When Vance arrived at Yale, he was surprised to see posters advertising an event with Tony Blair, the former prime minister of England. Not long afterward, he ran into the governor of New York. In class, his cohort was comprised of a first-generation Indian woman, a black Canadian, and a progressive lesbian, among others. Vance describes this group as “a kind of family.” Although things were going well, he also sometimes felt he didn’t belong. One professor fiercely edited his writing, and he heard that this same man believed Yale should only accept students from other Ivy League schools because it wasn’t his job to “do remedial education.” By the end of the semester, though, Vance had worked hard enough to convince the professor to reconsider this elitist opinion.
Vance felt like he didn’t belong at Yale because of how hard it is to transition from the working class to the upper class, which Yale embodied. His professor’s elitism serves as a perfect example of why, exactly, this transition often seems impossible. By revealing his own uncertainty, Vance shows that upward mobility is continuously fatiguing and complicated, and the difficulties don’t stop once one has successfully lifted themselves out of poverty. Rather, there are always social obstacles to overcome.
On one of his first visits home, Vance saw a woman at the gas station wearing a Yale t-shirt. He asked her if she attended, and she said that her nephew did, before asking him the same question. Suddenly he was torn, unsure of where he wanted to place his allegiances—did he want to identify as a Yale Law school student or as “a Middletown kid with hillbilly grandparents?” In the end, he chose the latter, though he felt guilty to have lied. Vance writes that this illustrates the “inner conflict” that upward mobility can create. In fact, the term itself “implies a sort of movement—to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something.” To avoid this kind of isolation at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, Vance suggests that the upper class should more openly welcome newcomers to insure that upwardly-mobile working-class people don’t fall off the ladder once they rise out of poverty.
Vance’s anecdote about his conversation at the gas station builds upon the idea that upward mobility is a process that continues long after a person manages to attain success. This is because it unfortunately seems to require that people give up their previous way of life. For Vance, this would mean betraying his hillbilly identity, an act of disloyalty that would trouble him and his relatives (one imagines Mamaw rolling over in her grave). In keeping with Vance’s general approach to such problems, he suggests a social—rather than policy-oriented—solution, one that addresses how the upper class views upwardly-mobile newcomers. Once again, he advocates for open-mindedness and communities that work together across cultural and socioeconomic barriers.