Who would ever have dreamed that I would become a professor at an "elite college" like Hamilton?
All of my grandparents came to America from southern Italy in order to escape the poverty there. Intelligent though they were, they never had the opportunity to attend school and were all their lives illiterate. My father's parents settled in Pittston, Pa., where my grandfather worked as a coal miner. My father, who left school after the sixth grade, decided that the mines were not for him and found a railroad job that eventually brought him to Syracuse, N.Y., where he ended up working on the assembly line at the local General Motors plant.
My father and mother met in Syracuse, where I was born and raised. My maternal grandfather began his life in America as a garbage collector in Syracuse and worked his way up to a job as a night watchman. My mother left school after the 11th grade. My uncle, the youngest child, was the first in our family to graduate from high school (I was the second), but there wasn't enough money for him to move on to college.
It was taken for granted that my brother, sister and I would finish high school, perhaps even college, and our parents sacrificed to make that possible. In their view, "getting an education" was the key to getting a good job and making one's way up in the world. They envisioned an outcome in which the three of us would have a prosperous life in Syracuse, as accountants, perhaps, or engineers, or, with a bit more luck, as lawyers or doctors.
I don't think that my mother and father ever imagined the effect that education would have on me. I learned to read when I was very young, and after that things were never the same. Soon I was reading books by the carload, and those books introduced me to a world that stretched far beyond the confines of Syracuse and the dreams of my parents. When it came time to go to college, I spurned the local choices in order to begin training for the priesthood at a Catholic seminary in Rochester. Two years later I entered the Society of Jesus, a move that irrevocably cut me off from Syracuse and the world of my youth.
It was as a Jesuit that I became the first member of my family to graduate from college, receiving my A.B. from Fordham University in 1965 and my M.A. and Ph.L. in the following year. By this time, the potent combination of Jesuit ideals and a priceless education had made me into a different person. When I left the Jesuits during the heady days of 1960s idealism, there was no chance that I would ever again return to the world of Syracuse and my parents.
After completing work on my Ph.D., I left my home state of New York for Austin, Texas, where I spent 17 years as a member of the faculty at the University of Texas. The struggle to succeed at a huge and in many ways inhumane university, although it was successful, was one of the factors that led to the failure of my first marriage. In 1988 I left UT for St. John's College, Annapolis, and in 1989 I came to Hamilton along with my wife, who is also a member of the faculty.
Utica, where I live today, is barely an hour's drive from Syracuse, but the city of my youth remains an infinite distance away, forever beyond my reach. Books, the Jesuits, and a college and university education changed me forever, making it impossible for me to "go back home." A mixed blessing, to be sure, but a blessing nonetheless.
(Those interested in some earlier reflections on this subject are invited to read Carl A. Rubino, "Alternative Universes: Literature, Ethics, and the American Dream," America 157.1 [11.7.87], 332-337).