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Upward and Onward


I remember the poverty and ignorance that plagued the old neighborhood of my youth on the southside of Kansas City, Missouri. And I remember how much I wanted to escape from it and make something of my life that would give me the self-respect I desperately needed. But I didn’t realize how much the poverty and ignorance, especially the ignorance, would impede my ability to achieve my objective.


I made some progress in ridding myself of the poverty even before I left the old neighborhood behind by getting a job at the age of twelve. With the income I earned, I never went to bed hungry again. A couple of years later, I bought clothing and shoes for myself that I thought was as good as those worn by the rich kids in the high school I attended. And I bought my first toothbrush and toothpaste so that I could brush my teeth like I heard the rich kids did.


But I could not do anything about living in a house with a smelly outdoor toilet in the backyard, no heat in the bedroom where I slept, and no hot water to take a warm bath or shower. And more importantly, I knew I would not be able to make any progress on the ignorance front as long as I remained in my old neighborhood.


So, at the age of sixteen, I ran away from home on a bus to New Orleans. But when I failed to get a job there and had only a couple of dollars left in my pocket, I hitchhiked a little over six hundred miles to my older brother’s house. Fortunately, he took me in with the condition that I had to finish my high school education.


With his help and income from a part time job, I not only had enough food to eat, adequate clothing, and a toothbrush with plenty of toothpaste, but I lived in a house with an indoor toilet, heat in the bedroom where I slept, plenty of hot water, and a shower. And to this day, the poverty of those early years of my youth has never crept back into my life.


After graduation from high school, I got sidetracked from making any real progress on the ignorance front. I was still largely influenced by the ignorance that plagued my old neighborhood, so getting a college education never came to mind. Besides, I was eighteen and restless with an unrelenting desire for adventure, travel, and not taking life seriously. So, I volunteered for the draft and ended up in the Navy.


After boot camp in San Diego, I reported for duty aboard a ship that was anchored in the San Diego Bay. The living conditions were cramped but tolerable; the food was great with plenty of it; and I was assigned to a comfortable desk job. And although the travel was limited to the West Coast, Alaska, and Hawaii, it was enough for me to engage in my first forays into the world of bars and dance halls, lots of beer and bourbon with my fake ID, and accommodating women while ashore on liberty.


After serving my hitch in the Navy, I wandered aimlessly from one job to another in restaurants and nightclubs in Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Palm Springs. I lost myself for several years in that transient and mindless life of fun times with lots of beer and bourbon and accommodating women, a life much like the one I had lived while in the Navy.


But one day, when I ended up almost broke, jobless, alone, and ashamed of going nowhere, I realized I respected myself even less than I did back in the old neighborhood of my youth. So, I decided to do something that would get me back on track to upward and onward.


As I thought about how I might do that, two things came to mind: I remembered when my first employer and mentor back in my old neighborhood mentioned to me one day that the only way to get ahead in life was to finish high school and get a college education. And I remembered my older brother telling me that the best way for poor boys like us to rid ourselves of the ignorance that plagued our youth was through education, not just high school education but college education as well. I remembered he laughed when he said that college was not just for uppity rich kids and sissies but for ignorant assholes like us.


And so, I enrolled in a couple of classes at a nearby university, one of which was the principles of economics. From then on, I was hooked. What attracted me most about economics was its political implications, a philosophy of life based on the pursuit of self-interest and getting the most out of life, and the fact that it was a widely respected discipline of study for its rigor and relevance to the decisions people have to make every day of their lives. And I could not get enough of the faculty and students I met. Their intelligence, knowledge, and level of discourse was mind-boggling at times but always a learning experience and exciting.


During those college years, I earned income from part-time work as a food and cocktail waiter. And in graduate school, I received scholarships, earned income from jobs as a teaching and a research assistant, and obtained student loans. And too, the woman I married helped out with income she earned from a job on campus.


From the negative response I received from people when I spoke, however, I realized early on that I needed to rid myself of my ignorance of the spoken word. That is, I needed to clean up my language so that when I spoke, I didn’t come off as someone from my old neighborhood, namely someone who sounded ignorant. For example, I had to stop replacing the “a” with an “or” in “wash” and “Washington” and saying “worsh” and “Worshington”. And the worst habit I had to rid myself of was saying “he, she, or it don’t” instead of “he, she, or it doesn’t” and “I seen” instead of “I saw”.


And too, I needed to rid myself of the appearance of ignorance that I displayed when I referred to people who were different from me. For example, I needed to stop referring to black people as niggers, Catholics as mackerel snapper and idol worshipers, and Jews as Christ killers and kikes because it made me come off like someone from my old neighborhood, namely an ignoramus, a bigot, or to be blunt, an asshole. And although I interacted with people who sometimes came off just as bigoted, including black people, Catholics, and Jews, most of the people I associated with were put off by that kind of language.


