Two stories, followed by some analysis.
I did some field work with a “non-profit” organization that does research into search-and-rescue related techniques and technology. In truth, I didn’t know even that one sentence worth before I volunteered. My advisor sent out an email soliciting assistance for the project and, sensitive to the danger of not looking like a team player, I put my name in.
We assembled at a state park on a cold and rainy Sunday about forty minutes from where I live. I had never been to this park or anywhere near it and I took an additional 30 minutes and three phone calls to find the pavilion where we were set up. I had asked a couple of times for directions ahead of time. “Google it,” was the terse reply. Yeah, well, the park had multiple entrances and areas that didn’t connect. Proper directions would have been easy to give had someone had the courtesy to issue them.
There were some equipment difficulties early on, but eventually the NP leader briefed us on the CONOPS. We would be positioned against various backgrounds at precise GPS-recorded locations while a hired Cessna flew over and took pictures of us from various altitudes. These pictures would be analyzed for an ideal flight profile, and the Cessna would take a second round of photographs using the best profile. So basically we volunteers were just warm bodies to stand in a muddy field for sortie one and in the woods for sortie two.
We stood around in the cold for what seemed like a long time while (I thought) the air crew drove to the local general aviation airport. Eventually, one of the NP guys started putting us grad students in the field and recording our positions. This process was interrupted about half way through when we were called back in: the aircrew had left the camera at the pavilion. “We have to figure out what to do,” NP guy said.
“Well, it sounds like someone needs to get the camera to the aircrew,” I said, just a little annoyed.
“Yeah, that’s what we’re probably gonna do,” NP guy replied.
“Well, would you like me to drive the camera out to the airport?” I asked.
“Do you want to do that?” NP guy asked hopefully.
“No!” I lied, “but if it needs doing, then I’ll do it.” Though the truth was that driving somewhere beat standing around in the cold. The sun was shining when I left home that morning, and although I did have a Gor-Tex parka, I would have liked to have had a fleece lining for it. “Give me directions to the airport.”
“Uh . . . ,” NP guys scratched his head. “I don’t know how to get to the airport. Maybe we can find it on the GPS map. Hey, NP guy #2, can you find the airport on the GPS map?” A while passes while the GPS is fiddled with unsuccessfully. “Well, maybe we can find it on our computer maps. Hey NP guy #3, can you find the airport on one of your maps on the computer?” But these are all topographical maps that don’t show airports.
“Well, how about we call the aircrew and ask them how they got to the airport,” I suggested. “Hey that’s an idea,” said NP guy. He calls the aircrew and has a conversation that, weirdly, didn’t seem to include writing down any directions. What is it with these people and directions!?! At some sufficient threshold of incompetence, I will eventually assume command of somebody else’s flailing operation, and we were getting mighty near that threshold.
But then NP guy #4 pipes up.
“I know the way to the airport.”
“How do you get there?”
“Um, maybe it would be better if I rode along with you.” So off we went, me driving my car at my usual speed.
“Hey, the speed limit along this rode is 50mph,” he said of the four-lane country rode we were on, “and the police usually patrol it pretty well.”
“I’ve never received a speeding ticket for anything less than 15 mph over,” I said truthfully.
A few second pass.
“Now remember, the speed limit is 50 mph,” he said again.
“I heard you,” I said as I accelerated to 64 mph.
Perhaps it was my driving, but the airport turned out to be not even 5 minutes away. And it involved exactly two turns. As I wondered why one of the aircrew didn’t drive back for his camera, I began to develop an impression of the people staffing this NP that I wanted to check out.
“So, NP guy #4, are you with [big organization sponsoring my PhD research]?”
“Oh, no,” NP guy #4 said. “I just volunteer with NP.”
“So . . . what do you do?”
“I’m in school at α-tech.” I hadn't heard of it.
“What kind of program is it?”
“It’s a ten week program in ____”
“Do you have job lined up when you finish?”
“No. Company ____ supposedly hires people in this field, but they don’t have any openings right now.”
As I commented over at Hitcoffee a while back, I attended a moderately large state school with a well-regarded engineering program—indeed, perhaps the best such program in the region. While I was there, I attended the nearby Presbyterian Church. A whole bunch of us involved in the campus IVCF ministry went there because it was close to campus and the staff worker taught Sunday school. But to a degree to which I was then only dimly aware, the church was Old Money. It was Old Money in the sense that many of the members’ college-aged progeny attended expensive private schools in other cities. During the school year, Sunday school was in large measure an extension of my social life on campus. During the summer, however, when my classmates had returned home, I was left with these progeny who had returned for their summers, and it was this new social environment that I found, over the course of several summers, to be impossible to penetrate.
One of these returning students was named T. T was a beautiful girl of exceptional tolerance--exceptional enough to tolerate me, at any rate. Thinking back on it, I don’t remember her being warm with me exactly, but neither was she cruel. I do remember specifically that she once threw a house party to which I was invited (or considered myself invited; who knows what her intentions were). I had my parents (I think) drive me over; in my desire to be on time, I arrived early. She greeted me graciously and gave me a tour of her parents’ house. Located in the toniest section of the city (the actual city, not the ‘burbs), it was palatial.
In researching this post this morning, I looked up T on Google. I learned that she competed in track for the city’s elite Christian day school, a school whose tuition exceeds by half again that of my college. I learned that she graduated from an expensive private college with a median SAT score just above that of my engineering school (although our math score is slightly higher). But I wasn’t aware of this at the time. Back then, she was just a pretty girl with a big house. And so what? My family’s fortunes had had their ups and downs. At the high point, we had had a house like this. My uncle had attended the same college she had. My family had as much education as hers did, if not more. And what of it? Sure, I knew that class existed out there somewhere, in movies like The Outsiders and whatnot. But this was church; it wasn’t supposed to matter here.
So there I was with my ill-fitting, second-hand clothes and my engineer’s personality, showing up and expecting to be treated as a peer and a friend-to-be. I can only imagine the details of the impact this presentation of myself made, but clearly it had one.
But I can, and did, describe in detail the presentation of the people staffing the non-profit I worked with on Sunday. People who were terribly slow at solving simple problems. People who were afraid of police and speeding tickets even when they weren’t driving. People who got suckered into paying for ten-week “crash courses” promising employment prospects that weren’t likely to materialize. None of this makes the NP guys bad or unpleasant. They just didn’t make for particularly interesting company, and for this reason I couldn’t really imagine spending any of my own time with them.
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with my experience on both sides of the class divide. I guess I wonder how my own choices affect my children. We chose to live in a pretty exclusive town, a town whose residents pay a substantial premium to be surrounded by people like themselves. But our house is in its lower end. Our street is populated with high proles and over-educated egg-heads (like Φ). We could have obtained financing for a house about twice the cost of what we did, but we chose not to. Are we hurting our daughters by not buying them upper-middle-class neighbors? Will they someday be shut-out by the same people who shut their father out? I’m guessing not: their experiences as beautiful girls will be very different from those of a nerdy guy, and their mother’s sense of style will put them light years ahead of where I was. But who knows?