Ben Farmer at 19, steering his silver Camaro Z28 down Main Street on a Friday night, glances at the Dairy Freeze and thinks about the buddies he graduated from high school with last year. They're off at college, probably partying tonight, the beer, the girls, at Virginia Tech, Radford, wherever.
He passes a karate studio, beauty supply store and boarded-up movie theater with a marquee begging passersby to "Shop Altavista First."
He could be at college. He had the grades, he's got the brains, but here he is, listening to the cough in his 330-horsepower engine and worrying about his spark plugs.
"There was a lot of unknowns about college," he says after he thinks about it. "It was going to be this big, tough, hard, hard time in which all you'd do is write papers, which I don't like to do." So for now he assembles air conditioning ducts in a factory, for $7 an hour, which is as much as his mother makes in her new job at the bank, her first sit-down job in all the years she's been raising him.
Nobody in his family ever went to any kind of college. His mom wanted him to go. She helped him with the application and the financial aid forms. But he didn't go, he took a $7 job in a town with a lot of $7 jobs, a little river town in central Virginia, where the Southern railroad met the Norfolk and Western, spawning a furniture factory, textile mill and other small manufacturers.
Ten to 12 hours a day, he hammers sheet metal, then goes home to shower off the dirt and fibers. Some nights he heads out to the driving range to hit golf balls. Weekends, he drives over to South Boston to watch guys do what he would like most to do, race stock cars. He has thought about signing on with a NASCAR pit crew, a great job except you're never home.
Altavista is home. He knows everybody, he's already got a job, and now he's met a girl, named Apryl East. He's having visions of a little house one day with a two-car garage, "going to work and going on vacation, not worrying where your next meal is coming from."
So now he's thinking of asking his boss at Moore's, an electrical and mechanical construction firm, if the company will pay him to take night classes at the local community college and then move him indoors to a better-paying job, a sit-down job. Apryl, who goes to Virginia Tech, encourages this line of thinking.
The Graduates The fall after Ben and 70 others graduated from the local high school, 2.5 million American seniors enrolled in either a two-year or a four-year college.
Almost a million did not. They were overwhelmingly poor, male and white. Much to the surprise of social scientists who traditionally have looked for educational problems among minorities, low-income black and Hispanic men are more likely to go to college right out of high school than white guys like Ben. So are young women of any background. If Ben had a twin sister, she'd likely be enrolled.
There are Ben Farmers all over: in the coal towns of Pennsylvania, the suburban sprawl west of Sacramento and especially in the rural South. They've always been there, hidden in the pockets of America where they pump gas, assemble machine parts and put their pay on the family's kitchen table. They do work that needs to be done -- building houses, running backhoes, riveting airplanes, surveying land and fixing the BMWs of upscale college types who occasionally might call them rednecks. America might well lose all its advanced-degree business school graduates with less pain than it would lose these young men.
They're proud of the work they do. At the same time, they've found it harder and harder to acquire full-time jobs with decent pay increases and good health insurance. Their earnings, adjusted for inflation, have fallen or stalled. Altavista, population 3,400, has several thousand people commuting there to work, so there are jobs. But fewer and fewer: Altavista has lost 1,300 jobs in a little over a year.
Other young Altavista men in Ben's position fear they're headed nowhere in a society that prefers paper-pushers to pipe fitters. They don't want to manage accounts payable for a living, or scan X-rays for cancerous tumors. They're proud of doing hard, physical work. But people around them say that white-collar jobs, available only with a college diploma, are the only way to win at life. This attitude, says Patricia Gandara, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis, can make these young white men feel invisible.
"Latinos and African Americans have horrendous problems, too, but at least they have a group identity," says Gandara, who studies low-income, primarily minority youths. "These poor white males don't know where in the culture they fit. Some are really alienated and angry."
Ken Gray, a professor of workforce education at Pennsylvania State University, worries about them, too. "No one's interested in the Bubbas," he says.
Ben is no Bubba, more an easygoing, smart kid with a goatee and a vague future. Off work, he wears American Eagle polo shirts, khakis and Nike sandals.
"You see these clothes I'm wearing?" he asks. "I bought them. These shoes I'm wearing? I bought them. That car out there? I'm paying for it."
It's a matter of pride and obligation that richer people can't understand.
He has friends whose parents pay their school expenses, their apartment rent. One of his pals lives off campus in a nice two-bedroom apartment with a big leather couch and an air hockey table.
"On some days I wish I were him," Ben says. On other days? All he'll say about his buddy is this: "If you asked him how much his cell phone bill is, he wouldn't know."
