“Less Than”

Wow.  I am a little overwhelmed by the response to my last post.  I have been thinking about that piece for a long time.  It makes me happy that it struck a chord with so many people.

It originated in a part of me that was always torn about my Kentucky roots.  On the one hand, I was proud of being from Kentucky; proud that I had persevered in the face of difficult challenges.  Proud that I flew on an airplane for the first time, by myself no less, when I went away to college.  I will never forget hauling three cardboard boxes out of the LaGuardia Airport baggage claim area on a rickety luggage cart.  I firmly believe it is a certifiable miracle that I’m not wandering around LaGuardia to this day.

But, on the other hand, particularly when I was younger, my background embarrassed me.  Before I left for college, I hadn’t traveled outside Kentucky very much; maybe a trip or two to Ohio or West Virginia.  I had never been to a zoo; I had never ridden on a train; I had never seen an ATM.  I felt ashamed when college classmates teased me, even in a good-natured way, about my accent.  I became adept at smiling and nodding when someone mentioned a place or author or experience that wasn’t familiar to me.

When I read Robert Hilburn’s excellent Johnny Cash biography (Johnny Cash: The Life), I was struck by a quote that described how Johnny Cash felt “less than” at various points in his life.  Although the quote didn’t draw this explicit link, I had to wonder if he struggled with bridging the gap between his icon status and humble Arkansas roots.

This description struck me because I understood feeling “less than.”  Once, when I was in graduate school in North Carolina, I listened to a group of highly-educated colleagues belittle a man with a strong southern accent we had just heard commenting on the stock market in a gas station.  I kept my mouth shut but I felt “less than” during that car ride.

I remember the first time I talked about my family background in an educational setting.  My hands shook and my voice was choked when I described my father, my mother and our life.  This reaction came out of the blue for me.  I couldn’t believe I had cried during a simple presentation about my family history.  Then, it occurred to me that I had covered up feeling “less than” for so long that it was hard to let down the facade.

Most telling, I guess, is that if you made a list of poor choices I have made in my life, I believe that feeling “less than” would be a specter in many of them.  Shame on me.

As I get older, however, my Kentucky roots make me proud.  I reread Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands recently and I loved his description of the bold, fearless and resourceful men and women who settled Eastern Kentucky.  Yes, they were poor, but they didn’t seem to feel “less than.”  A good lesson for me and, perhaps, all of us.

  16 comments for ““Less Than”

  1. Neil
    April 7, 2014 at 3:49 am

    Kim: You take a backseat to no one. You are bright, articulate, and a survivor.

    • April 7, 2014 at 4:16 am

      I really, really appreciate your comment, Neil. Very kind.

  2. April 7, 2014 at 10:08 am

    I miss you, my friend. Be assured that none of your classmates ever viewed you as “less than.” I hope that in articulating your feelings in such a poignant piece, you are able to put some of these demons to rest. Well done.

    • April 7, 2014 at 10:43 am

      And I miss you. It has been far too long. Thanks for the kind, and insightful, comment. I suspect you are right.

  3. April 7, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    You know how I feel about you! I am only disappointed you didn’t become a prosecutor so I could travel along and bring you coffee and cheer you on, that was MY plan after all. With my meanness and your mind we could have been quite the pair. Love you buddy.

    • April 7, 2014 at 4:30 pm

      And I hope you know how I feel about you! We would have been a force to be reckoned with. 🙂

  4. Lou Keith
    April 7, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    I grew up in McCreary County and I can well relate to your sentiments. I lived in a house without indoor plumbing until I was 9 and we never had much. I always had that feeling “less than” but I appreciate all those who helped me to break free from that and realize how good my life truly was. I left Kentucky when I was 18, flying for the first time and headed to Parris Island in South Carolina to become a Marine. I am now a retired Marine and a proud native of Kentucky, I love to tell people where I came from. Thanks!

  5. April 7, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    Kim, I hope you know you have never been less than, no matter how strongly you may have felt that way. In my eyes, you’ve always been more than. More insightful, more empathetic, more human, perhaps because of your experience. Another wonderful post.

    • April 7, 2014 at 8:37 pm

      Oh Todd, thank you, thank you. I’m not sure I deserve such high praise, but I accept it with a grateful heart.

  6. heatherschaeffer
    April 7, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    My dear friend, though I know you have, you have nothing to feel legitimately “less than” about . . . and I wish I could take away the times you’ve experienced that. It is humbling as I contemplate whether there have been times I have unwittingly contributed to anyone feeling “less than”; I sincerely hope I have not.
    There are so many positive attributes about you and your ability to express your thoughts and reflections is but one of them.

    • April 10, 2014 at 3:34 pm

      You are far too thoughtful and kind to make anyone feel “less than.” Miss you.

  7. Hedy
    April 8, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    Kim, the Harry Caudills, Johnny Cashes, June Carter Cash, Elvis Presley, John Still (if I list any more, I will ‘show my ignorance’) and many others ALSO had to deal with this concept of ‘ou less than’ and sleeplessness brought on by rumination of the day and all the taunts heard and taken on. You are entering a life stage of immense wisdom seeking and acquiring. It is full of work. Self work sometimes is the hardest. HOWEVER, knowing your family, you
    are more than up to the task. Every step you have taken prepares you for the road ahead. Your Mom and I are there beside you, encouraging, perhaps guiding, hopefully not trying to steer now!

    • April 10, 2014 at 3:38 pm

      Thank you, thank you for your comments, Hedy. I remember our times in Girl Scouts so fondly. Yes, self-work does seem to be the hardest endeavor I have taken on (even harder than parenting!) – and I so appreciate the encouragement. I wanted to let you know that, although my mom doesn’t remember many things from the past these days, I showed her a picture of you and she recognized you! And even remembered some things about Girl Scouts. A gift. Thank you!

  8. Louis Cathemer
    April 11, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    Kim, I am breathless. How this conjures memories of late nights, so many years ago, conversing and commiserating, each with our own feelings of “less than.” And oh, the “smiling and nodding!” You have tapped into something so deep and human, and personal for me, that I am left, well, breathless. All of your pieces have moved me, but this one, wow! I applaud the courage and honesty it must take to write such a piece. Excellent!

    • April 12, 2014 at 7:41 am

      Oh, Louie, I remember the same conversations. I have always felt a deep connection with you. Maybe it was the fact that both of us had so little – in the presence of so much privilege. I can’t even tell you how much it means to me that this piece touched you. I miss you.

      • Louis Cathemer
        April 15, 2014 at 10:27 pm

        I feel the same connection, and I miss you too. Fortunately, we can rectify the latter!

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