FRESHMAN SCHOLAR IN ENGLISH 102
LIKE FATHER, UNLIKE SON:
AN AUTOETHNOGRAPHY OF LITERACY BETWEEN FATHER AND SON
Texas A&M University-Commerce
For thousands of years, father and son have stretched wistful hands across the canyon of time, each eager to help the other to his side, but neither quite able to desert the loyalties of his contemporaries. The relationship is always changing and hence always fragile; nothing endures except the sense of difference.”
As you lay on the cold surface of the floor, your heart beat rises higher as the approach of your nemesis edges ever closely to your home. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t even think straight. Though people tell you that being nervous can serve as a clearing and sharpening of the mind, you know that that definition no longer applies to you. You get up and pace. And pace. And pace. Your compatriot is busy clearing a supposed mess that isn’t there. She looks at you with that fake smile that she has been practicing for weeks. Deep inside, you know she is as fearful as you. The only difference is that you no longer feel the need to bow down to a tyrant anymore. You have found your ways of escape. The tyrant, stopping in for his bi-monthly visit, will be here in a few minutes. The compatriot has already told you of his arrival at the gateway an hour and a half ago. Though I don’t feel the fear that I used to, I can’t help but feel sorry for her. She still clings to the idea that we will get along and that our trifles will be over. Sometimes, I feel like the possibility is strong. However, I had learned to stop holding on to such hopes. Besides, what do you need people of any kind for? They always disappoint you. When the noise of his car starts to roar in the garage, Mom’s tense smile grows wider and she rushes to the garage to help him. I didn’t feel like helping and chose to go to the office. I sat in the lush leather chair as the faint headlights outside the window grow dim and shut off. The wheels of his suitcase slowly come closer to the door and I prep myself. I boot up the system and stare into the screen. The screen is one of the only friends that I have in my life, and I needed him more than now. As Windows and IE comfort me, the man steps into the house and walks pass the office door with Mom not far behind, his folders and letters from employees blocking him from me. To at least acknowledge my presence and some sort of respect, I utter with a stable voice, “Welcome home, Dad.” He looks at me and asks, “How are you, son?” And as usual, not daring to let my gaze leave my friend, I quickly utter the lie, “I’m just fine.”
Looking back on this memory from my new perspective, the events that transpired for the past decade or so seem pointless and unusual. Though not back then, I realize now the foolishness that my dad and I were guilty of committing all this time. And to think that it took something which I thought to be so simple to delve deep into the complexity of our relationship. Literacy, which I had always misunderstood to be a simple reading and writing ability, I quickly learned to be something so much more. David Barton and Mary Hamilton described literacy not as an inherent skill or ability, but simply, “something people do; it is an activity, located in the space between thought and text. Literacy does not just reside in people’s heads as a set of skills to be learned, and it does not just reside on paper, captured as texts to be analyzed. Like all human activity, literacy is essentially social and it is located in the interaction between people”(42). To think that literacy could be of that nature and connotation seemed trifling to me at first. And yet, a part of me couldn’t help but make sense out of it. Literacy serves as a method of communication and information for others to analyze and store. Reading and writing have almost always been between people of all walks of life. Whether it be the texts and emails I send to my friends in college, or the memos and files my dad gave his employees, literacy helps shape and define the relationships and functions between acting members of a group or society. Literacy practices, or what people do with literacy, are ways of utilizing language and texts as part of daily life (Hamilton 43-44). However, these practices aren’t clear aspects to grasp for all since with them, they carry values; attitudes; feelings, and personal contacts between people (Hamilton 44). When I read Literacy Practices as a primer for my project, I couldn’t help but think of my dad and me. For as long as both of us could remember, our frequent clashes within the home were centered on such things as values and feelings. Whether the topic was family vs friends, life vs school, hard work vs leisure, the values we had and believed in defined the interaction that took place, which by observation can be traced back to the literacy practices and disciplines of our times. It was very clear, however, that the relationship that my dad and I had was not a stable or peaceful one. Through isolated incidents of happiness and mutual respect, eras of confrontation and isolation from one another were much more pronounced.
