Colleen Clemens teaches English at Kutztown University and she has students, who like her, were the first in their families to go to college. She's not too far from Allentown where she grew up in the shadow of the Steel mills and where many of the men in her family worked, until they started closing the factories. Her story, she says, is written with the grit and sweat of her elders and with her discovery of the beauty of language and literature, all wrapped up in a mantle of gratitude.
Left Photo: Colleen's grandfather, Charles Adams. Photo taken in 1946.
When I was a graduate student at Lehigh University I had a constant visual reminder of my grandfather. From my office up on the hill, I could catch a glimpse of the smoke stacks from the old Bethlehem Steel, a place where my Pappy worked for decades.
After the war, men like him came back to find employment in the grit and steam of the Steel. They came home from a hard day’s work in search of a shower, dinner at the end of the shift, and a soft bed to comfort them if they could sleep. I used to joke that if you heard Billy Joel’s song “Allentown,” then you have heard the story of my life, a life of watching the women and men in my family doing physical labor at Mack Trucks and the Steel, or weighing semis and cleaning houses, like the jobs I had growing up. So sometimes when I caught a glimpse of those looming towers, now reduced to backdrops for movies and a casino, I couldn’t help but think of the people who worked hard so that I could make my way to my office on the hill.
I know that if it weren’t for the kind of work that required a good scrubbing with Lava Soap at the end of the day, I would not have my fancy degree, facing a world of opportunities unimaginable to those who worked in the Steel on behalf of grandchildren they hadn’t even dreamt of yet.
Now when I say I'm going to work, I know I will come home just as clean as when I left in the morning. As a professor, I work hard - I have to make thousands of decisions every day. I am responsible for a small slice of hundreds of student's well-being... and my feet often hurt from standing in front of a classroom. My mind is exhausted, but I don't have to leave with more calloused hands or a smudge of grease across my forehead to remind me of the 115- degree factory and the sweat it left on my brow. Instead I can call sitting in an air-conditioned coffee shop with a three inch stack of essays to grade, "Work."
My work isn't determined by a shift whistle; my work has no clear demarcation between the rest of my life and my workday. My family doesn't value my work less; it's simply a different world.
That my sister and I were the first kids to go to college in our family is a source of great pride. There is a sense that we "escaped" from a harder life in industry or agriculture. However this sacrifice does create a disconnect between generations. None of my grandparents lived to see me graduate with my Ph.D. If they had they would have been proud of their granddaughter, even if she was going out into a world they didn't know.
So the stacks of the Steel, still majestic in their unused state, always served as a reminder for what I believe: that we should feel gratitude for those whose toil propelled us forward. Not a saccharine or glossed over “thank you” I would find in a greeting card, but a daily awe for the work others did. My Pappy passed away several years ago, the Steel is no longer the lifeblood of the town, but when I see the stacks, I think of him and the rest of my family whose sweat and sometimes blood opened so many doors for me.