[Paleopsych] NYT: Up From the Holler: Living in Two Worlds, at Home in Neither

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Up From the Holler: Living in Two Worlds, at Home in Neither
Class Matters - Social Class in the United States of America
[I'll count this as part of the third in a series. Next installment on Sunday]


    PIKEVILLE, Ky. - Della Mae Justice stands before the jury in the Pike
    County Courthouse, arguing that her client's land in Greasy Creek
    Hollow was illegally grabbed when the neighbors expanded their
    cemetery behind her home.

    With her soft Appalachian accent, Ms. Justice leaves no doubt that she
    is a local girl, steeped in the culture of the old family cemeteries
    that dot the mountains here in East Kentucky. "I grew up in a holler,
    I surely did," she tells jurors as she lays out the boundary conflict.

    Ms. Justice is, indeed, a product of the Appalachian coal-mining
    country where lush mountains flank rust-colored creeks, the hollows
    rising so steeply that there is barely room for a house on either side
    of the creeks. Her family was poor, living for several years in a
    house without indoor plumbing. Her father was absent; her older
    half-brother sometimes had to hunt squirrels for the family to eat.
    Her mother married again when Della was 9. But the stepfather, a truck
    driver, was frequently on the road, and her mother, who was mentally
    ill, often needed the young Della to care for her.

    Ms. Justice was always hungry for a taste of the world beyond the
    mountains. Right after high school, she left Pike County, making her
    way through college and law school, spending time in France, Scotland
    and Ireland, and beginning a high-powered legal career. In just a few
    years she moved up the ladder from rural poverty to the high-achieving
    circles of the middle class.

    Now, at 34, she is back home. But her journey has transformed her so
    thoroughly that she no longer fits in easily. Her change in status has
    left Ms. Justice a little off balance, seeing the world from two
    vantage points at the same time: the one she grew up in and the one
    she occupies now.

    Far more than people who remain in the social class they are born to,
    surrounded by others of the same background, Ms. Justice is sensitive
    to the cultural significance of the cars people drive, the food they
    serve at parties, where they go on vacation - all the little clues
    that indicate social status. By every conventional measure, Ms.
    Justice is now solidly middle class, but she is still trying to learn
    how to feel middle class. Almost every time she expresses an idea, or
    explains herself, she checks whether she is being understood, asking,
    "Does that make sense?"

    "I think class is everything, I really do," she said recently. "When
    you're poor and from a low socioeconomic group, you don't have a lot
    of choices in life. To me, being from an upper class is all about
    confidence. It's knowing you have choices, knowing you set the
    standards, knowing you have connections."

    Broken Ties

    In Pikeville, the site of the Hatfield-McCoy feud (Ms. Justice is a
    Hatfield), memories are long and family roots mean a lot. Despite her
    success, Ms. Justice worries about what people might remember about
    her, especially about the time when she was 15 and her life with her
    mother and stepfather imploded in violence, sending her into foster
    care for a wretched nine months.

    "I was always in the lowest socioeconomic group," she said, "but
    foster care ratcheted it down another notch. I hate that period of my
    life, when for nine months I was a child with no family."

    While she was in foster care, Ms. Justice lived in one end of a
    double-wide trailer, with the foster family on the other end. She
    slept alongside another foster child, who wet the bed, and every
    morning she chose her clothes from a box of hand-me-downs. She was
    finally rescued when her father heard about her situation and called
    his nephew, Joe Justice.

    Joe Justice was 35 years older than Della, a successful lawyer who
    lived in the other Pikeville, one of the well-to-do neighborhoods on
    the mountain ridges. He and his wife, Virginia, had just built a
    four-bedroom contemporary home, complete with a swimming pool, on
    Cedar Gap Ridge.

    Joe Justice had never even met his cousin until he saw her in the
    trailer, but afterward he told his wife that it was "abhorrent" for a
    close relative to be in foster care. While poverty is common around
    Pikeville, foster care is something much worse: a sundering of the
    family ties that count for so much. So Joe and Virginia Justice took
    Della Mae in. She changed schools, changed address - changed worlds,
    in effect - and moved into an octagonal bedroom downstairs from the
    Justices' 2 year-old son.

