Luc L. Lavier

As Interviewed by Theo Lavier, March 10, 2012

Luc L. Lavier: In His Own Words

At the time when I went to school, I lived in a small apartment in the city of Dijon very close to the center, actually. It was under the roof and it was quite nice, but it was very small. We had a one-bedroom apartment for 4 people, my brother and I shared a bedroom and my parents used a fold-up bed in the living room. We had a small bathroom and kitchen.

I wasn't poor but I was lower middle class. We were not really poor and in the 70s in France, lower middle class meant that you had health care and you were going to school for free so it was a pretty equal society. Like all my friends who were from the same area, we all believed that because our parents were working class, we would be, too. And the teacher just believed the same thing. The teacher didn't say that because I was lower middle class. It's not like he was mean, it was just a belief in the society.

My parents always supported my education but they didn't understand why I cared so much about education. When you have nobody in the family who has ever been to college it is hard to imagine what higher education is. They couldn't support me very well because of that but at the end they supported me going to the next city to get better education.

Well I felt bad about it [unequal opportunity in school]. I felt like I was undermined, diminished by it because it was said in front of the classroom and my schoolmates. But at the same time even though I felt bad about it I always felt that I was better than the future the society assigned to me. I would do better than that. The teacherís words didnít really mean anything, I could always do better than what people were saying to me.

These stereotypes were part of the culture of the 70s; teachers were not educated in the same way. There was a lot of indifference in the classroom and if you got a bad grade you got a bad grade and that was it. If you were stupid you were stupid and that was it. There was little support for children with difficulties at school. This situation was made worse for me by the fact that my family had a history of anxiety. My mother was orphaned at 12 years old and so she never had any education. My father came from a huge family of 12 kids with no education at all. Our anxiety was amplified through the family because my father and mother were anxious about providing for us. When he was a kid after the war he had to dig in the trash to find food. And my mother was anxious because she had to care for herself at a very young age.

All this anxiety was translated as insecurity and amplified at school. There was always verbal abuse, or bullying, because I was claiming that I would make it and so people thought I was crazy. There was no awareness of bullying at that time, and every day there was verbal bullying and we expressed many stereotypes. For example, we were always thinking that the rich were smelling of flowers and weak. We called them sissies for getting better education.

For some reason I always found the strength to overcome these obstacles. I always had a passion for something whether it is building a car or an airplane or looking for frogs or fossils and I always had something linking me to science and I always had a drive inside me and things just happened to get me here.

I never give up and success is an addiction like getting a baccalaureate. Going to University and ending up at Columbia University in New York for my Ph.D. were all small miracles. Nothing ever stopped me, there was a lot of luck involved.

However I failed the first 2 years of college and in my first two years in Columbia I had a depression because I didn't know what I was doing there. I had such different fundamentals as a kid and suddenly having to change them for an educational career was a big change for me.

In France, they finally gave me a chance and I found someone to help me get this position at Columbia University. In the US if you're good you're good they don't give a damn if you're rich or poor. You get treated the same as everyone else. In France they saw an opportunity but they gave it to me very late.

It is safe to say I lived through a social injustice but it is not something you are aware of. It is a hidden injustice buried in the very fabric of the society. People are not aware of it because this is just the way we live.

There was a socioeconomic wall of separation in the community because there was and there always will be inequality in the society. At the time, the civil injustice in the society was based on your socioeconomic status and there are people now from North Africa who have to live through the same thing. Even worst, they are isolated in their communities and they have no outside examples and few successful individuals to use as example or comparison.