63 Useful Knowledge
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63 Useful Knowledge MARY CAPPELLO To Whom It May Concern: I am not what I have tried to be! Will I ever be able to write a few words correctly? Will I ever learn not to misspell words? No. Never. I am a cobbler. From the journal of my grandfather, John Petracca In the process of becoming official, of gaining the authority to reproduce knowledges about the history of private and public utterances in the United States, in entering the academy as an assistant professor of English, I have experienced in many ways the not-so-subtle necessity of having to move as far away as possible from who I am. When I think "working class," pictures come to me more readily than words, thus signaling this aspect as perhaps the most unspeakable feature of my identity in academe. I am, after all, much more aware of how even my lesbianism, an obvious site of censorship, shapes my interpretations of literature in and out of the classroom than I am of how my working-class upbringing does. My working-class background may be my best kept secret. Woman/lesbian/feminist/Italian American no doubt intersect working class, and yet I only narrate myself as working class through the figure of once-within-a-place. Insofar as I have learned to affiliate my class position (in contradistinction to other subject positions) with its material evidence, its signs, it makes sense that working class in my story conjures architectures: row home; playgrounds like minefields of unsuspected debris, rusted shopping carts that scarred faces and legs; resounding edifice of Catholic church and Catholic school, hallowed heights and peculiar smells of incense or the sawdust meant to quell the tang of vomit. Yet I also suspect that my affiliation of class with the somewhere that I left when I entered this profession is the fresh retelling of its sequestering by the middle-class authority of the academy. Why have I not, after five years in graduate school and four years as an assistant professor at both a prestigious private and a sprawling state university, been able or compelled to position myself as from the working class? Are there ways of imagining working-class experience vis-a-vis higher education that wouldn't presuppose a movement up? (Up and away?) What's at stake in the refusal to implicate one's working-class markings in the work of teaching people how to reinterpret the representations that shape their real lives ? What happened in the university-undergraduate studies at Dickinson College, graduate work at SUNY-Buffalo, tenure-track positions at the University of Rochester and the University of Rhode Island-must not be imagined as antithetical to what happened in Darby, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. Even though each locale played its part in negating the From THIS FINE PLACE So FAR fROM HOME edited by C. L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law. "Useful Knowledge " by Mary Cappello. Copyright © 1995 Temple University. Copyrighted Material 382 Mary Cappello other, each was and is always complicit with the other. Each was and is equally threatening to the other though not equally damaging or devastating, for the violence with which academe keeps working-class people from entering its domain is not exactly equivalent to the resistance that working-class people might have to that space. My father, a sheet-metal worker at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for forty years, suffers from asbestosis as a result of one of his jobs. My mother was a housewife/poet and closet political activist who suffered from agoraphobia for many years. Credentials aside, what I remember and affiliate my working-class identity with are (too thin) walls and broken , split-open bodies accompanied by the eventual dawning of the illusion of upward mobility . To be working class was always to be in a simultaneous state of surround and transparency . Surround: my neighborhood was cacophonous with the noise of work and rage. Someone inevitably had his visor lowered to extra welding in his garage on the weekends; or a hammering job that threatened to split the fragile foundations of the neighborhood would pound out from the small fenced-in patch that was an amateur boxer's backyard. Houses did not communicate with one another so much as they interfered in their married proximity with one another. No community to speak ot except at church, where contributions were the key to success no one could purchase, Transparency: being astonished and embarrassed to discover that...