    "The shock of going to live in wealth, with Joe and Virginia, it was
    like Little Orphan Annie going to live with the Rockefellers," Ms.
    Justice said. "It was not easy. I was shy and socially inept. For the
    first time, I could have had the right clothes, but I didn't have any
    idea what the right clothes were. I didn't know much about the world,
    and I was always afraid of making a wrong move. When we had a school
    trip for chorus, we went to a restaurant. I ordered a club sandwich,
    but when it came with those toothpicks on either end, I didn't know
    how to eat it, so I just sat there, staring at it and starving, and
    said I didn't feel well."

    Joe and Virginia Justice worried about Della Mae's social unease and
    her failure to mingle with other young people in their church. But
    they quickly sensed her intelligence and encouraged her to attend
    [3]Berea College, a small liberal arts institution in Kentucky that
    accepts students only from low-income families. Tuition is free and
    everybody works. For Ms. Justice, as for many other Berea students,
    the experience of being one among many poor people, all academically
    capable and encouraged to pursue big dreams, was life-altering.

    It was at Berea that Ms. Justice met the man who became her husband,
    Troy Price, the son of a tobacco farmer with a sixth-grade education.
    They married after graduation, and when Ms. Justice won a fellowship,
    the couple went to Europe for a year of independent travel and study.
    When Ms. Justice won a scholarship to [4]the University of Kentucky
    law school in Lexington, Mr. Price went with her, to graduate school
    in family studies.

    After graduating fifth in her law school class, Ms. Justice clerked
    for a federal judge, then joined Lexington's largest law firm, where
    she put in long hours in hopes of making partner. She and her husband
    bought a townhouse, took trips, ate in restaurants almost every night
    and spent many Sunday afternoons at real estate open houses in
    Lexington's elegant older neighborhoods. By all appearances, they were
    on the fast track.

    But Ms. Justice still felt like an outsider. Her co-editors on the law
    review, her fellow clerks at the court and her colleagues at the law
    firm all seemed to have a universe of information that had passed her
    by. She saw it in matters big and small - the casual references, to
    Che Guevara or Mount Vesuvius, that meant nothing to her; the food at
    dinner parties that she would not eat because it looked raw in the

    "I couldn't play Trivial Pursuit, because I had no general knowledge
    of the world," she said. "And while I knew East Kentucky, they all
    knew a whole lot about Massachusetts and the Northeast. They all knew
    who was important, whose father was a federal judge. They never
    doubted that they had the right thing to say. They never worried about

    Most of all, they all had connections that fed into a huge web of
    people with power. "Somehow, they all just knew each other," she said.

    Knitting a New Family

    Ms. Justice's life took an abrupt turn in 1999, when her half-brother,
    back in Pike County, called out of the blue to say that his children,
    Will and Anna Ratliff, who had been living with their mother, were in
    foster care. Ms. Justice and her brother had not been close, and she
    had met the children only once or twice, but the call was impossible
    to ignore. As her cousin Joe had years earlier, she found it
    intolerable to think of her flesh and blood in foster care.

    So over the next year, Della Mae Justice and her husband got custody
    of both children and went back to Pikeville, only 150 miles away but
    far removed from their life in Lexington. The move made all kinds of
    sense. Will and Anna, now 13 and 12, could stay in touch with their
    mother and father. Mr. Price got a better job, as executive director
    of Pikeville's new support center for abused children. Ms. Justice
    went to work for her cousin at [5]his law firm, where a flexible
    schedule allowed her to look after the two children.

    And yet for Ms. Justice the return to Pikeville has been almost as
    dislocating as moving out of foster care and into that octagonal
    bedroom all those years ago. On a rare visit recently to the hollows
    where she used to live, she was moved to tears when a neighbor came
    out, hugged her and told her how he used to pray and worry for her and
    how happy he was that she had done so well. But mostly, she winces
    when reminded of her past.

    "Last week, I picked up the phone in my office," she recalled, "and
    the woman said who she was, and then said, 'You don't remember me, do
    you?' And I said, 'Were you in foster care with me?' That was crazy.
    Why would I do that? It's not something I advertise, that I was in

    While most of her workweek is devoted to commercial law, Ms. Justice
    spends Mondays in family court, representing families with the kind of
    problems hers had. She bristles whenever she runs into any hint of
    class bias, or the presumption that poor people in homes heated by
    kerosene or without enough bedrooms cannot be good parents.

    "The norm is, people that are born with money have money, and people
    who weren't don't," she said recently. "I know that. I know that just
    to climb the three inches I have, which I've not gone very far, took
    all of my effort. I have worked hard since I was a kid and I've done
    nothing but work to try and pull myself out."

