What does it truly mean to be disadvantaged?

A consideration of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J D Vance

This book is the autobiographical account of a boy growing up in America’s ‘Rust Belt’, an Appalachian ‘hillbilly’, who goes on to attend Yale Law school and become a lawyer. This sentence sums up his journey neatly but fails to do justice to the adversity and obstacles he had to overcome.

The book serves as a commentary on the plight of some communities of white, working class Americans in the east of the country and goes some way to describing the politics of the time. It is, as is stated on the cover, a book about a culture in crisis and partly accounts for why Americans voted for Donald Trump. However, for the purposes of this piece, I’m particularly interested in this book from the perspective of education.

Much of the book describes the author’s childhood and adolescence. His mother is a drug addict and he never knew his father. Instead he had a succession of temporary father figures and moved frequently from place to place. He lived within a community in which this was not uncommon, in which parents hurl abuse at each other and children cower.

‘Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs – sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. At especially stressful times we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family, including young children; much of the time the neighbours hear what’s happening. A bad day is when the neighbours call the police to stop the drama. Our kids go to foster care but never stay for long.’

People don’t access higher education and don’t work. Even if there are jobs to be had, they are rarely held down.

As Vance says, ‘The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year.’

The one constant in Vance’s life throughout his formative years is his grandmother. Although a flawed character in her own right, his grandmother (Mamaw) provides the stability that he cannot find anywhere else. And she valued education. Vance talks about one occasion when his maths teacher encouraged the students to invest in an advanced calculator. ‘We didn’t have cell phones, and we didn’t have nice clothes, but Mamaw made sure I had one of those calculators. This taught me an important lesson about Mamaw’s values, and it forced me to engage with school in a way I never had before.’

Although his school record had been patchy, time spent living with his grandmother in a relatively calm environment, away from the upheaval and drama of life with his mother, her constantly changing partners and the screaming matches, saw his grades improve. ‘But what I remember most of all was that I was happy – I no longer feared the school bell at the end of the day…out of that happiness came so many of the opportunities I’ve had for the past twelve years.’

Vance eventually did well enough to get into university, but his excitement turned to apprehension when he considered how ill-prepared he was to live independently. He felt he simply lacked the wherewithal to feed himself healthy food and pay his own bills. So, he deferred entry to university and joined the Marine Corps on the advice of a family member. This experience gave him the confidence, self-esteem and discipline to navigate a bigger world than the one he had grown up in.

The rest is history. Vance now lives a life very different to the one he used to have, one that still feels somewhat alien to him. Against the odds, he is happily married, content and affluent, unlike many that he lived and grew up with. He was lucky that he had his grandmother – she made the difference for him between success and failure.

This book is food for thought on many levels, but, for me, speaks about the power of education and the barriers that prevent our most disadvantaged young people from using it to transform their lives. We should never lose sight of the fact that many of our children have known trauma and had adverse childhood experiences. They have chaotic home lives, little money and no great expectations of themselves. It’s hard to care about education when this is your life. How do you think about learning if you’re unhappy, fearful and angry? The causes are deep rooted and complex: whether in Ohio or Bristol, poverty, family breakdown, an absence of community and numerous other reasons are likely to play a role. They are not easily fixed.

But this is where teachers can be life savers. Day in, day out, teachers make connections with young people and give them something to hang on to. Sometimes it just isn’t enough. JD Vance would have fallen through the cracks without his Mamaw. But there is no doubt that it was education that opened doors for him. We all need to remember the doors that might open when we think about our most disadvantaged children.


by Steve Smith, April 2020

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