I remember a slogan my agriculture teacher had posted above the chalkboard in his classroom. The slogan read: “Those who look ahead seldom fall behind”. When I thought about this slogan, I think that the best investment one can make is in himself or herself. The problem is to get a person to have the self confidence to make the investment in himself or herself. Unfortunately, schools let us down in this regard. Time and money is spent drilling students for the multiple choice standardized tests which somehow measures the “performance” of a school. I would rather see the resources spent on these meaningless tests in helping students from elementary through high school experience explore different areas. For example, I think that upper elementary and junior high school should have an industrial arts or shop class required of all students. Students who may be gifted academically, but are not good at working with their hands might gain an appreciation for students that are talented in this regard.
It is difficult to invest in one’s self. My wife has a cousin who worked the assembly lin a factory. To supplement his income, he worked evenings and weekends at a funeral home. He then decided to go to mortuary school to become a mortician, but that required two years of college. He then enrolled part time at a regional campus, gained the credit hours and then went to mortuary school. His coworkers at the factory made fun of him. By the time he enrolled in mortuary school, the factory had closed, but he had enough savings to go ahead an pursue his dream. He is now a mortician.
I my own case, when I had completed a master’s degree, I took a year to year position at a state university teaching mathematics courses. My salary in 1965 was $6000 for the academic year plus whatever I could earn teaching in the summer. I decided to invest my spare time and the necessary money in taking more coursework. We lived in an inexpensive apartment and I drove an old car. Our furniture was mostly hand-me-down stuff. Some of my colleagues made fun of me spending my extra hours doing coursework. However, when I did go back to school to work on a doctorate, the classes I took while I was teaching full time cut a year off my doctoral work. I was able to return to the same university as a regular faculty member in the mathematics department. There were a few computer courses taught in the department, but faculty in computer science were hard to find. Industry offered salaries three times that which the university was willing to pay. I suggested at a department meeting that if we couldn’t hire computer science faculty, maybe we could “grow our own”. My colleagues laughed at my suggestion. I then enrolled in an evening course at a University 50 miles away, taught a full load and commuted two nights a week. In the summer, I taught a half load and took more coursework. I was immediately assigned computer science courses to teach as part of my load. The Dean then realized that this was a way to get faculty, gave two of my colleagues their salary and paid the the tuition for them to attend another university full time. When I asked for the same privilege, I was told that I was needed on campus to teach classes. While I was doing the coursework, I actually had colleagues that were resentful of what I was doing. I was told that I had a job-why did I want to do additional coursework?
We had a single mom who was a janitor in our building. She started taking courses. I went to bat on a program to give fee reduction for the employees who wanted to take classes. I was back on campus a couple of weeks ago and ran into this woman. She is graduating this spring with a master’s degree. She then told me something interesting: The percentage of employees taking courses before the fee reduction plan was implemented was higher than it was after the plan was put into place. She said the reason was that many of the supervisors were resentful of employees that sought more education. Her own hours kept being changed to make it difficult for her to take classes, but she persisted.
My point is that it is difficult to invest in one’s self and there is a lot of pressure against doing this. However, I think that it is the best investment one can make. Of course, one has to give up instant pleasures to make this investment. I had a student who was failing a math class I was teaching. When he came in to talk about the situation he was working an 8 hour job to make his car payments on a brand new car. He was commuting form seven miles away. He was worried that if he failed the course, he would be drafted. I suggested to him that the depreciation on the car would pay for room and board on campus. However, he couldn’t give up his car, flunked the class and with a low grade point average, was disqualified and was drafted. Some years after that, I had a female student who was also a horn player as well as a computer science major. I did get her a couple of paying gigs. She took a job as a night computer operator at a local plant working 8 hours a day and was failing a statistics class. I worked with her for several hours and she managed to finally pass the course with a “C”. (I wasn’t the instructor for the course). When she came to let me know that she successfully completed the course, I told her that maybe she shouldn’t be working a full time job and taking a demanding curriculum. She then pointed out that she had payments to make on her new car, had rent payments on an expensive apartment and had bought all kinds of new things. I told her that she was just getting a surface knowledge in her classes and she would probably be a computer operator for the rest of her life. As she got up to leave, I then said “The person went away sorrowful, because she has a great many possessions”. She walked out of my office and slammed the door so hard I thought the glass would break in the door. I figured I would never see her again. However, in the middle of the summer, she appeared at my office. “You really made me mad about what you said to me”, she said. “However, when I was working my job one night, it dawned on me what you meant. I sold the car, rented a room in a house just off campus and bicycle too and from my classes”. There is a lot of pressure to have everything at once. I never wanted to be a slave to my possessions, nor do I want to be a slave to an employer. I want to be valuable to that employer so that I am difficult to replace. I don’t have the answer as to how we get young people to believe in themselves enough to invest in themselves, but I think it is important for rising out of poverty.