    The class a person is born into, she said, is the starting point on
    the continuum. "If your goal is to become, on a national scale, a very
    important person, you can't start way back on the continuum, because
    you have too much to make up in one lifetime. You have to make up the
    distance you can in your lifetime so that your kids can then make up
    the distance in their lifetime."

    Coming to Terms With Life

    Ms. Justice is still not fully at ease in the other, well-to-do
    Pikeville, and in many ways she and her husband had to start from
    scratch in finding a niche there. Church is where most people in town
    find friends and build their social life. But Ms. Justice and Mr.
    Price had trouble finding a church that was a comfortable fit; they
    went through five congregations, starting at the Baptist church she
    had attended as a child and ending up at the Disciples of Christ, an
    inclusive liberal church with many affluent members. The pastor and
    his wife, transplants to Kentucky, have become their closest friends.
    Others have come more slowly.

    "Partly the problem is that we're young, for middle-class people, to
    have kids as old as Will and Anna," Ms. Justice said. "And the fact
    that we're raising a niece and nephew, that's kind of a flag that we
    weren't always middle class, just like saying you went to Berea
    College tells everyone you were poor."

    And though in terms of her work Ms. Justice is now one of Pikeville's
    leading citizens, she is still troubled by the old doubts and
    insecurities. "My stomach's always in knots getting ready to go to a
    party, wondering if I'm wearing the right thing, if I'll know what to
    do," she said. "I'm always thinking: How does everybody else know
    that? How do they know how to act? Why do they all seem so at ease?"

    A lot of her energy now goes into Will and Anna. She wants to bring
    them up to have the middle-class ease that still eludes her. "Will and
    Anna know what it's like to be poor, and now we want them to be able
    to be just regular kids," she said. "When I was young, I always knew
    who were the kids at school with the involved parents that brought in
    the cookies, and those were the kids who got chosen for every special
    thing, not ones like me, who got free lunch and had to borrow clothes
    from their aunt if there was a chorus performance."

    Because Ms. Justice is self-conscious about her teeth - "the East
    Kentucky overbite," she says ruefully - she made sure early on that
    Anna got braces. She worries about the children's clothes as much as
    her own. "Everyone else seems to know when the khaki pants the boys
    need are on sale at J. C. Penney," she said. "I never know these

    As a child, Ms. Justice never had the resources for her homework
    projects. So when Anna was assigned to build a Navajo hogan, they
    headed to Wal-Mart for supplies.

    "We put in extra time, so she would appear like those kids with the
    involved parents," Ms. Justice said. "I know it's just a hogan, but
    making a project that looks like the other kids' projects is part of
    fitting in."

    Ms. Justice encouraged Will to join the Boy Scouts, and when he was
    invited to join his school's Academic Team, which competes in quiz
    bowls, she insisted that he try it. When he asked her whether he might
    become a drug addict if he took the medicine prescribed for him, she
    told him it was an excellent question, and at the doctor's office
    prompted him to ask the doctor directly. She nudges both children to
    talk about what happens in school, to recount the plots of the books
    they read and to discuss current events.

    It is this kind of guidance that distinguishes middle-class children
    from children of working-class and poor families, according to
    sociologists who have studied how social class affects child-rearing.
    While working-class parents usually teach their children, early on, to
    do what they are told without argument and to manage their own free
    time, middle-class parents tend to play an active role in shaping
    their children's activities, seeking out extracurricular activities to
    build their talents, and encouraging them to speak up and even to
    negotiate with authority figures.

    Ms. Justice's efforts are making a difference. Will found that he
    enjoyed Academic Team. Anna now gets evening phone calls from several
    friends. Both have begun to have occasional sleepovers. And gradually,
    Ms. Justice is coming to terms with her own life. On New Year's Eve,
    after years in a modest rented townhouse, she and her husband moved
    into a new house that reminds her of the Brady Bunch home. It has four
    bedrooms and a swimming pool. In a few years, when her older cousin
    retires, Ms. Justice will most likely take over the practice, a solid
    prospect, though far less lucrative, and less glamorous, than a
    partnership at her Lexington law firm.

    "I've worked very hard all my life - to have a life that's not so far
    from where I started out," she said. "It is different, but it's not
    the magical life I thought I'd get."


    1. http://www.nytimes.com/services/xml/rss/nyt/National.xml
    3. http://www.berea.edu/
    4. http://www.uky.edu/Law/
    5. http://www.justicelawoffice.com/

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