Here’s why I think getting my PhD was not a mistake in spite of the tight job market and the impossibility of an older teacher getting tenure. This is why I don’t think I made a mistake in spite of taking out yet another loan and (try not to think too harshly of me) losing a long-term marriage in the process. Believe me, the marriage was doomed. It had been doomed for at least ten years, probably longer. And my educational pursuit was only the very tip of that iceberg. You don’t have to agree.
So, why was it worth it? First, I learned some things. And I use those things most days of my life.
Also, I fulfilled a promise. My father had to go to work at age 14 to help support his family. It’s just what you did when you lived in that part of West Virginia in that time and your mother was abandoned by a runaway husband, left with a houseful of kids younger than you were. That is, it’s what you did if you were a person like my dad. He made his way in the world by grit and by his own wits with an eighth grade education. He was probably the smartest man I’ve ever known, my dad. He found a way to lift his family out of poverty and into the working class in less than two generations which is a feat in itself with an eighth grade education. He always wanted to see his two kids get a college education. My older brother did, with a quick and fiery intelligence, and then died tragically within the month. I took a more winding trajectory, but I graduated. Tom and I were first generation college graduates from a hill family.
My father did not live to see my graduation but his encouragement of a daughter as much as a son was one reason I even thought I might be able to do it. The promise I fulfilled was not just to my dad. It was to the kindergarten girl who was called a hillbilly her first year at school. If I was called a dumb hillbilly, I was going to show myself something. I was going to show those kids too, although I can’t even remember how long ago I stopped caring about that. I knew my dad was smart, and my mom too, and I knew that my brother was pretty much a genius. I figured that I could be smart, maybe a little, too, and make my way in the world that regarded me as an outsider. We talked funny. We had ways and traditions that were different. If I was going to be mocked and marginalized as a dumb hillbilly, I was going to show them what a dumb hillbilly girl could do. I took such a winding route to get to the formal education part, but I was learning all the while. The informal and formal education have all helped make me who I am.
Maybe some of you think I wasted money I don’t have to finish my PhD. And now, woe is me, the academic job market has closed down for another academic year and me without another job. I say, yes, that’s true. It is. But. Maybe I was fortunate in my pick of schools and mentors since I feel everything I learned is being used, not only in my personal life but in my life with my own students. And I did manage to fulfill that promise. There were a few brief moments when I thought I would not be able to do that in this lifetime. In fact, as some of you know, there were some months when I questioned if I ought to be writing a will and not a dissertation. I am so grateful I got to write the dissertation. That’s probably reason four in this list of why I don’t regret getting a PhD.
I was involved in a conversation about this the other evening. Someone told me I should have written a dissertation in “hillbilly studies.” Haha. Funny. I should have. Right now it’s called Appalachian studies and it’s a pretty serious and, to me, interesting field. I think about it all of the time. A surprising number of people don’t have a clue that this is an area worthy of study. Even very well-educated people. My father should have the PhD in Appalachian studies. I’d award him one posthumously if I could. I’ve awarded him one already in my mind. He taught me what it is to be a hill person. It’s not about Billy Bob teeth or the things you say (although those can be hilarious) or about being insular or bigoted. He taught me being a hill person is about family and neighbors and friends. It’s about reaching out to anyone who needs some help. It’s about resourcefulness and not giving up. It’s about looking at what you have at hand and doing what you can with that. It’s about people first and then stuff. It’s about loving music and dancing and having a good time with people close to you. It’s about loving the land around you and knowing it can sustain you. It’s about respect for land and people. It’s about knowing you can survive. Somehow you can.