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Carolyn Whitson Why Does the Lance Bleed? Whom Does the Grail Serve? Unasked Questions from a Working-Class Education I didn't come from a romantic world, but I was educated in one. In the chaotic, nerve-wracking environs of a working-class family coming apart at the end of the Viet Nam War, I started school, and it was a place that at first seemed as unlike my own home as any book of legends or fairy tales. There were no princesses and no castles, but there was the idea that rules made things better for everyone, that order and quietwere normal, and that hard work was appreciated and actually got you somewhere you wanted to go. I embraced school, because it seemed to embrace me. It treated me like Jack in that beanstalk story—where my mother might scold me for selling her out for magic beans, school told me that I was clever to do so, and that if I climbed and climbed and climbed (and didn't get killed by the giant), I would get the goose that laid the golden eggs, and that would win me the admiration of everyone. While education teaches "critical thinking," it didn't teach me to be critical of the education itself. Some things had to be believed in. I didn't come to ask whom I was really serving in my education until my education had almost put its finishing touches on me. And I am indeed a finished product: I teach other working-class kids (and adults) in what is code-phrased as an "urban university," and one might well ask whom I serve now with the holy lance of privilege and the grail of betterment I am supposed to uphold. Not everyone had the working-class childhood that I did. Sociologist Lillian Rubin has eloquently documented the differences in working-class culturebetween "settled living" and "hard living." Hard livingis whathappens when all the effort your family can collectively muster can't save you from poverty and despair. Itwouldbe unfair to use my life as the representative of typical working-class culture—more likely, my experience would be seen as representing a Dickensian melodrama of cruelty, hopelessness, and perhaps pitiable weakness. There was violence, there was want, there was disease and the threat of being orphaned, there was constant moving in hopes of a better job, a better life. I remain amazed at the array of "poor plucky kid" stories that abound which would allow me to reject where I came from and congratulate myself for leaving it for my own sake. I was raised on those stories, but my parents were not the ones who told them. These were the stories assigned in class, encouraged at the library, put forward on television. Ingesting these stories wonmepraise at school, kept me "out of trouble" at home, and alienated me utterly from any kids or people I lived around. I didn't do anything practical or social; reading and studying , which my parents understood was supposed to give me a chance at succeeding, were solitary activities. It was great that I wasn't out doing any- 116 the minnesota review thing dangerous or getting hurt, or "worse" (there was always an ominous "worse" that my mother wanted to keep me inside to protect me from), and it was great that I wasn't demanding attention, since everyone was very busy trying to solve insoluble problems. But I liked it too much, and it gave me funny ideas about what and who were important—it didn't make me a better daughter, sister, neighbor, or friend. I would be twenty-two years old before I encountered a story that more accurately described my education, and some years beyond that before I would be able to read it as such. That story was the Arthurian romance, Perceval, or, The Story ofthe Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes. Most people have heard some sort of Grail story, or seen a version on television or at the movies . You think you know how it goes: ifs a quest story; it's a pious story; ifs about pursuing the highest ideals for the ultimate...


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pp. 115-128
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