I was the first in my family to earn a Bachelor’s degree, the first to earn a graduate degree, and now I’m the first to have an office. In that office, I’m hanging a sculpture my brother made.
The sculpture is dirty. The brush is rusty, and the glove is stained. It smells dusty. It doesn’t quite fit in with the framed certificates and glossy new books. But it is in my office to celebrate the work my family has done and the accomplishments my brother and I have made.
The piece is made of several objects that belonged to family members. The brush was used by our grandfather in his work as a plasterer. The glove is one our father used at the mill. My brother found the rest of the materials at our grandfather’s house after he passed away. Our uncle helped my brother cut and assemble the sculpture. The piece matters, but we don’t take it too seriously. Dad named it “Employee of the Month,” which usually gets a laugh.
I say that my brother and I come from a working-class family, even though Dad’s salary as a clock-punching, union-protected, steel mill worker probably put our family financially in the lower middle class in the area of rural western Pennsylvania I grew up in. But culturally, we were working class. Dad worked in the Hot Mill Combustion department at the Armco steel mill in Butler, so the furnaces that melted the steel were his responsibility. His dad worked in the rail yard at the Pullman-Standard rail car mill across the street from Armco, and he worked a second job as a plasterer. Our other grandpa was a truck driver. Our uncle is a carpenter at a state university. The women in our family worked just as hard as the men, mostly as homemakers, and occasionally in the service industry.
I was raised to work hard. My dad’s dad shared stories about (mis)adventures navigating rail cars through the rail yard on his midnight shift at the mill, and then spending the following morning plastering walls and ceilings around town. I’ve helped—well, mostly watched—as my uncle built a porch for my grandparents’ single-wide trailer one Saturday morning. My dad went off to work wearing steel–toed boots, carrying his hard hat and lunch pail. On the weekends, my brother and I helped Dad clear our property, stacking logs as he ran the chainsaw. Mom kept the house and clothes clean and always had a homemade meal on the table.
I was always good at school, so that’s what I worked at the hardest. But, while I was smart and determined, sometimes I got lost. I didn’t always know how to ask questions or where to go to get the information I needed. When I encountered difficulties, my family wasn’t familiar enough with the situation to offer suggestions, but they encouraged me to ask questions and not to be intimidated by authority figures. I also benefitted from being a straight white male in a society that often subtly privileges that identity. Often I found my way only because when I was unsure who to ask, I felt comfortable asking everyone.
Then, one semester for a sociology class, I read the article “Moving Up from the Working Class,” by Joan Morris and Michael Grimes. They share interviews with sociologists from working-class families who identified two difficulties in their own experiences. The first was a deficit in cultural capital. Because of their cultural background, the respondents felt they sometimes lacked the social skills necessary to do well in academic settings. The second involved a contradiction: while their parents encouraged them to “do better,” which implied going to college and likely working a job that did not involve manual labor, the parents also advanced a culture that valued manual labor over other forms of work. Manual labor was acknowledged in a way that intellectual or managerial work was not. So, while they had attained good positions in their field, their work often did not feel real or legitimate. Their stories gave me some perspective and provided some language for me to make sense of my experiences. It also helped me realize how useful sociology can be in helping a person make sense of how their individual opportunities are shaped by their social situations.
Back in college, I told one of my professors, Jim Perkins, about my dad working at the mill. He shared a story based on his experiences in a mill. The story begins at a local bar, when someone states that, “Professors have never worked a day in their life.” The protagonist of the story, like the professor in real life, accepted this as a challenge and spent his summer working in a local galvanizing mill. The rest of the story overflows with images of hard work and calamity, but he was ultimately welcomed into the group of mill workers with a round of shots at the bar after the last shift of his probationary period. I am motivated by the same forces, but in the opposite direction. He was working to show that a professor can be competent and capable in a mill, while also using the experience in his professional work to demonstrate the value of stories. I am working to show that a kid from a working-class family can be a competent and capable academic, while also demonstrating the practical value of academic lessons.
A friend pointed out that the maintenance of masculinity must play a role in how I think of work, and she’s right. Family members will make jokes about how soft my hands are or suggest that maybe I am “afraid” of getting dirty. So when I go home, I’ll do things like run the chainsaw and help my uncle with a project. Ironically, work rules at the university prevent me from actually hanging the sculpture on my office wall myself. This work will be done by a carpenter, someone with the same job as my uncle, not a professor.
When I go home, my family will make good-natured jokes about “the professor” lacking common sense or about academic work being easy. I counter their tales of hard work with my own. I describe the mental grind of preparing lesson plans, leading classes, grading papers, doing research, attending meetings, and advising students. One reason I am hanging this sculpture on my wall is because it expresses the cultural understandings of work I carry with me. I attempt to communicate between both worlds. I understand the accomplishment and pride of physical labor, but I also understand the persistent curiosity and mental tenacity necessary for academic work. When I am having trouble concentrating on reading, or struggling to find the words to write, I think about all the work that my family has done. I think about the clean laundry and homemade meals my mother made, as well as my grandfather driving another ten miles, my other grandfather changing clothes and heading off to a second shift of work, my uncle hammering nails, my Dad fixing a furnace. This sculpture reminds me that this office is comfortable, and that much of the work my family has done was not.
My brother and I were also lucky that our family trusted that we would make good choices about college and careers. It was only after I had lived for several years on a near poverty-level graduate student stipend, and my brother began working towards a Masters in Fine Arts, that our family really began asking about the risks we were taking. There are real risks. My brother and I have both taken on substantial student loan debt. We’re both pursuing advanced degrees in fields that have tough job markets. Neither of us has figured it all out. But we’re both making careful decisions about our career paths, and we’re both passionate about doing our work.
When visitors to my office ask, and sometimes even when they don’t, I’ll tell them about the sculpture and what it represents. And after discussing my family’s work, I’ll return to my own. I am only beginning as an assistant professor. I’ve got work to do.
Colby King is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Bridgewater State University who teaches and studies urban sociology and inequality with an emphasis on understanding place as a social structure shaping opportunities.