Degrees of Freedom

When my family was cleaning out my grandparent’s attic my uncle and I unearthed my grandmother’s diploma tucked away in the back of a closet. We stood and looked at it silently for a few moments before my uncle picked it up to examine it. It was beautiful under the grungy frame caked with 60 years worth of dust and dirt. We assumed her parents had it framed, complete with regal gold and chocolate colored ribbons. My uncle let me keep it. Grandma was still in foster care at the time, so during my next visit I told her of our discovery. “Just throw that old thing away,” she muttered. I was a little startled by her response. I said I took it home to my office to hang with my own diploma. “I don’t know why you would want that thing,” she said before changing the subject. Her words made it clear why it was so important for me to save and preserve it with pride, as her parents did so many years ago.

In my world, people often decorate their offices with diplomas. For some reason I have not been able to come to terms with this tradition and accept it as appropriate for myself. I understand it is a source of pride, as well as documentation of one’s credentials, but it feels arrogant. Exceedingly arrogant. I have rejected the notion of displaying diplomas so intensely that I actually lost my master’s diploma at one point. When I found it again I propped it up on a shelf along side my and Greg’s undergraduate diplomas to display the folder covers, mostly so I would not lose track of them again. Together they make an attractive tribute to my alma matri.

What is the big deal with Grandma’s diploma if I can’t even bring myself to put my own on display? Grandma earned her diploma from Henry Lord Middle School in 1939. Then she was done with school after completing the eighth grade at age 15. There was no Head Start for her in 1926 when she would have benefitted from it. To the contrary, Grandma probably did not start school until she was seven years old. As an only child, any reading or math skills she had at that age she would have learned entirely from her parents, assuming they coached her on academic skills as many parents do today. There was not much reason for girls to have an education back then so there was no reason to plan for college, which meant there would have been little reason for Grandma to attend high school. “Opportunity” for girls born in the 1920s meant finding a good husband who could provide for the family financially. Bonus points if a girl could find a husband who did not beat her up.

Grandma did her best by the opportunities presented to her. When she graduated from Henry Lord she went to work in a sweat shop sewing sleeves, “until the factories all moved to the south so the blacks could have our jobs.” When I was younger I was embarrassed by my grandmother’s attitude on race, but when I consider the context of her opportunities and education I realize her attitude was exactly what anyone should expect of a young girl who had enough education to respond emotionally to a mass layoff, but not enough to understand the logic of firm theory, supply and demand of the labor market, or the underlying history and foundations of discrimination and institutionalized racism. Grandma’s experience is a simple, if difficult, example of how ignorance fosters oppression.

Grandma did find a good husband who really loved her, and who valued education above all else. Grandpa came from a farming family, and like so many men his age, had the opportunity for postsecondary education due to World War II. He worked in a munitions factory, where he received enough advanced training that his draft order was initially deferred so he could continue to support production. After the war ended Grandma and Grandpa got married and he enrolled in university with the support of the GI Bill. The most important thing he taught his children, grandchildren, and even his great grandchildren was that education is the greatest asset anyone can ever have. Education is the key to countless doors, and no one can ever take it away. He was also ceaselessly loyal and deeply indebted emotionally to the federal government. Grandma, too, could could see what a difference Grandpa’s education made for him and for their family, and espoused its virtue.

It is unfortunate that Grandma never had the opportunity to invest in herself through her education. I wonder how it made her feel. Ashamed? Insecure? Inadequate? Defensive? Ignorant? Stupid? Alone? I don’t know how Grandma felt all those years married to a brilliant engineer but without an equivalent set of education assets for herself. I can imagine how a similar experience might make me feel. It might even make me tell a loved one to discard my only diploma as rubbish.

After sitting on my desk for more than a year I finally took Grandma’s diploma in to get re-framed. The woman in the frame shop carefully removed the diploma from the glass and noted that new glass could stop the beautiful script from fading any further. “That is really old glass,” she observed of the original, filthy glazing. “Really old. You can see the ripples where it has run.” She examined the frame and determined it was structurally sound with no rot, but that matting the diploma with a larger frame would create a better presentation, and provide a backing that would help retard mildew growth. I showed her how the ribbons had been placed and where the colors had bled onto the paper. Suddenly she noticed, “That is a middle school diploma! It is so large and beautiful I thought it was a college diploma.”

We settled on a triple mat, with a simple, bold frame that would highlight the colors and display Grandma’s only diploma with more pride than ever. Education was everything to her and Grandpa. The little bit of formal schooling Grandma experienced is precious and its artifacts must be cherished with great esteem. Thanks to the work of leaders, activists, policy makers, and countless great women, I have had so many more educational opportunities than Grandma could have imagined for herself. And as she and Grandpa continuously reminded us, my education has opened for me a world of possibilities I would never have imagined.

When I got home from the frame shop I cleaned up Grandma’s old frame, polished the wilting glass, and fitted my doctoral diploma inside it. It hangs on the wall awaiting its senior companion to return from its makeover. Somehow, Grandma’s diploma takes the arrogance out of seeing my own name behind glass on my wall. My grandmother is one of the giants upon whose back I have stood to reach my own accomplishments. Grandma’s diploma keeps me humble; it is a constant reminder of who I am and why I do what I do.

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