Ben's a guy whose mother taught him to "always keep good credit and pay your bills on time." You get his drift.
His father, Walter, a truck driver who left Ben and Ben's mom when Ben was 3, hasn't played much of a role in his life. But Walter's parents, Marvin and Frances, sure have. Until his early teens, he'd spend the school months in Altavista with his mom, Patsy Moore, and all summer with Marvin and Frances, big NASCAR fans who followed the circuit.
"I think I disappointed Granny the most not going to college, and Mom second," he says.
His mom, eating dinner with Ben in his favorite restaurant, El Cazador, says she's still wondering why he didn't go to college. Hasn't he learned from her example?
Researchers would say that some kids never want to venture much farther along life's path than did the people they know and love best. Moore, a sweet woman of 42, doesn't understand this, as she explains to Ben over a taco salad that he helped her choose.
"You've seen me struggle from week to week," she says. "You can't want that."
No, he doesn't want that. But what does he want? More pressing still, what can he realistically expect to attain?
A Car Guy Ben has loved hot rods since he was a baby. He ran Matchbox cars over his grandmother's rug for hours at a time before he could walk, and as he got older he took up dirt bikes with a bunch of boys his age who lived in the country near his granny.
"We stayed outside all the time," he recalls.
As they got older, their little group carved a dirt track in woods of scrub pine and began racing cars and trucks. Ben's two best friends eventually acquired race cars and the gang started spending time at Big Daddy's South Boston Speedway, a NASCAR-sanctioned short track. Ben began to dream of becoming another Tony Stewart or a pit crew chief.
His teachers couldn't understand this fascination. He's such a good student, they'd sigh, as if you couldn't be interested in both math and Chevys, which happen to have a serious relationship through mechanical engineering. He pulled down A's and B's in high school, taking calculus and Latin. But his teachers didn't foresee a career in engineering, they just seemed to see a car-crazy kid.
One problem they didn't count on: His friends' families all had more money than his, and to dress the way they did and do the things they did, Ben had to get a job.
So at age 15 he found one at the Amoco Food Shop south of town. He stopped playing high school basketball and started stocking shelves. Making money became something of an obsession. Not big money, though. That would have required college.
When Ben's friends started talking about four-year colleges, Ben would go silent. When they took the SAT in their junior year, Ben didn't. "I thought to myself, where would I find the money?"
His mom encouraged him to try a two-year school, and so he got an application to Danville Community College. But his heart wasn't in it. The message of his guidance counselor and some of his teachers, he says, was that four-year colleges or universities were the only goal worth aiming for.
Those who hold bachelor's degrees have a hard time understanding why anyone wouldn't want one. At Ben's high school, administrators took pride in the fact that they send proportionately more graduates to four-year colleges than other schools in the area. They talked about former students who chose Columbia, Duke or the University of Virginia. For Ben, even $8,000 to $10,000 a year for in-state tuition, room and board didn't seem in the cards.
Other young men in Ben's position report similar experiences.
"They were good at giving out papers to kids going to college, but didn't pay no attention to students going to community college," says Jason Spence, who makes bulletproof vests on the night shift at BGF Industries. Jason and Ben both remember sitting through school assemblies where the same students won award after award, scholarship after scholarship -- to four-year schools.
Ben's mother recognized she needed someone to help jump-start her son, but when she sought out school authorities, she says, she received only an offhand kind of attention. "I'd never done this before. They told me I could take Ben to Danville and Lynchburg. It wasn't very helpful."
Ben says he asked at school if, on career day, organizers could bring in someone who worked in the racing industry. With several local drivers around, it would have been easy to find someone, but nothing happened.
"You feel like kind of an outsider," he says.
He might not have felt that way a decade ago, because young men and young women here could still come right out of high school and go to work for family-run industries offering decent starting wages and chances for promotion.
They didn't need higher education to enjoy job security at places like Lane Furniture, famous for its cedar chests. But once the Lane family lost direct control of the company in the late 1980s, things started to change. Gradually the manufacturing of cedar chests and dining sets moved to the cheap labor market of China, and fewer and fewer workers filled the million-square-foot brick and wood complex that had dominated, indeed was, Altavista's skyline.
Last year, on Aug. 31, the last hope chest rolled off the assembly line. Other industries in the area started folding or cutting back, and by this past spring, the unemployment rate in central Virginia had hit a 10-year high. When a health supplements lab in town advertised for 40 new jobs, the cars lined up for interviews the first morning snaked for blocks through town.
