In the distance the bus approaches. Just before I board the bus I turn, staring into my mother’s face. I am momentarily back in time, seeing myself eighteen years ago, at this same bus stop, staring, into my mother’s face, continually turning back, waving farewell as I returned to college-that experience which first took me away from our town, from family. Departing was as painful then as it is now. Each movement away makes return harder. Each separation intensifies distance, both physical and emotional.
To a southern black girl from a working-class background who had never been on a city bus, who had never stepped on an escalator, who had never traveled by plane, leaving the comfortable confines of a small town Kentucky life to attend Stanford University was not just frightening; it was utterly painful. My parents had not been delighted that I had been accepted and adamantly opposed my going so far from home. At the time, I did not see their opposition as an expression of their fear that they would lose me forever. Like many working-class folks, they feared what college education might do to their children’s minds even as they unenthusiastically acknowledged its importance. They did not understand why I could not attend a college nearby, an all-black college. To them, any college would do. I would graduate, become a school teacher, make a decent living and a good marriage. And even though they reluctantly and skeptically supported my educational endeavors, they also subjected them to constant harsh and bitter critique. It is difficult for me to talk about my parents and their impact on me because they have always felt wary, ambivalent, mistrusting of my intellectual aspirations even as they have been caring and supportive. I want to speak about these contradictions because sorting through them, seeking resolution and reconciliation, has been important to me both as it affects my development as a writer, my effort to be fully self-realized, and my longing to remain close to the family and community that provided the groundwork for much of my thinking, writing, and being.
My parents’ ambivalence about my love for reading led to intense conflict. They (especially my mother) would work to ensure that I had access to books, but they would threaten to burn the books or throw them away if I did not conform to other expectations. Or they would insist that reading too much would drive me insane. Their ambivalence nurtured in me a like uncertainty about the value and significance of intellectual endeavor that took years for me to unlearn. While this aspect of our class reality was one that wounded and diminished, their vigilant insistence that being smart did not make me a “better” or “superior” person (which often got on my nerves because I think I wanted to have that sense that it did indeed set me apart, make me better) made a profound impression. From them I learned to value and respect various skills and talents folk might have, not just to value people who read books and talk about ideas. They and my grandparents might say about somebody, “Now he don’t read nor write a lick, but he can tell a story,” or as my grandmother would say, “call out the hell in words.”
Open honest communication is the most important way we can maintain relationships with kin and community as our class experience and background change. It is as vital as the sharing of resources. I do not know that my mother’s mother ever acknowledged my college education except to ask me once, “How can you live so far away from your people?” Yet she gave me sources of admiration and nourishment, sharing the legacy of her quilt-making, of family history, of her incredible way with words. Recently, when our father retired after more than thirty years of work as a janitor, I wanted to pay tribute to this experience, to identify links between his work and my own as writer and teacher. Reflecting on our family past, I recalled ways he had been an impressive example of diligence and hard work, approaching tasks with a seriousness of concentration I work to mirror and develop, with a discipline I struggle to maintain. Sharing these thoughts with him keeps us connected, nurtures our respect for each other, maintaining a space, however large or small, where we can talk.
According to the essay, “Keeping Close to Home,” how did Watkin’s parents encourage and discourage her academic goals? Do you think many parents, like Watkins’s, give their children only limited support when it comes to decisions concerning future education and career choices? In writing your essay, be sure to include examples from your personal experiences, your observations of others, and/or your readings.
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