By Kendall Sommers, IV Form
Stories That Need to Be Told: Reflections on an “Educated” Conference
I recently attended the Women’s Breakfast to benefit Horizons for Homeless Children. Every year that I have had the privilege of attending, I feel empowered by the time I depart. Although each keynote speaker has been different, including authors, poets, and business owners, there is one constant in their speeches: the corrupt financial systems and the corruption in the way that we think. The breakfast opens with a typical video showing the adorable kids who benefit from the organization’s play spaces for families who are struggling with homelessness. Following the video is one of my favorite parts of the day: the speeches. There are typically two speakers who have been in the Horizon’s program and have benefited from their support. This year, a woman named Latica spoke. She is a victim of domestic violence and subsequent homelessness while being a single mother of three children. Her experience is one that would impact with anyone, making every person in the room tear up and feel for her. But she did not want us to simply feel for her and her past experiences, but rather to take pride in supporting a program like Horizons which has helped her support her two twin toddlers and has counseled her in finding a job. The other speaker shared how Horizon’s employed her, leading to her role as a family counselor. These personal stories set the stage for the main speaker for this year, Tara Westover.
Westover is the author of the best selling memoir, “Educated.” She grew up in Idaho in a Mormon survivalist family. Her parents took on typical patriarchal family roles and raised her and her siblings in a similar way. Growing up, Tara was not allowed to attend school and was abused by her brother. She taught herself enough science, math, and English that she was able to take the SAT and attend Brigham Young University. But, in her interview style speech, Westover neither shared her background story nor described in detail how she got to school or what it was like attending a college after no formal schooling. Instead, she focused on why stories like hers are told.
She made it very clear that although she wrote her book memoir, she is not an expert on education or escaping violence; she is simply someone telling her story in order to share her experience with the world. This foundation she established with the audience created a more relaxed atmosphere and allowed the event to feel like a conversation rather than an overly formal interview. One of the first questions she was asked was a pretty typical interview question: “What is some advice you would give to your younger self?” Tara took this question and altered it to fit her answer. Responding with no advice to her younger self, she said would give advice to those around her. When she was struggling tremendously financially, she remembered her financial struggle as all she could focus on. She was just surviving everyday rather than living mindfully. She described not being able to focus in the classes she was scrounging money to pay for, illustrating that being in financial hardship dominates one’s thoughts. It is one’s main focus, and it is hard to consider anything else when you are not sure where your next meal is coming from. So, her advice to the people around her was to try to lose their perceptions of poverty.
Westover described sardonically the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” She explained that this saying was utterly ironic because you cannot, in fact, pull yourself up by your bootstraps; it is impossible! Though now, this phrase is used to further the idea that being trapped in poverty is the fault or responsibility of the person in poverty. But the reality is that hard work does not yield the same outcomes for all people. Therefore, the assumption that someone in poverty could simply “work harder” to become successful is false. If someone grows up into a wealthy family, has a higher education, and holds no student loans, their hard work will result in a very different future than someone growing up with a single parent, attending poor schools, and having to pay off student loans. According to Westover, situations also determine success.
Part of the reason, Westover claimed, that this view on poverty is so often overlooked is because of “stories like hers.” She explained the danger of only telling stories with happy endings, those featuring people who got out of that town, escaped abuse, or got a scholarship. There are countless stories like these that people indulge themselves in because people like the idea that hard work equals success, and these stories make them feel like they don’t have to do anything, further perpetuating that those at a disadvantage “ should just work harder”. Westover proposed that more stories about the people who don’t get out need to be told, and there are plenty. These people’s experiences and lives need to be shared in order to further a better understanding of the jail of financial instability and poverty.
Westover’s talk was not at all what I expected, though I left feeling more enlightened than I had from any other event I have attended. I sat in the car on the way back to school with my mom, a few of her coworkers, and my advisor from school as we discussed how we felt about the talk and what we thought were Westover’s most important comments. As these women spoke, I took notes, listened, and chimed in. Later, I was inspired to write this article to better understand Westover’s points. and as I drafted these words, turning my bullet points into phrases, I began to conceptualize the cognitive and sociological impact of poverty Westover spoke of. I learned we cannot expect socioeconomic socialization and fluidity without integration in schools and in our daily lives. I hope to echo Westover’s points to my family, my teachers, my peers, and my school community to reinforce that glorifying hard work and grasping onto a single perspective of poverty is dangerous and destructive.
Kendall Sommers is a IV form day student from Southborough, Massachusetts, who loves running, coxing crew, reading, and painting. Her favorite activities are writing poetry and playing with her two golden retrievers.