When researching, I constantly kept wondering if literacy served as an impediment to the typical community of the family, particularly mine. Both my dad and I went to school (Texas A&M right now), and both of us would describe ourselves as smart and intelligent. So why did strain between us exist in a dynamic that most cultures considered loving and caring? Why did my dad and I believe in so many different things? What exactly lay behind the conflict that had burdened me for so long? After careful deliberating, I realized that literacy, like any other commodity (Brandt 15), can serve both good and bad purposes determined by the minds of the users. Literacy, being social, served as the foundation for how family affairs played out. Both me and my dad, born in different times with different sponsors of literacy, were efficient at differing literacy practices that we both clung to as how we formed our identity. The environment in which we lived in and the experiences we’ve had shaped helped shape them. Views on work ethic and morals help mold us into how we think of ourselves and the world, and when someone appears to be antagonistic to those sets of ideals, a strong instinct is to you cling harder and fight back against anything you perceive as a threat to them. It was safe to say that my dad and I, though maybe not in a literal sense, were playing tug of war most of our lives. Our feelings and opinions, shaped by the literacy practices we grew up with, served as weapons against each other in our quest for self-preservation. Dad would pick at my times of leisure and the peers I hung out with, and I picked at his work-life and his inability to change to current times. Literacy was our ally. And almost inevitably down the line, our allies began to turn on us. Thankfully, this project of mine turned into something that served me in my personal life. Through my ethnography, I was finally able to see my dad’s flaws, as well as my own, and accept them.
Martin and Hamilton’s view of literacy served as a framework for my project. If literacy practices determine the values and social relationships of people, then could literacy disrupt as well as solidify them? If literacy is rooted through history, then do practices go through an ever-changing process and never stays the same? Couldn’t the nature of that process harm, as well as heal social interaction? Those questions could only be answered by looking into the past of my dad and me. And though corollaries can be made between the subjects of Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy” and many ideas proposed by cross-generational organizations, this project was always about the observations and words of my dad and me.
In addition to Martin and Hamilton’s view, the ever-present Deborah Brandt will also play a minor role. My project explored the literacy practices within the era of my dad and myself and how that environment and those interactions defined us. It is safe to say that the people we meet and socialize with serve as a basis for how we act and compose our person. These people are known as sponsors. Deborah Brandt defines sponsors of literacy as, “…any agent, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy…” The environment and social changes one lives through influences people living within those transitions and economies. Those people cause an ever-widening circle of sponsorship by teaching and molding others based upon the experiences they have lived. My paper delves a little into the sponsors my dad and I had and how sponsors born into certain circumstances and transition to others are different from the sponsors who were born with different situations already put in place.
My dad, who we shall name Jim, grew up in the small farm community of Talco, Texas. Talco is located about an hour’s drive away from Texas A&M-Commerce. Back then, it was known as East Texas University, a school my dad would later attend. He grew up in a small 4-bedroom house out by the lake with his parents, one brother, and two sisters. Besides a lake overlooking the house, a small fishing shed, and several hundred acres of never-ending trees, there was not much in Talco. His father, J.O., was a very strict disciplinarian whose emphasis was always on family, hard work, and structure. His dad worked two jobs as a rancher and a factory worker for Lone Star Steel. J.O. was known for his joking and sarcastic humor, as well as his reputation as a hard worker and family man. Being on a farm of minimal income, the family had to work really hard to just survive and get by. Animals were raised for eggs and meat, which were in need of constant attention. Typical tasks around the barn included mowing pastures, fixing fences, picking up sticks, feeding and tending to the animals, cleaning the house, oiling machinery, and making all meals by hand. Leisure time was not common on the ranch life because my ancestors couldn’t afford leisure time. Free time was goofing off. Hard work was a given, as well as interaction between that of family. After all, in a strict and isolated environment like that on a farm, family was the main source of entertainment and communication.
Normally, college in my mind served as a place to be free and independent from home and family life. Not for my dad. Dad was the first person on his side of the family to ever go to and graduate from college. Needless to say, Dad was already put under pressure from his father who urged him into a furtherance of education as a way to develop a life in which he could never have. Dad didn’t have the incentive to goof off or be free. This is especially due to the consideration that he went to school on a working scholarship, which required 30 to 40 hours a week to work in agricultural pastures and dairy farms. Friends were cut off from him, and even when away from home, his family (particularly my disciplined and strict grandfather) continued to influence him from birth to his adult years.
However, his perseverance and hard work in school paid off as his dedication and self-starting motivation served as a vehicle for being accustomed to an increasing technological and information aware society. He now serves as vice-president of Nypro, a plastic-injection molding company responsible for the microchips that make all the technology I use function. Kind of ironic for my situation.
