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Adam Seering

A Comparison

  In the story Our Time, Wideman presents himself as an educated man, one above and aloof from the horrors of everyday life; a man grown separate, from his brother in particular, but also from his family as a whole.  A very similar story is told by Richard Rodriguez; in his many stories, he describes how his separation from his family came about, and what it means to his life today.  But their lives are otherwise entirely different.  Rodriguez is from a family-oriented hispanic immigrant community; none of his family even knew English for the first years of his life, but at least they all knew el espaņol together.  Wideman grew up in "the GHETTO" (707), a place that "represent[s] rebellion" from social norms, that is strife with crime and drugs, but that already has, clearly defined, its own "private ... [and] public individuality" (Norton 577).  The fact that these two entirely different people have experienced this same separation from their families implies that such a separation is universal, that it is, as we discussed in class, a necesary part of growing and learning.  But from my own experience, I would disagree.  I have not seen, in my own life, this kind of separation; if anything, growing up has brought me closer to my family.  So why is this? What is it that makes this experience universal to some, yet seemingly incomprehensible for others? There must be some common experience, something shared by some yet not by all, that forms the root cause of this experience of separation.

  And despite their apparent differences, Wideman and Rodriguez do have much in common.  In fact, their lives are very nearly identical, with the exception of one wildcard: Wideman's brother, Robby.  Robby's actions are the cause of "[his] Mom's devastating unhappiness" (Ways 714), and eventually they tear the whole family apart.  But before Garth dies, before Robby becomes a criminal, Wideman lives a life separate from, disconnected from, the rest of his family.  He didn't realize for a long time "how much [his] mother had begun to change" (716), how the life of the rest of the family was tearing her apart, making her a bitter person.  He "was two thousand miles away" (714); he was no longer an integral part of the family.  Rodriguez, in comparison, focuses almost solely on this separation; the "separation [that] will unravel" (Ways 625) between him and his family.  Both Rodriguez and Wideman have come to regret this separation; Rodriguez, because it destroyed his "private individuality" (Norton 577), and Wideman because it destroyed his brother, Robby.  Both Rodriguez and Wideman also focus on this separation, on their regret about this separation; this preocupation has become a major defining factor in both of their lives.

  Language is another thing that Rodriguez and Wideman have in common.  Language or, more specifically, the lack thereof, is yet another wedge used to drive them apart from their respective families.  Rodriguez's conflict is right up by the surface: He thinks in English; his parents think in Spanish.  They can try to communicate, but "lacking the same words to develop our sentences and to shape our interests, what [would there be] to say?" (630) Wideman's lack of language is more subtle.  He does not have to deal with the complexities in translating between two native tounges; he merely has to translate within one.  He has lost the ability to understand the nuanced language of his family, the hidden meanings, the shared references that all families share.  When his brother tells the story of Garth's death, "[s]omething about [Robby's] voice struck [Wideman] then, but [he] missed what was novel and crucial" (721).  For both of them, there is a private language that corresponds with their "private individuality"; both of them have lost this private language, and this loss has only amplified their collective feelings of separation.

  But none of these ideas really answer the original question: what makes this experience of separation universal for them? The one thing that they most share, aside from their separation from their families, is their experience of change.  Rodriguez was forced to change his language, his culture, to become a capable student.  Although he does not say it outright, it seems to me that Wideman must have gone through a similar transition; the living-in-the-moment gangster lifestyle of his youth (he, just like Robby, "had some [brushes with the law]" (714) in his younger days) is hardly conducive to the life of a grown, seemingly well-balanced college-educated man that he has entered into.  Both of these changes are moves away from the life of the family, towards some future, new life; both of them were necesary, to enable both Rodriguez and Wideman to continue to develop and grow, in the way that they each want to grow.  So this kind of family separation is caused by one's need to grow and develop in ways not within the current realm of the family.

  This is, I believe, why the family separation experienced by Rodriguez and Wideman is not universal: some people, for whatever reason, simply don't develop in ways entirely outside the realm of their family.  Such a situation is entirely possible; I would say, for example, that it is true of me.  In my family, there is precedent for virtually all forms of intellectual activity.  I have no one to "read... the instructions [of my homework], each time more deliberately" (Norton 622); I have, instead, someone to say "Oh, yeah.  I never liked the way they do that.  Try it this way...".  For some people, the divergence from their families is inevitable, but for others, it is unattainable.

  So the great experience of divergence is not guaranteed for all people.  But for Wideman and Rodriguez, it was, and is, a fact of life.  Although Wideman focuses more on the errant actions of his brother in this story, both he and Rodriguez embody the "scholarship boy", the persona that encourages and induces their separation from family.  This is the purpose, at least to a degree, of both of their stories.  Neither of them would be facing life from the angle at which they are now were they not "scholarship boys".  This, at one level at least, is the message of each of these writers: their separation from their families, for better or for worse, has led them to where they are today.