Hyphen Flint

by James o'dea

My professor wants to be gentle. But she’s a philosopher and can’t ignore the truth. “It’s tough to get out of Flint,” she tells us. “You know it is.”

What she doesn’t know is that in 1936, my great grandfather—the first of four consecutive James O’Deas—sat down in a factory not far from here. He sat for workers’ rights in a strike that birthed unionization and made blue-collar life viable. He sat so the dignity of common men might not be completely lost on those running the machines of power.

But now I have to hear about looks my professor gets at conferences, when others see the name on her nametag: University of Michigan -Flint.

The -Flint separates her from the legitimate intellectuals of richer schools. It strips her of prestige. The Ann Arbor tags have no hyphen. They say, simply, University of Michigan. They are the real academics. They are original and pure, not a spurious, hyphenated subspecies.

“It’s the letterhead you have to overcome,” she says. This is not her usual seminar; this is more serious than Hegel. She feels responsible for reminding those who might have forgotten. The Ivy Leagues don’t want us, the blue-collar rabble of a -Flint school. The -Flint is an obscene addition to the sanctified University of Michigan name, a heinous enough blasphemy to condemn even the most hopeful graduate school applications. She explains how we must market ourselves as exceptions to their rule, as -Flint students worth taking a chance on. Every letter of recommendation must be thoroughly convincing; every bullet-point on our resume must reassure them. We promise not to make you look bad. That is the only way to overcome the -Flint.

It wasn’t until I lived in Michigan that I began to understand the gravity of Flint’s stigma. The Browns have been in Flint since 1914, but I was 12 by the time my parents moved back to where they’d been raised. I haven’t experienced real Flint hardships; I didn’t grow up in fear of escalating violence or rampant unemployment. My parents made the safe choice to move to Grand Blanc—a suburban haven for the upper middle-class. I was not prepared for the disdain my classmates would have for Flint. A classic utterance was, “I don’t want to go to Flint. I’ll get shot.”

James O'Dea in Flint

During my elementary school years in Alabama, we would spend vacations in Flint, visiting my cousins and grandparents. As a kid, I idolized the city (and the rest of Michigan) as the location of my family’s history, the true land of my people. Sure, I was raised on dark jokes about Flint’s crime rates and its placement atop the lists of America’s most dangerous cities. But I could never fully separate Flint from the parts of me it contained. To me, the city itself felt like a distant relative—something I loved arbitrarily and unconditionally—built-in affection.

That’s why I wouldn’t go to Harvard if they paid me. I refuse to look up to those who would look down on my -Flint. I’d tell them to take my friend, Zach, who tends to his studies better than parents tend their children, and who trudges through a quagmire of busyness to add honors to his resume. He sends papers to scholarly journals and wears suits to class cleaner than any I’ve owned. He tutors, runs two student organizations, and is currently helping design studies for Flint’s Insight Institute of Neurosurgery and Neuroscience. Still, some professors advise him to not even attempt the Big Name grad schools. But he craves the esteemed validation of an Oxford or a Princeton. Zach didn’t get into Ann Arbor. His -Flint was an unfortunate back-up plan.

I was not always aware of my compassion for Flint. I only stumbled into the university after an abrupt change of direction. I’d been accepted to study culinary arts at a school near Detroit when I decided to pursue the more intellectual “liberal” education. I narrowly slipped in my application before the deadline and was later called about a scholarship. It was an honor to be offered anything from anyone. Still, I felt guilty knowing that so many others, without parents as financially stable as mine, were more deserving of the money. After all, I hadn’t even applied to any other schools; they didn’t need to persuade me. But it was this school that kept me in Flint and made me want to defend the city. It was a crucial part of why I embraced my calling to bring Flint back.

When I told my high school teachers my plan to revive Flint, the usual response was a grin and a chuckle—like how you’d respond to a little boy who promises to grow up to be an astronaut and a cowboy. But most of them at least seemed to admire my passion and optimism—the same lack of apathy that alienated me from so many of my peers. The good teachers were the one redeeming factor of a high school (and town) well known for being spoiled, snobbish and fake. In Grand Blanc, your GPA wasn’t as much an indicator of your future university as was the label on your clothes.

When I told people my school of choice, their faces seem to say, That’s it? (Or, You have to stay home? Poor thing.) Nobody thought it was cool. Nobody congratulated me on getting in. Nobody got excited like they did for those going to the other University of Michigan. I overheard classmates justifying their -Flint: explaining that they’d be transferring after the first year, wanted to get their Gen Eds out of the way, and would save a ton of money staying home. Although most of them assured me that UM-Flint was a “great school,” I couldn’t help sensing that even a few of my teachers had somehow expected better of me.

That was before I started hearing horror stories of aborted opportunities, of -Flint applications guillotined on sight without a trial. The tales create images in my head of a stuffy tweed-clad man, trashing -Flint applicants without a second guess, refusing to hear their cases.

Then I think about how much worse it must be for the Mott students. Their -Flint bleeds deeper than the ink on our diplomas. Their -Flint is implied; it doesn’t have to be stated. Their school’s name doesn’t need the explicit -Flint disclaimer. It’s already understood that their education is from the bargain bin. The name brand schools won’t trust it. Community college is a -Flint unto itself.

But the stories don’t scare me. I do not share Zach’s desire or my professor’s concern. I have no desire to overcome my -Flint; my -Flint is my inheritance. I refuse to consider it a disability. My name has been aligned with this city for almost a century. I do not wish to wrench free of my historic roots.

I will not forget how James Joseph O’Dea sat in that factory, so I could sit in these classrooms. So his work, and the work of the next two James O’Deas, could one day provide me the elusive opportunity of a higher education. This is why I have to rescue Flint. No matter how much it struggles, it will always be the fossilized dream of my ancestors. If someday I have to leave—like my father did—I, too, will come back. I will not abandon this city or my intention of restoring its past glory. By now it should be clear: I don’t want out.