievement is much lower for blacks than for whites, while rates of imprisonment and unemployment are much higher.
I should not have been surprised, but I was. We need a new civil-rights movement in this country, in this state, and I need to discover how I might support it.
This breaking of bubbles might be understood as a version of the Judeo-Christian practice of repentance, of turning away from our sins and turning toward God, an action that must be repeated daily, even hourly. So let me paraphrase the breaking of bubbles in words more worthy of this ancient and necessary practice: We all need, again and again, to turn away from our shortsighted ignorance of one another and to discover our common humanity.
P.S. During my recent winter exile in Florida, I was helped out of a mechanical difficulty by an amiable fellow who had a you-know-who sticker on the bumper of his pickup truck.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.