Improvements in the way I spoke by using proper English and ridding myself of the appearance of ignorance about people who were different from me opened doors for me that would not have been opened otherwise. People who were in positions of helping me get what I wanted were much more responsive.


But taking steps to rid myself of my actual ignorance about people who were different from me was a much more important step in my progress. Primarily by way of association, I came to realize it was not only the right thing to do, but I derived benefits from it. I acquired additional knowledge and came to enjoy the differences in people, especially the cultural differences. So I not only came to tolerate the differences, I embraced them. And that was enhanced considerably when later in my life, I traveled extensively, and in some instances lived, in other countries, the most memorable of which were Liberia in West Africa, China, and India.


Progress on the ignorance front was difficult at times, but I liked myself better as a result of it. And I liked the subject of economics in undergraduate school so much that I went on to graduate school and earned a doctorate degree in it. That went well, except I got a bit lazy at times, and also, I had a problem with leaving my drinking days behind me. But with my doctorate degree in hand, along with my wife, my two beautiful kids, and an academic career ahead of me, I felt good about myself.


And during my years in academia as an economics professor, I continued to move in the direction of ridding myself of the ignorance that was ingrained in the formative years of my youth. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an endless task. Someone once said that people spend the rest of their lives attempting to rid themselves of the ignorance of their youth and correcting their behavior accordingly. I believe that is true, at least in my case. So, I continue to look at myself as a work in progress with a grade of “I” for incomplete.


Nevertheless, I am proud of what I have accomplished, some intentionally and some by just dumb luck. I made a respectable life for myself as an academic, and more recently, as an author of essays, novels, short stories, and poetry. Of course, my education, especially my graduate education, played a huge role in providing me with the opportunities for progress that would not have been available to me otherwise.


Forbes and U. S. News and World Report consistently rank the university where I receive my graduate education among the top forty universities in the country. I am not convinced there are significant differences in the quality of education between those universities, but that is not the perception. Rather, the perception is that the higher the ranking of a university, the greater its prestige AND the higher its quality of education. And like it or not, that perception can be a limiting factor in a person’s ability to succeed after graduation.


So, when the first of my descendants, my son and daughter, applied for college admission, I made them aware of the perception. In fact, I had harped about it so much over the years that it was ingrained, even though they enjoyed teasing me by saying they were going to apply for admission to the University of Nebraska.


They never knew poverty. Their mother and I made sure of that. They were not spoiled by any means. Their mother and I made sure of that too. Unlike me during the early years of my youth, they never went to bed hungry. Each one had their own bedroom with heat to keep them warm during the winter and air conditioning to keep them cool during the summer. They had the best clothing and shoes that money could buy, even though they, especially my son, complained when their mother purchased some of their clothing at garage sales. They had the best medical and dental care available, and each one of them had a toothbrush with lots of toothpaste.


They spoke correct English with minor corrections from time to time as they learned. They had no tolerance for bigotry, especially my daughter, who would go into a rage if anyone in her presence even hinted at it. And more importantly to me than everything else, they always live in a house with an indoor toilet, plenty of hot water, and a shower.


Both my son and my daughter applied and were accepted for admission to universities that consistently rank in the top twenty. As a result, they consider themselves superior to me. And I agree. They are superior in terms of getting their college education at universities that are not only more prestigious, but are perceived as providing a higher quality of education than those I attended. And that pleases me to no end because I have always wanted for them better than what I had.


My grandchildren show even greater promise in taking themselves to even greater heights than my son and daughter, not just in terms of university rankings and the perception that the greater the prestige the higher the quality of education, but in terms of choosing more substantive, rigorous, challenging, and respected majors.


And fortunately, my son married the perfect woman to be the mother of my grandchildren. She is Hindu and Brahmin, which means when it comes to their education, she will act in ways much like those of a stereotypical Jewish mother. That is, she will cajole, manipulate, nag, and do whatever else is necessary to see that each one of them is prepared for admission to one of the top ranked universities—with the help and support, of course, of my likeminded son.


Someone once said that the sins or evils or negatives of a father are visited on his descendants in one generation after another. I believe that is true. And I believe the same is true of his virtues or goods or positives. So, just as my descendants now living have benefited from my giant leap out of the poverty and ignorance that plagued the old neighborhood of my youth, so too will my descendants that come after them benefit as one generation builds on another.


The thought of one or more of my descendants excelling in the fields of economics or one of the natural sciences, including physics and chemistry, or in the arts, including painting, music, theater, and dance, pleases me to no end. And I pray that at least one of them becomes a celebrated novelist, someone like my bright, sensitive, and creative-inclined granddaughter. But be all that as it may, my dreams of upward and onward for me and my descendants going forward keep me still very much alive and hopeful.



Copyright © 2024 Frank Zahn. Published in Adelaide Literary Magazine, and international monthly publication based in New York and Lisbon, Number 64, June 9, 2024, pp. 190-97 - or

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