As a child I spent many days on my grandmother’s living room floor, playing with toys that were stored in a cabinet under the TV. My extended family would typically be watching football with an exuberance I didn’t share. My grandmother sat in her large chair opposite the TV, small and docile in her silent world. Looking at her I couldn’t understand how my sweet little Mema picked cotton in the hot East Texas sun, as soon she was able to comfortably walk in the fields. She didn’t have the opportunity for much education, yet she learned to read, write and do simple arithmetic through basic schooling and around the house. When my grades started to fall behind, she said flatly, “the world needs ditch diggers.” Those harsh words echoed my family’s sentiment on literacy. In their minds there are only two distinct choices that can be made in life: become educated or be a ditch digger. This was a sentiment born from the experience of moving from an impoverished lower-working class family firmly into the upper middle class. However, my perception of what is implied by saying, “the world needs ditch diggers,” has been strongly influenced by my personal experience with diverse ethnicities, cultures and classes.
Early in life I was exposed to ethnic and cultural diversity and the respective societal impact upon being classified as a ditch digger. Trinidad and Tobago was one of many such exposures. “If ya’ll ever make it to Texas I’ll take you paintballing with me” my lanky twelve year old self said excitedly to the two large black Trinidadians sandwiching me in the single cab Toyota Tacoma. “We are never going to make it to Texas my man,” Allen said nicely, but frankly, in his thick island accent. I cannot remember if I replied but I clearly remember the sharp pang of guilt in the pit of my stomach. I liked Allen and I didn’t want him to be a ditch digger. He was a pipeline technician and I saw it as a respectable profession that I would consider entertaining, even though it was a working class standing. I found myself wondering if he was raised in one of the many shantytowns we passed through during the day. If he was, did it mean he was predestined to be a ditch digger? When I asked my father why Allen would never be able to make it to the US he responded painfully “This is why you need to go to college, son, so you won’t be a ditch digger.” Yet, that simplistic paradigm did nothing to explain how a man of solid intelligence and behavior could be classified as a ditch digger. His race was not a factor; there were many successful black men in higher education. Culturally Trinidadians are lackadaisical workers, yet he could not have been and held his demanding profession. There were obvious economic forces outside of his control and even if he had an education in Trinidad, Americans did not respect the certificates. This lead me to theorize that ditch digging might be relative to a person’s opportunities at birth, which appeared largely limited by their surrounding societal structure versus solely race or culture, and stood in conflict with my father’s generalist statement.
If this conclusion could be considered true it would have to hold true with different ethnicities and cultures, wouldn’t it? Years later the sun was beating down on my helmet as I stood on the hard dirt of a field harvested long before in Southern Afghanistan. Fifteen minutes prior I had conducted a translation with a tribal elder through the use of charades and a sparse knowledge of basic Pashto due to the lack of an interpreter. Although the exchange was successful, our interpreter “Jack” would have saved us a lot of time if we had brought him with us. Jack was from Northern Afghanistan and very different from the Pashtu in the South. Though he started with limited English proficiency, he learned quickly through conversing with us and later confided in me that he was an interpreter because he heard he could make his way to America where he wanted to drink alcohol, talk to girls and watch his beloved football team Chelsea without the threat of death — a confession whispered under that same threat. Even coming from a middle class mountain community he had only been through enough schooling to learn the basic academics — though far more than the mostly illiterate Pashtu. Yet, he was very astute and open-minded. From only speaking Farsi he learned English, mainly through conversation with men in our unit. He was very quick to learn and I felt a familiarity through our cultural differences. We discussed Alexander the Great and soccer as well as the impact of the Russian, Taliban and US invasions. He had the presence and mind of an academic, though through his lack of formal education he clearly fit my family’s description of a ditch digger. The culture of Afghanistan did not allow for him to take full advantage of the gifts he, or most any other Afghan, had been given. Race, and tribal relations based on race, severely limited his economic mobility but was not a factor in his inherent ability. I could clearly see he was a perfectly intelligent soul mired by circumstance and it would be unjust to consider him a ditch digger.
After returning from Afghanistan I concluded to myself that ditch digging is very likely proportional to opportunity and crosses ethnic as well as cultural lines. So, if these two previous examples were not ditch diggers due to the lack of opportunity woven into their societal structure, what if someone had all of the opportunity in the world? Is it a squandering of opportunity to not attain the highest degree of education possible? Is principal economic class a factor? I pondered these thoughts with my feet on the dashboard of my Dodge 2500, the diesel engine idling in a low grumble. The guy in my passenger seat was a convicted felon, a high school drop-out and raised in poverty; the exact opposite of myself except for our common coloration. I was bored out of my mind, boredom I had consistently sustained for over a year on the job. I tried to imagine how he’d spent six years in a truck like this, only two years older than me. Although he joked about my stack of books and tendency to read on my phone for hours, he was easily as aware, intelligent and sharp as I was. But, was he a ditch digger for his poor life choices and not seeking a full collegiate education? Did six years of work in a field that required speech proficiency, mathematics, data recording and more not require a relatively high level of literacy? He was easily in the top 10% income bracket for the United States, so I doubted he would care about his classification. That job was what he wanted to do, he never openly speculated about typical bourgeoisie careers and he provided very well for his family. His principal economic class, his race, his culture nor his chosen lack of education made him what I would consider a ditch digger. He had, in actuality, risen to the upper class.
Through the 20th century our society has held a belief that the result of academic education is gainful employment outside of the ditch-digging realm. This bourgeoisie belief in the value of formal literacy is something my family buys very much into. Yet, I believe the term and sentiment are spoken too generally. Is it right to include so many people in such a negative connotation? Should we hold value in certificates over value in the individual? I stand opposed to my family’s conventional understanding of the phrase “the world needs ditch diggers.” I believe the world does need ditch diggers and a lot more of them.
Henning Futrell is a former US Marine Corps Infantryman as well as a former roughneck pursuing a BS in engineering.