Ben worried about his mother -- she'd get a job, then be laid off under a last-hired, first-fired policy. "She's had a string of bad luck," he says.
Rather then head for college in the hope of improving their chances for a good job, Ben and other young men like him sought out jobs right away that offered health insurance, pension plans and savings programs.
Max Everhart, who lives around the corner from Ben, was one of them. Also a bright young man, he went to work at a machine bearings plant for $10 an hour plus benefits. "It's a good job," Max says. "I'm lucky to have it."
Ben felt the same way when he got hired four months ago at Moore's. With 300 employees, it's one of the few companies in town that is growing. In its vast, open garage he bends, shapes and glues ducts with men like Smoky Hudson and Melvin Mann, who have been doing this kind of work for 30 years. He has learned to respect them.
These guys "really work for their money," he says. "They get their hands dirty."
T.O. Rowland, a 33-year-old welder at Moore's, tells Ben he earns as much money as his wife, a schoolteacher with a master's degree. This makes Ben wonder again: Why do people make such a big deal over college?
This is a question that resonates only in some quarters of the educational establishment.
Ken Gray, the Penn State professor, says: "The real opportunities for youth are grossly distorted by colleges. Seventy-one percent of jobs don't require anything beyond a high school education."
But that doesn't mean people can't or shouldn't keep learning, acquiring new skills. In Altavista, Central Virginia Community College runs a satellite center in the former Lane executive building here. The idea is to reach people in high-layoff areas. Center director Linda Rodriguez says the response from older workers, especially older female workers, has been terrific.
But young men like Ben aren't coming in.
When she approached high school authorities about coming to visit classes, she was met with some of the same lack of enthusiasm for community college that Ben's mom did. School authorities said there was no time in the calendar for her visits -- the students were too busy taking tests -- and offered a one-time assembly instead.
The Future One evening last winter, as Ben arrived at the Amoco store to start his shift, the store manager pushed a paper napkin over to him across the counter. "Someone left this for you," he said.
On the napkin next to the beef jerky, the name Apryl East was scribbled along with a phone number. Ben smiled, remembering the blonde with the cornflower-blue eyes and infectious laugh who had stopped by a couple of weeks earlier. She was after him. Sweet.
Eight months later, the blonde is riding with him in his Camaro as they return from a football game between his old high school and hers in nearby Gretna, where she led cheers and played piccolo in the marching band. Now she's a senior at Virginia Tech, planning on teaching elementary school.
Apryl swears that her best friend left the napkin without her knowledge. Ben doesn't know whether to believe her but he also doesn't care.
He eventually did call her, they went out to a movie. Now a wallet photo of the two of them is propped next to the odometer in his beloved car.
Increasingly, their conversation involves the years to come, and tonight is no exception. Ben ran into a guy at the game whose girlfriend is taking courses in motorcar management at a community college.
"That kinda makes me want to try it," he tells Apryl.
He could choose to stay on at Moore's and go to school at the same time, "maybe get a job on computers" at Moore's. He also has had a couple of conversations with NASCAR driver Stacy Compton. Perhaps, while he's still young, he should just chuck everything -- except Apryl -- and enlist Compton's help signing on with a racing crew. The sponsors and money for his own car might follow.
"I am so not sure," he says.
Apryl has accepted his confusion, for now.
"I'd like you to go to college," she tells Ben, "but it's okay with me if you don't."
Her three best friends are all at different universities. But neither her dad, a supervisor at Moore's, nor her mom, a secretary in a printing shop, attended college, and they've been happy together. From what she has observed at home, college isn't crucial to the married life she dreams of.
What is important, she has told Ben gently, is that he get his behind in gear. He can always try one avenue and move to another if he doesn't like it. He's not yet 20, she reminds him.
Where will he find the motivation?
"From me," she says. She laughs but she's serious. "I'm going to get out of college, come back home and tell him to do it. I can be his little mentor."
A few hours before Ben picks her up for the game, over lunch at a downtown diner, she admits that when she learned that Ben wasn't in college, "I was shocked. I told my mom he didn't get the right kind of guidance."
So why does she stick with him? "He's got a great personality. He's funny." Unlike her previous boyfriend, "he treats me well. Oh, and another thing I like about him? My dad and he have bonded. He says when we have kids, he wants to be the kind of dad he never had."
She takes a breath, then adds, "Ben's everything I ever wanted." She laughs again, then cups her hand over her mouth as if she has revealed just a little too much.