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In the opening of her memoir, The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls describes being stuck in traffic on her way to a party when, looking out the window of the taxi in which she was riding, she spotted her homeless mother digging through a trash dumpster:
“Her long hair was streaked with gray, tangled and matted, and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, but still she reminded me of the mom she’d been when I was a kid, swan-diving off cliffs and painting in the desert and reading Shakespeare aloud. Her cheekbones were still high and strong, but the skin was parched and ruddy from all those winters and summers exposed to the elements. . .It had been months since I had laid eyes on mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she’d see me and call out my name, and that someone headed to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out.”
With this opening, the obstacles confronted by Jeannette Walls, beyond the financial costs associated with higher education, are immediately apparent. As described in her memoir, Walls’ was a very unconventional childhood, a somewhat nomadic lifestyle with an alcoholic father whose drinking marred an otherwise brilliant mind. That her parents, Rex and Rose Mary, became destitute, homeless people while she enjoyed the trappings of success weighed heavily on Jeannette’s mind. Returning home rather than continuing on to party, she reflects on her situation:
"I'd tried to make a home for myself here, tried to turn the apartment into the sort of place where the person I wanted to be would live. But I could never enjoy the room without worrying about Mom and Dad huddled on a sidewalk grate somewhere. I fretted about them, but I was embarrassed by them, too, and ashamed of myself for wearing pearls and living on Park Avenue while my parents were busy keeping warm and finding something to eat."
The following passage from The Glass Castle encompasses the atmosphere in which Jeannette and her siblings were raised:
“Dad would get a job as an electrician or engineer in a gypsum or copper mine. Mom liked to say that Dad could talk a blue streak, spinning tales of jobs he'd never had and college degrees he'd never earned. He could get about any job he wanted, he just didn't like keeping it for long. Sometimes he made money gambling or doing odd jobs. When he got bored or was fired or the unpaid bills piled up too high or the lineman from the electrical company found out he had hotwired our trailer to the utility poles—or the FBI was closing in—we packed up in the middle of the night and took off, driving until Mom and Dad found another small town that caught their eye. Then we'd circle around, looking for houses with forrent signs stuck in the front yard.”
The reason for these lengthy quotes from The Glass Castle is to establish the context in which the young woman, the daughter of these dysfunctional parents, would attempt to advance her position in life, including attending college. The odds of children raised under such circumstances succeeding in life are slim, and the determination Jeannette would display in the years ahead stand as testament to the strength of her character. A child herself forced to essentially raise her brothers and sisters under conditions of extreme poverty, she struggled to survive while ensuring a future for herself and her siblings. One of her obstacles, however, was her intense desire to escape her surroundings and attend college in New York despite her high school guidance counselor’s assertion that she would qualify for a full scholarship at the nearby West Virginia college. To the counselor, the notion of leaving Welch, West Virginia was virtually treasonous:
"Miss Katone said that in her view, this was a bad idea. It was easier to go to college in the state where you had attended high school. You were considered in-state, which meant acceptance was more likely and tuition was cheaper.
I thought about this for a minute. "Maybe I should move to New York City right now and graduate from high school there. Then I'd be considered instate.
Miss Katona squinted at me. "But you live here," she said. "This is your home."
In other words, one of Jeannette’s obstacles was the culture of Welch, which discouraged ambition beyond the region’s rural confines. That her father, Rex, was resentful of her desires to follow her sister Lori to New York compounded the psychological and cultural inhibitions that permeated the atmosphere. As writes at one point during this phase of her life, “Dad had barely spoken to me since I announced my decision” to go to New York. Rex Walls’ delusions regarding his family and their need to stay together manifested itself in his plans to build a home in which they would all live happily together: the glass castle of the book’s title:
"And I'll build the Glass Castle, I swear it. We'll all live in it together. It'll be a hell of a lot better than any apartment you'll ever find in New York City, I can guarangoddamntee that."
Another psychological obstacle involved her journalistic ambitions and her increasing skepticism as to whether a college degree was essential for her to realize her ambitions, having obtained employment at a small paper ("Why should I give up this job to go to college?" I asked”). Dissuaded from this notion, however, Jeannette did get accepted to college in New York, specifically, Barnard, overcoming the financial obstacles the same way millions of other students have, through loans and grants.
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