A Sheep Herder's Kid: Making It in America
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
I grew up in Brea Canyon on a sheep ranch about twenty-five miles out of town. No telephone, no paved roads, no road signs directing friends to our house. We lived so far out of town that my brother and sister and I were the only kids in our school with daily “limo service.” A station wagon painted school-bus yellow drove us to and from school every day. As a kid, it felt like we were getting special treatment. Only as an adult did I realize that we were so isolated that the big school buses could not have navigated the road to our house.
What my folks talked about was "making it in America." Dad used to say, "If you want to make it in America, you got to go to school."
Neither of my parents attended college. In fact, my father never attended school at all. "Not one day in a school room, or even in Sunday school," he used to say. "We were too poor to go to school. We had to work." He was the youngest in his family and knew from childhood that the oldest child would inherit the farm. The others would have to find livelihoods elsewhere.
At twelve years old, my father left Arrieta, his small Basque village perched in the hills about an hour's walk from the Bay of Biscay, to take a job as a cabin boy on a ship in the Spanish merchant marines. He shined shoes, washed clothes, cooked meals, and washed dishes for four years. At age sixteen, his ship made a stop in New York harbor and he decided to jump off and head for Idaho in search of his two older brothers. This, he thought, was his chance to start a new life and make it in America.
After working as a sheep herder in Idaho for a few years, my father made his way to Los Angeles. That was where he met my mother and her parents. They had come to America when she was a toddler, built a sheep ranch, and put my mother and her brother through public school.
This was the sheep ranch I grew up on—where I lived with my parents, my aunt and uncle, four or five sheepherders and ranch hands, and my brother and sister. Conversations at the dinner table, held in Spanish, English and at least a couple of Basque dialects, rarely included talk of school or college. Only a few of these adults finished high school and most had grown up in the Basque region in circumstances similar to my dad's. What my folks talked about was "making it in America." Dad used to say, "If you want to make it in America, you got to go to school." For some reason I always thought he meant we had to go to college. In looking back, I can see that my brother and sister thought he meant high school.
Dad was one of those self-taught men who often surprised me with all that he knew. Without formal schooling, he taught himself to speak, read, and write in English and Spanish. When he jumped ship in New York, he only spoke Basque—a language very few people this side of the Atlantic speak. Yet, when equipment needed repairs at the ranch, he re-engineered the machine or invented new tools to deal with the problem. He designed gismos to trim trees, to hold his fishing pole and ring when his line had a bite, and even built a buggy for me and my Great Dane, Major, to ride around the ranch in, like a princess in her chariot.
In my earliest years in school, I rolled along earning Cs and not paying much attention to coursework. I liked school because I could be around kids my age. It wasn’t until the seventh grade that I felt good about the school part of school. Miss Little, my English teacher, loved to talk about English, loved her job, laughed a lot, and was kind to all of us. She thought learning was fun, and she acted like I was good at it. In her gentle way, she helped me realize that I was not speaking and writing English correctly. I was mismatching subjects with verb tenses in sentences. For some reason unknown to me, but for which I have always been grateful, she took an interest in me. I suspect she realized that I was hearing two to four languages at home, and that it might be tough for me to figure out which forms of English to use in school.
One day, when I was in her room working on an English assignment, she asked me a few questions about the sheep ranch. “I grew up around sheep in Colorado and loved it,” she said. “Would you mind if I drive you home? I’d like to see your sheep.” I was petrified. I’d never brought friends home, let alone a teacher! But out of respect to Miss Little, I agreed to the ride. On the way, we talked about being Basque, about sheep, and about my family. When we got there, I introduced her to my mom and gladly left them alone to talk.
I have no idea what transpired in their conversation, but from that day on Miss Little became my mentor. She and my mom, I suspect, formed some pact that neither of them would ever confess. Whatever it was, it was a turning point for me. I changed from a coasting, C student to a straight A student in one semester and I earned an A in every course from that point on until I entered college.
I decided to apply to the University of California at Irvine and was accepted. Moving into the dorms was exciting, scary, and a little intimidating. Suddenly, instead of the rustic isolation of the ranch and my parents’ rules, I was living on a beautiful, modern campus with my own phone and freedom to plan my days as I wished.
While moving into the dorms, I noticed that I was the only person arriving by myself. Everyone else had moms, dads, brothers and sisters who were carting clothes, stereos, and TVs up and down the stairs. I hadn’t even thought to invite my parents. Even if I had considered it, I knew they would have been too intimidated to enter the unfamiliar world of the university. Besides, I was having trouble adjusting to the idea of moving away and thought big kids did this on their own! This was my toughest day in college. I was alone, on my own, with strangers and without loved ones to confide in. Mom and Dad wanted me to attend college, and they wanted me to be successful, but this was not their world. They were counting on me to figure it out. As the semester progressed, and I was having a hard time in my freshman psychobiology course, I couldn’t call my parents and tell them. They wouldn’t have understood what I was going through, or so I thought.
Within a few months, life got better. I discovered that the other students were just as nervous as I was. They were insecure too. Four years later, when I was about to graduate with a degree in history and humanities, I had to persuade Mom and Dad to attend commencement. Somehow I convinced them and they came. Walking up to them after commencement was one of the proudest and humblest moments of my life. It was the first time my parents had set foot on a university campus. In my eyes, this was their triumph. They knew their youngest was going to make it in America.