I first read the phrase in a biography about Hank Williams. He was raised in the back country of Alabama in the 1930s. Hank was raised poor, uneducated and in a caste system that understood its place in American society. He and his kind knew where they stood among the classes. Any inkling or hankering one might have about moving out of that socio-economic strait jacket was quickly dismissed by those around them.
Nothing much has changed since then. In small towns everywhere, the elders still grouse about ‘the cities’ as if that deep dark metropolis was some far off distant black hole where young people go to be swallowed up by the evils of modern day society. The hometown lament usually goes something like: “They go off to get an education then return thinking they’re ‘much better and smarter than the rest of us.”
That age-old lament doesn’t have to be open, flagrant, or oppressive. It can and often is a subtle reminder that there are those who have and then there are the rest of us. It’s understood that the twain shall never meet, cross or intermix. Dog whistles are cloaked in terms such as ‘sticking with your own kind, thinking you’re better than the rest of us, and who do you think you are?’
It belies the truth that in America as elsewhere around the world, we live in a class society. As much as people would like to pretend that there are no classes in this country, the fact remains that many people see themselves in one class of some sort; be it middle class, upper middle class or upper class. Any talk about moving up recognizes the challenge to this reality of our modern day society.
My own family background proves fertile to this point. It was rural, agrarian and steeped in the traditions of the Catholic Faith. My Mother, grandparents and relatives all held to the same dictum; that they were put on earth with a role to play and that role had been spelled out long before they came along. Their parents, grandparents and other elders of the tribe had followed the same pathway to adulthood. They were all expected to do the same. There was never any question about what role they would play in their small, sheltered existence here on earth.
Those few isolated examples of town folk who left for the ‘cities’ were seldom addressed unless they returned and sought refuge in the simpler way of life. Others who left and never returned were seldom if ever talked about. It was if they never existed in the first place. There was and still exists to some extent a fear among the elders that evolution among the younger set is their own abandonment. It’s as if those who never left home envy and fear those who ventured forth outside of their comfort zone. Thus the dismissive term: ‘Risin above your raising.’
The reality is that we all are building on the basic structure our elders imparted to us. We are standing on their accomplishments so that we might see even farther into the distance and discover things they were only able to imagine.
What the term masks is the exploration of potential. I tried to examine that principle in one of my first novels ‘Love in the A Shau.’ I continued that exploration of class mobility with my ‘Debris’ trilogy. It’s a message I try to impart on my grandchildren whenever I can.
Many of us find something we are reasonably good at where we can earn a living and we leave it at that. But that isn’t potential. That is simply today’s reality which doesn’t take us to the next level; whatever that might be. There is tremendous potential in all of us but we must first allow ourselves the freedom to try to find it even if it means failing all or most of the time. Nothing ventured seals the outcome even before you start. Continued effort raises the hopes that success is only another effort away.
Moving beyond what was expected of us as young people, no matter our present age, offers hope for reaching that potential and the satisfaction of knowing we did ‘rise above our raising.’