“She reached down and picked a crab out of a bucket. A it came up it turned out that three more were hanging on to it. […] that’s why you can keep [crabs] in a bucket without a lid. Any that tries to get out gets pulled back…'”
– “Unseen Academicals” Terry Pratchett
Last Sunday, after my hopeful, optimistic post about my favorite football team, The Game happened. It didn’t start off that well; the Bengals managed to rally and went into halftime with a lead. It was an exciting time to be a Bengals fan; this might be the year, when we finally win a post-season game! Then the second half began. Now, I don’t want to take away from the Chargers’ efforts, but the Bengals lost that game. Many
rants erupted† discussions appeared on Facebook; they pretty much boiled down to this – the Bengals currently do not come from a culture of winning.
This is not intended as an excuse, just an explanation. Nor is it being presented as fact; it’s an opinion that happens to be shared by others. More, oh, food for thought.
Today, that thought connected with another I’ve had from time to time. In general, I do like where I work. I like many of the companies policies as it relates to the greater community, and I’ve seen that they do tend to promote from within whenever possible. Moving from hourly to salary isn’t impossible, either.
I had a decent public-school education; I even went on to college with an academic scholarship. Nearly every kid on my street went on to college, which didn’t seem quite typical for my neighborhood. At least, not the parts I most-often frequented.ˆ It was a good school, and a good education. I look around and I see others who are about my age, who also graduated from my college, who are in the offices along the windows or in jobs that require suits on a fairly regular basis. Me, I’m an hourly grunt at a relatively low-level position (pay’s not bad, though – certainly not when compared to what I used to make doing the same thing). What happened?
There are choices made, of course, but what factors led me to some of them? There’s the soul-crushing anti-support I got at home (working on overcoming that), but that’s not all.
Unlike those others, I didn’t graduate with a business degree; I graduated with a music one. That doesn’t change the fact that I still had to take several academic courses, even after I’d declared my major. Take an advanced music theory class and tell me that’s not academic. That’s math, b*chz!‡ I could have gone the academic route; not completely sure what kept me from doing it, but I think the whole ‘soul-crushing anti-support’ I mentioned may be at least partially to blame for even that choice. Being a music teacher sounded more likely to result in a job than being a professional economist. There’s more than that, though.
What sticks out most to me about my early college years is the cultural thing. My first semester in college was a nightmare. Aside from the unfortunate dearth of diversity of any sort (racial, economic, political) – it has improved – the predominant culture was one I’d really only ever seen on television.§ An awful lot of these kids had a mindset that was completely foreign to me. I actually overheard a conversation where a girl was complaining to her friend that she was running out of money, so she’d need to call her father and have him put more into her account; she was down to $1,500 (about $2,900 when adjusted for inflation) – I’d been following her long enough to know that wasn’t for tuition or book money.
I didn’t grow up poor; we had two cars, cable, went on vacations around the contiguous 48, were never hungry, never without what we needed, and even a few luxuries. The power and the phone got shut off from time to time, but it always got turned back on. Mom worked a couple of jobs to make ends meet in some years. I worked at one with her for a while. But we weren’t poor.
Just the same, those people who grew up in the upper-middle-class grew up with special privileges, whether they recognize it or not. They knew what could be lost. More importantly, they knew it could be regained. They knew that if they persevered, they would get bad jobs, and work their way up from those bad jobs to better jobs, eventually reaching the top at whatever mountain they were climbing. They’ve not been told that this is impossible, only that it is difficult. They’ve had regular exposure to a better life and people who were able to overcome odds to get it – people who looked like them.
Going the other direction, there’s a culture of not standing out, not making waves, not causing trouble, because if you did, you got singled out, and if you got singled out, you got hurt. From the bottom, what you see is the wealthy get their way, and the poor get burnt. It seems to me that the less power you have, the more this becomes your attitude.
What about the kids who maybe didn’t have so much but did go to the better public or private schools in the area? This is where the initial quote and the title come in.
Every cultural group has a crab-bucket mentality to a degree. For some, it’s not such a problem; perhaps part of their culture includes challenging the status quo, so going against the wishes of your group is no big deal. It’s more common the higher up you go, but it’s not exclusive to the well-off.
Others are not so lucky; given an opportunity to improve, those around them won’t help, or even take it a step further and sabotage any progress, any way they can. There are behaviors that affect the attitudes of those on the lower rungs of our society, regardless of race or political affiliation.
This is the antithesis of a culture of success and growth.
There are those who never had anything who reached the pinnacle of wherever they were going, and those who lost everything, but came back from the brink. They’re great stories, very inspirational. The stories I see (or perhaps just notice) most often are the ones where someone was the poorest in their upper-middle-class neighborhood, or some life situation or choice dropped them down an economic class or three. I see them complaining, unsympathetic to those who don’t succeed the way they did, railing against anyone who has a story different from their own. What a lot of them don’t understand – at times are unwilling to understand – is the difference in culture, that it’s not just purely economic or racial or even educational. Again, not an excuse, just a socio-economic exercise, if you will.
There’s so much more swirling around in my head, words that are jumbled and crashing into one another, anxious to be heard; they’re still a bit of a mess, though, so I really can’t get all that in-depth, much as I would like to. This could easily turn into a short story.
As I mentioned, there are those who claw their way from the bottom to the top, who break out of that cycle and don’t look back; there are those who don’t forget where they started, who work to make a difference in a community that needs a hand, help others pull themselves up, give them an opportunity for a life they never thought they’d have. What’s different about them? It’s not just money, or support of your family, not just education or immediate environment. How did they get out of the crab bucket?
Me, I’m still in it; most of the crabs are ghosts, though they still have quite a bit of power.
† I sorta borrowed this idea…couldn’t help myself, Sarah, it’s so useful.
ˆ College graduates are not superior to those who didn’t go to or finish college. That piece of paper – especially if you’ve specialized – can help you get paid more, and it’s a cool experience, but it does not make someone superior to anyone else.
‡ Sorry, I don’t actually talk like that all that much, so it feels kinda weird. Doesn’t mean I won’t use those words – sometimes the best word for the job is a “four-letter” one…
§ The same could be true of them and the culture I came from, which was actually very diverse, thanks to the magnet program I was in.
~ Really not a Stephen Covey quote