I, however, was not accustomed to farm life and the resulting behaviors equated with it. I was born in Plano, Texas but became more accustomed to suburban Arizona life when I moved there in second grade. In contrast to the life my dad lived, my life was filled with a majority of leisure time. I grew up in an upper-middle class home with everything I could think of at my disposal. Computers, video games, cellphones, and any and all methods of common communication were my gateways into life. My mom was a stay at home mom, so she was the primary family influence of the time. Being in Arizona with the rest of my family being in Texas, my relatives didn’t serve as direct sponsors for the way I lived my life, not even my Dad. My dad was on business trips every week. Only on weekends did I ever see him. Besides, since most work wasn’t home based but school-based, most of my influences took place within the school environment. Teachers, assistants, and friends served as the motivators and shaped the beliefs that I carry with me today. Manual labor wasn’t typical day-to-day. At most, simple chores like lawn duty, gardening, and cleaning of the house involved hands on applications. My work stemmed from mostly intellectual and technological duty. Fixing computers, turning in essays, writing reports, reading assignments, and anything remotely similar served as the foundation of my work ethic which was, albeit less physically stimulating, mentally challenging and required savvy on modern communication and interaction through a digital framework. Life was easy, home-based entertainment was minimal, so I had to look for my own entertainment. I constantly looked for ways to keep myself motivated for school since it put me within an atmosphere of work that I was never used to. Efficiency and finding ways to cutback on work became my mission during my adolescent years.
Literacy Studies and their Attached Values
Looking at our two different life experiences and modes of literacy, differences in both of our views and opinions on numerous fronts can be deciphered and interpreted. In the farm life of my dad, literacy served as primarily functional. Instructions were the primary forms of text and verbal communication that he grew up with. His father gave instructions on how to run instruments and the functions that they could be utilized for, and he followed them. Community was isolated, so family members served simultaneous roles as employees. Family and work life was synonymous. On farm life, work was never-ending and involved the creating and planting of crops which provided food for buyers. That was the primary family business and source of income, which was below average. His generation and family lived through a Great Depression and World War II, which served as calls and influences for a strict dedication and patriotism to one’s country, which in turn was downsized and transferred to the environment he grew up in (Hamill 4). Communities involved being structured where everybody had a role and someone in charge oversaw them. Learning literacy involved using literacy as a means of progressing and surviving during hard times. Duty was put before pleasure, and values that embraced family and home were put over other messages (Buffum and Lovely 2-4). In his case, getting through work was the way you served your family. During the proceeding Baby Boomer years, dedication to self-driven motivation and a reliance on independence to get by became reinforced through him because of the sheer-size of the population moving to the workforce. This led to my dad’s spirit of competitiveness, which though not ruthless, was necessary to make something of yourself. Identity was determined by far you got in life and what job you stuck to. Options were limited, so thus the means to get jobs and the experience needed was limited. Your experience was what made you worthy. Structure was put over liberal scheduling because my dad in his situation where his work got him through college and away from his family, couldn’t afford to in his words ‘diddle-daddle’ when there is work to be done. Ethic for him was being a self-starter and sticking to a cause, no matter how long it took to fulfill. In his time, his fellow co –workers, according to the book “Generations at School”, were the ones responsible for the 60 hour work-week (Lovely and Buffum 8). His workaholic status fits in with this description. Communication was done in person since inventions like cellphones were not created then. Direct conversation and confrontation was ideal in all situations. Monetarily wise, you saved instead of spent because in the past, he didn’t have enough money to spend so every penny counted. Any change to this paradigm of thought and action was intimidating and in some ways dangerous to your survival. And I saw that even as dad got accustomed to modern businesses and current methods of communication, the underlying desire for structure and identity still persisted.
I, on the other hand, did not share the same viewpoints and literacy practices as he did. As apart from a rural farm community as can be, I grew up in the unified community of upper-middle class suburbia Arizona. My life consisted of a life of leisure rather than a life of hard work. My perception of my home life transitioned to that of school and work. It seemed to me that being efficient meant changing the way you learned and acted to methods which required minimal effort. To me, making something more difficult than it needed to be was useless and a waste of time and resources. Work was not an obligation, but a means to an end (3). In addition, because technology made me much more proficient at getting school done and connecting to the world, I soon became isolated and disconnected from humanity in general. Even though I loved my family, my literate skills with inventions made me less dependent on them in a lot of ways. Kids my own age, people I hung out with on a daily basis, served as my sponsors of literacy and my compatriots, other than my mom. My dad’s work ethic on his job kept him from being with me for a long time, even to the point of missing birthdays and important school functions. Because of this, I saw comfort in school and the community of different individuals that fostered a fondness of change and diversity within me. I didn’t see the need for my life to be structured and orderly because the many kids who had broke out of the shells of their families (many of who were getting divorces because of the emphasis on work over family) how they relied upon each other were so unique and different from each other. Being structured was being close-minded and unaware of the modern age for me. Divorce rates were high when I lived, and most parents were overworked and critical of the leisure that most kids had, which created an air of resentment and intimidation between kids and their parents. Because of this, I was critical of any kind of authority which seemed to want control over my choices. I wanted independence and rejected the idea of people looking down my back. Even finances served as breeding ground for differences as I spent money, he saved it. I needed to be engaged with other people and I was dependent on others opinions because there was so many avenues of education to go down that I felt overwhelmed by the possibilities.
