State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
We were working cattle that day, the sun beating down as we moved as a unit, a family clear on its tasks: get the calves separated from their mothers, work them, one-by-one, into the chute. Uncle Dennis and Granpa flicked their whips onto the beasts, using calls and sharp gestures to move a beefy animal. Once inside the calf table, Dad would close the back and the front, then flip the table on its side where he’d make quick work of the testicles with a knife sharpened at the kitchen table the night before. Mom would pull a branding iron out of the fire and hand it to Dad. The afternoon sizzled with the smell of burnt hair when the metal burned the J/D brand into a calf’s hide. My sisters would stand close by, ready to hand the de-wormer and the KRS purple spray that would stop the bleeding after the ear was notched. This was a spectacular moment for my family because we moved focused on a singular purpose, we were on the land, being Americans in the West.
My job at age seven, eight, nine? Hang out with my younger brother, stay out of the way, not feel too badly for the calves. As I got older and the distances between my father and my grandfather increased, I joined my sisters, my mother, my father in the yearly act of taking care of the cattle.
On this particular afternoon, in a pause of the work, I remember talking with my Uncle Dennis, and he said something that has remained over thirty years: “Most people educate themselves out of their common sense.” At that young age, I don’t think I yet knew I wanted to go to college – I knew I loved books and I detested the violence of my father. I knew I loved watching him play music, knew that art was something that soothed a perpetual ache inside him. Sitting in the shade of a California Live Oak, I listened to my uncle and the calls of the “worked” calves trying to find their mothers, trying to move away from the ways they’d just been changed.
It’s taken me years to understand the layers of life: how my desire to leave the landscape I grew up on was more about the ways poverty breaks people down rather than a rejection of the people themselves; that education often asks its first-generation college goers to make a silent choice between the places and behaviors where they come from and the new “educated” way; that to gain a degree I had to move away from my family by degrees.
When I was home helping my father in 2002, he got so frustrated at one point that he said, “They didn’t teach you shit in college.” And my answer at the time was, “Nothing practical.” My father’s common sense came screaming through in this moment; I had been through seven years of higher education, branded with a Santa Rosa Junior College AA; a UC Santa Cruz BA, and a UC Davis MA, and yet I had no better knowledge than anyone else in helping him find a peaceful way to die. His spectacular insight, delivered in the vernacular, offered me an anchoring point for the rest of my life. While my father may have left his brand on those cattle, the institutions have left a different kind of brand on me.
On another visit home, I was helping my mother with household chores, and we attempted to fold laundry, the air full with the scent of line-dried clothes. I struggled to help bring together the corners of a fitted sheet and failed. In disgust, she grabbed the wadded material and said, “I don’t care if you have a college degree, it’s irresponsible not to know how to fold a fitted sheet.”
Too often, education makes people choose; or maybe, I felt uniquely pressed to make a choice. Like those calves, I was put through a process that disoriented me, and after a time of confused calling, I made my way back to my mother, my father, my brothers and sisters.
This blog, the spectacular vernacular, is about finding the wisdom in the everyday, the beauty of family, even those fractured and hurting; it’s about using writing and education as means to unify rather than separate. I’ve struggled with how to bring my various interests together: I care deeply about education, about story, about socio-economic class. Writing regularly here is attempt to make my way back to common sense, to find the corners so that I can a create a folded, fitted sheet, to someday make my mother proud. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity of study, of the ways doors can open when one has those degrees, but I’m trying to balance it all, with an appreciation for the practical.
If you feel that education forced you to make a similar choice, I’d love to hear about it and the ways you have moved toward balance. What anchoring points have you experienced?