Blue Collar Smarty

In case you are wondering how the hell I came up with the idea for this, it is from something I read a long time ago in Florence King’s “Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye.” [1]

Those who grew up as bright kids in blue collar homes are probably only too familiar with a technique that I call “The Big Bait.” This was an attempt, usually by relatives or friends, to deflate those damned swelled heads of ours and send us whirling around the room like a balloon with the air being let out of it. A typical Big Bait in our house would go something like this:

SCENE: Our living room. My Mom, my sister, my brother and I are sitting in front of the television set, absorbed in a crime drama. One of the actors says something in French. The words are coming out of his mouth faster than the bullets in a gangster’s Tommy gun.

MOM (to me): What’s he saying?

I’m taking first-year high school French. I can barely say, “My brother is putting the book on the table,” and even then it takes me forever just to figure out the verb tense, which I will probably get wrong, anyway.

ME : I don’t know.

MOM (very smug): I thought you were studying French.

There was no way for me to come out of that one without looking stupid. Score one for Mom.

I wasn’t even a genius or anything. I was just a kid with an above-average IQ who didn’t work any harder than I had to on any subject I didn’t like and still managed to coast through high school with a good enough GPA to get into a state college. [2] I did well on the College Board Exam, but only because my brain was smarter than my school work ethic.

I can just imagine what life must be like for a bright blue collar kid who is a hard-working scholar. I’ll bet this poor kid is a frequent victim of a variation of The Big Bait: The Big Bait with Ridicule:

SCENE: A back yard in early September. Some neighbors have come over. Everyone is sitting around on patio chairs, a couple of old tires, the fenders of an old Ford and a tree stump. The adults are drinking beer and the kids are drinking Pepsi and Fanta. The family’s bright kid comes out of the house to join the group.

NEIGHBOR: Hey, Junior! What’re you studying in that fancy school?

BRIGHT KID: Uh … I don’t go to a fancy school. I’m in Armpit High, like your kids. I’m in the Honors Program, that’s all.

NEIGHBOR: Well then, what do you study in that honors program in Armpit High? (The last words are spoken very sarcastically.)

BRIGHT KID: I’m in an accelerated science program, with an emphasis on physics. I hope to study quantum mechanics when I get to college.

NEIGHBOR: WHAT mechanics? I been a mechanic twenty years! I never went to college for that!

Huge, raucous laughter from the entire group, including the bright kid’s family.

It goes rapidly downhill from there.

Sometimes plain sarcastic ridicule can puncture an ego as well as any variation of The Big Bait. This often happens when a bright, nerdy kid gets excited about something and makes the mistake of verbalizing it. Example:

KID WHO IS REALLY INTO CLASSICAL MUSIC: Wow! Riccardo Muti is going to be conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony on PBS on Wednesday night!

SNARKY RELATIVE WHO DOESN’T GIVE A RAT’S ASS: Ooh! Ree-kar-do MOO-tee! Be still, my heart! (Opens his eyes and mouth wide and throws up his arms in a huge display of fake ecstasy.)

One more red-faced kid clams up, flattens out and slinks away. He still wants to hear Muti conduct Mahler, but not nearly as much as he did thirty seconds ago, because now he feels like a fool.

There is one advantage to having been a bright kid from a blue collar background: you get the best of both worlds. You can be as intellectual and as down home as you want to be. That same kid who loves Mahler’s Second Symphony can probably sing along with Carrie Underwood. Trendy bistros are nice, but there are times when nothing will do except a plate of KFC and some macaroni and cheese. [3] I see nothing strange about attending a class where I am reading the works of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, then going home and watching reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard. [4]

I might even tap my knees to the beat of Waylon Jennings.

[1] King, Florence, Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye. Copyright 1989 by Florence King. St. Martin’s Press.

[2] How’s that for a run-on sentence?

[3] In spite of that lecture on cholesterol that your doctor shot at you the last time you were in the office, predicting that your arteries would end up as clogged as a freeway entrance during rush hour on a Friday night before a holiday weekend

[4] I enjoy The Dukes of Hazzard a lot more than the writings of that crazy asshole Rimbaud, but I won’t tell that to my professor.