With so many differences in the way the literacy practices of our age influenced the way we behaved and thought about the world, some strife between parent and son is expected. It is only natural that differences between people serve as seeds of growth for debate and confrontation. But a healthy confrontation always results in something being gained from both sides. However, the majority of the relationship between my dad and I was unhealthy and would remain that way for a long time.
I had already known how hard-working and disciplined my dad was when it came to his job. However, it wasn’t because of idolization or my recognition of his ethic. It was his lack of presence in my life that made me aware of it. For weeks on end, my dad would go on one of his little ‘business trips’ which often resulted in me only being in contact with him on the weekends. At first I was okay with it, because it only reaffirmed my need to not have my parents breathing down my back. However, over the months and months he would be gone, I started to feel a sense of rejection from my own father. His work ethic, the one that was engrained in him from a young boy, was tearing him away from me and my mother. My mother acted like it didn’t bother her, but when time without him increased exponentially, she grew depressed and lost. She was an immigrant getting used to this country even after 10 years, and without her husband to guide her, she seemed like a lost little kid to me. Whenever he did come home, my dad would be so stressed and tired that all he would do would sleep and sleep. Even when home, he seemed distant. Whenever we voiced our concerns, he would go on about how what he was supporting our modern way of life and that without him, we wouldn’t enjoy the leisure we had now. And though deep down I knew he was giving us a life he wished we had, it seemed like we were a burden that he had to micromanage. We felt like employees more than family.
Eventually, he did learn to stay for a while and he even retired early to be with us. I thought that this would finally be the time where my dad could just relax and be himself. Let his hair down. Be a family man. After all, work and family were not the same thing to a kid growing up like me. When one was free, one should spend it with the people you loved. Unfortunately, his retirement seemed to spawn an emotional disconnect from him that was even more pronounced than before. Because he was always gone, my dad never managed to make any connections or social relationships with anyone outside of the family. Just like growing up when literacy and work kept him with his family, his only contact outside of his employees was us. So when mom and I would go out and do things with other people and invite him along, he just seemed so confused and dispassionate about the lives he never knew we had. After a while, all he did was sit out in the backyard and listen to music because mom took care of house stuff and I had my school to keep me company. Pretty soon, he turned to drinking as a way to escape a somehow monotonous state of being he got himself into.
Months after months, I would get rid of the beer cans and the scotch and the liquor he would leave about. Alcoholism had run in the family, something in which I didn’t know because I never had actual conversations with my dad. I didn’t realize a lot about my dad or the family he grew up with. I hardly saw them, so I didn’t have that sense of connection that my dad did. In a lot of ways, I began to grow guilty over not needing them as much as society was telling me that I needed them. My mom soon grew despondent as she stopped trying to impress him. She soon developed an addiction to shopping and started being thrifty with everything she liked. A part of me thinks she used products to both fill the void and give me anything I needed, trying to support me in the only way she knew how. This led to fits of drunken rage as my father would yell and verbally abuse her over the waste she was doing. Nights fights would happen over and over with me hiding in my bedroom and not coming out. Home life, instead of a haven, was turning into a personal hell for me. It wasn’t until I realized that both of my parents were circling divorce agencies in the yellow books and newspaper advertisements that they left about did I suddenly fear for my future and how I would be turning into one of the many other kids at school with no prospects and nothing to live for.
It was years of this hell that my mom and I realized that Dad needed to be kept busy. So he soon went back into the workforce and out of our lives. And though we hated to say it, my mom and I liked the days where dad buried himself behind his file memos and his instructions to employess, his handouts, his computer sheets. The various literacies that dad used to support his family were now used to block him from us. Unfortunately, that led to a new development in our relationship.
