There’s a country music song that used to be popular (and maybe still is), sung by John Conlee, written by Russell Smith and Don Schlitz, called Old School. The song’s speaker chooses a life as a truck driver while his high school sweetheart goes on to college and marries a bigwig who then abandons her. The truck driver and the sweetheart meet up at their reunion, where she propositions him, even though he’s also moved on and married. He declines her offer, telling her he’s “old school, where hearts stay true,” and he had thought she was too.
This song could be taken a couple of ways. I’m not going to focus on the angle that getting education and seeking a better life will lead you to abandonment, selfishness, and betrayal, although I think the song can certainly be listened to that way. If I did that, though, I’d just be falling right into the caricatures I want to challenge tonight, calling attention to the supposed divides between the uneducated and educated, rural and city folk, those staying in the same place and those looking for new horizons.
I’m going to listen to the song differently, and really, in the way I believe it was intended. Smith and Schlitz are calling us back to the most fundamental beliefs we suppose that most people share: the values we learned in grammar school. Be nice. Show respect. Share. Do something nice for someone. If something is unfair, the teacher will try to make it right. Everyone in the classroom can speak. Everyone has a chance to do something that will make them proud. Stay true to people and goodness. Be decent.
I hear the surprise and disappointment in the song’s last line, “I thought you were, too.” Even when someone has done something you wished they’d hadn’t, when they’ve become somewhat of a stranger to you, when you’re living different lives, there are things that you couldn’t imagine the other abandoning; they were learned so early because they are so fundamental to life. The sweetheart’s first break was just a personal choice to see and live in the world a different way. The immoral proposition was a true betrayal.
I am the blessedly educated adult child of parents who did not have the opportunity to go to college. My parents are both third-generation Montanans. My father grew up on 80 acres in the northwest corner of the state, 11 miles from the Canadian border, with no running water, and he did indeed go to a one-room schoolhouse. When I was five, my parents moved our family to the suburbs of Los Angeles to live the “California dream.” Ten years there, and my father was aching to move back, and I ended up finishing high school in the Big Sky. I left the state to go to college and then finished at the University of Montana. I left again for work and life and then came back again when my father died. I left again and live in the big city of Chicago now. My parents were old school in Montana and they were old school in California. They taught their children the value of old school: focusing on the simple, basic truths that make us human, no matter where life takes you. Decency.
Conservatives like to talk about holding on to values they believe have passed away, back before people had all of these new ideas and went looking after things that should well enough be left alone. Sinful things. The thing is, those values haven’t passed away. Liberals and city-dwellers, Latinos, youngsters, the poor and the rich, conservatives, the educated and the less educated, rural folk, engineers and teachers, working moms and stay-at home moms, women with no children, gay men and lesbian women, lineman and welders, black people and white people. So many of us share those old school values. And those values aren’t about how we approach issues differently! They are about decency.
Why has this election shaken me to the core? Because from my privileged status as a white, educated woman, I feel utterly betrayed. Even as I type those words, I know they are self-indulgent. God knows that this country has a long history of betraying other humans who have borne the brutality of those on top of them, holding them down with their boots and their armies. But that knowledge does not make me feel any less betrayed.
I did think most of us were old school, or at the very least, we were doing our very best to hang on to that decency. I think most of us still carry those values with us, but we’re not doing our best anymore. I was shocked by this election into understanding that. But I won’t go back to sleep. I want to talk about those old school values. I want us to do and be our decent best again.