I’m From Kansas: Dirty fingernails deserve respect

I’m From Kansas: Dirty fingernails deserve respect

By Dr. John Heim

KASB Executive Director

How we assign value to jobs and the people who do them is a theme of Sarah Smarsh’s book “Heartland.” I often talk about my experiences of summers on a Kansas farm in Bunker Hill, Kansas in a romanticized fashion. Smarsh’s experiences as a farm kid were similar to ours, until the farm crisis of the 1980s took that life from her and thousands of other family farmers.

My mother’s parents also lived in Bunker Hill. My grandfather worked in the oil fields and my grandmother was a telephone operator in Russell. Though they lived in “town” they kept a garden, canned, made their own clothes and were seldom idle. Both sets of grandparents were what Smarsh might call “dirt under their fingernails folk.”

A vivid memory is one of being rushed to the Russell hospital during an anaphylactic reaction to a yellow jacket sting. Even though I wasn’t completely coherent, I recall my roughneck grandfather slamming his wallet on the receptionist’s desk and in his own special color of language, letting the woman at the counter know he would be able to pay the bill. My grandfather was not a particularly kind or gentle man, and was quick to anger, but this anger was different.

Reflecting on the incident in the context of Smarsh’s book and 50 years of living, I see now the perceived slight was about dirty fingernails. I also recognize now why the Sunday morning ritual of our dad inspecting our fingernails before church takes on new meaning.

Smarsh has hit on a deeply meaningful metaphor. The jobs and skills my grandparents held with their maybe 8th-grade education are similar to jobs we want our students to consider. The difference is the new jobs require more refined and advanced skills. Many of those jobs pay well. Well enough to be able to slam your wallet on the counter and say, “I can pay the @#*% bill.” The obstacle is more about the respect we hold for those jobs and the people who hold them.

We are starting to break down the walls of those perceptions, but we have more work to do. A story I have heard often enough to be cliché is about an educator or business person saying, “We need to promote technical education,” followed by “but my kids are going to college.”

Smarsh points out that our culture favors folks with clean fingernails, and so therefore our social and political systems do to. Those systems change slowly, if at all.

Maya Angelou wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” To value a job is more than talking about it. It is to make people who hold all jobs feel valued.