During the days when my dad was drunk, I used school as a shelter from reality and my parents. Work assignments, computer essays, and daily tasks became my shield against my dad. On the weekends when he would come home, he would always ask about what I was doing with my life and how school was going. Because my dad and I never personally communicated in language, I would respond with a lack of enthusiasm and tell him nothing. This seemed to increase his oversight of me and what I was doing. He started doing ‘projects’ with me which involved organizing the house, teaching me how to use tools, mowing pastures, making me fill out applications, and even taking me to the ranch in Texas to work there. It seemed Dad was concerned for me and my apparent lack of motivation and used his style of work ethic and tried to instill it into me. He turned my pleasurable literacy into functional literacy without warning. My leisure time with friends and family was diminishing. I didn’t understand the reasoning why. I hardly ever saw him most of my life. When he was a part of my life, he was nothing but an angry drunk. And now, he was back to work and was dragging me down the same path as him. When I questioned his methods, his temper grew short and he and I would get into yelling arguments a lot over how my life was going. Without knowing it, I soon began to resent him.
Unable to truly communicate how I was feeling, I soon sank into my own depression. Movies, television, the internet, cell phones, instead of being used to connect with the world, became vehicles through which I escaped the world. I drowned and wasted away in a digital paradise. Technology was what I knew and I relied on it to get me through. The repercussions of this are still felt by me today. I have pronounced ADD and I still cope through escaping into technology. Pretty soon, it was tough to make friends and the ones I had slowly turned their back on me. This became worse in middle and high school as I tried to use the literacy I knew, book smarts, and I sold myself to people in order for them to like me. I tutored and did homework for others thinking they would reciprocate my kindness. Often they never did. I slowly lost interest in academic affairs as I became so lost and jaded about my current state of life. Dad went through repeated episodes of relapse and my mom drowned her sorrows in her friends, so I hardly saw her to. School didn’t want me, home didn’t want me, and I didn’t want me. My grades slipped and I became catatonic to everyone. This process went on for so long that when time came around for me to go to college, I couldn’t process it. And when I realized that the school I was going to was the same school that my dad went to, I railed against it. It soon became the final nail in the coffin as I nervously told my dad that I needed a year.
My father was never more disappointed in me than in that moment. I spent the year with my mom while he moved down to the farm as he planned to retire in a place he felt happy. It was during this stage that the family, including me, felt like something needed to be done. My mom, who was on my side for a long time, had to finally ask what was wrong and why I chose to stay. I decided to write a letter to her because I had never communicated directly about my feelings to anyone before. Emails, letters, and texts were the vehicles I used to protect my anonymity and though I wish I could be more upfront, I wasn’t ready.
I told everything. How I felt neglected and unloved by my dad. How I wished he were gone because that was the only time I felt comfort. My lack of friends and my escape into computers and TV. That I didn’t know what I wanted from my life, or if I wanted one at all. The fate I felt I was going to suffer by entering a learning environment that my dad went to. I told everything. And truth be told, letting it out finally seemed to calm me down and clear my head. And during the year that I stayed behind, I would often visit the farm and talk to my dad. I take it that my decision to take a gap year finally broke the silence between us and communication started.
Now though my dad are still in a sort of reconstruction phase, I do feel closer to him than I have felt in a long time. We’re talking more and telling each other about the things we felt in school and the strifes we both went through. It was during our talks that I realized how alike my father was to me. He wasn’t mister popular on campus, but had people turn on him and cheat on him the same way kids had cheated on me. He talked about his father and how long it took for his father to admit his love for his son. I suddenly saw all the things I saw in myself within my dad, and the differences we shared did nothing to outweigh the similarities that really counted. We both loved each other, we both wanted to take care of friends and family, and we both wanted happiness. It’s just that we had different methods and grew up with different ways of reaching those goals. But he and I were too busy living in a bubble to notice. Instead of treating literacy as an all-encompassing and ever-changing way of viewing the world, we each had rigid definitions that we looked through our whole lives. I should have known better. Looking through the world through your own eyes is beautiful, but it’s also limited. It is important for people to know that literacy is more than just words, or even a culture. It’s a way of expression all that it is to be human, to feel, to want, to love. That’s the important thing.
In conclusion, I walk away knowing a little bit more about myself and my family and how though different in upbringing, practices, and values, the important things like friendship and family remain the same. It’s the way we show our appreciation that differs. And let’s face it, technology and innovation and literacy will continue to change as they have been the past decade. If anything, we should expect more progress with the exponential growth of efficiency in the modern information age. It’s important to utilize and produce efficient technology, but as long as we don’t become so disconnected from real life. It’s important to realize that change is inevitable and that if you can’t adapt yourself, you risk getting lost in the wind. And most of all, look at the people around you and see how different friends get along. The most important things I walk away from with this ethnography project is the knowledge that, “people change their ways by changing their attitudes.” And hopefully, that little adjustment can result in a world where literacy in all its forms can be appreciated and connected to everything. Because to me, literacy is an expression of who you are, and you should share it with the world.
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