Reading Guide

A Practical Reading Guide

For Professors and Reading Groups

Scratch Beginnings:
Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream

By Adam Shepard

About this Guide

It is a question that looms over American culture. Whether discussed directly or inadvertently, it remains the same: Is the American Dream still alive?

Millions of Americans fight every day to find the answer to that question. Scratch Beginnings is one man’s attempt at making that discovery for himself. In his fascinating, informative, no-holds-barred account, Adam Shepard went undercover with $25 and the clothes on his back in a random city. Prohibited from using previous contacts or his education, Shepard sets the goal that in one year he will have $2500, a car, a furnished apartment, and, most importantly, he must be in a position where he can continue to improve his circumstances by either going to school or starting his own business.

Living in a variety of venues – including Charleston’s homeless shelter and an attic-turned-bedroom – Shepard gains valuable insight into a world in which he had otherwise been removed. Throughout his experience, he is able to make several discoveries which may have been anticipated, while also drawing conclusions that were clearly unexpected.

The Practical Reading Guide provides an opportunity for reading groups to discuss pressing issues in today’s volatile economy, while also offering high school teachers and college professors the opportunity to create a dialogue among their students. The questions that follow are intended to strengthen one’s understanding of a world with which some of us can identify while others may never be so unfortunate to inhabit.

1. As part of his premise, Shepard offers the idea that he will not be able to use his educational background. In your opinion, how does his educational background come into play (if at all) throughout the course of the book? Is his college degree useful while he is performing blue-collar jobs and enforcing spending and savings tactics to get him out of his present circumstance?

2. From the beginning, Shepard establishes a contrast to Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. If you have read her book, analyze the difference in attitudes of each of these authors as depicted in their respective narrative accounts of the vitality of the American Dream.

3. Shepard asserts early on that he is not an author or a journalist. Do you think that this declaration adds to his story or takes away from it? Does being a “regular guy” add to the credibility of his story? Or not?

4. While perhaps a victim of his own naiveté, Shepard doesn’t appear nervous as he walks down Rivers Avenue late on his first night in Charleston. Discuss what your reaction might be to being dropped in an unknown city, by yourself, where you don’t know anybody.

5. Shepard spends 70 days in Charleston’s homeless shelter where he meets a variety of people including both his “fair share of laggards and old, bearded men with whiskey on their breath” as well as guys that he didn’t think “even existed in those shelters.” Discuss our perceptions of the homeless and our perceptions of those that live in poverty. How do we justify those perceptions?

6. Perhaps the greatest shock for Shepard is the trouble that he had finding a job. He could have taken the job at the car wash or the restaurant, but he decided to hold out for something better, eventually finding work as a mover at Fast Company. Was his struggle finding a job unique? Is it enough for us to fill out applications around town or is it necessary to develop extraordinary strategies as Shepard did with his speech to Curtis, where he offered his services for free for a day?

7. Peppered throughout Scratch Beginnings are stories of the people that Shepard met along the way, stories of guys that were up to no good from the start and stories of guys that had simply been dealt a rough hand of cards in their lives. Discuss how their reactions to facing adversity shape who they become and how those reactions may or may not set the course for their future. What is society’s responsibility to guys like the one that Shepard met in the shelter who had been run over by a drunk driver? How does accountability for one’s actions and reactions figure into such scenarios? Have you ever had a time when you faced adversity, forced to make a decision on whether to stay strong or give up?

8. Near the end of Shepard’s time in the shelter, Rico and “Easy E” head to Florida for a six-month drug rehab program in affiliation with one of the local churches. What is your opinion on the fact that the two of them decided it was time for them to shape up, whereas other guys simply accepted their fate as the “filth on the bottom floor of life's social structure"? Why do some eventually get “it,” while others don’t?

9. Moving furniture is a demanding occupation. It can be argued that Shepard accepted a job in the most difficult blue-collar profession he could have possibly chosen. How does this play into his story? Did he have an advantage because of his work ethic or is that the whole point – that we can choose to work hard and remain disciplined, and eventually we will emerge triumphant from a lower class lifestyle?

10. In order to accomplish his goals, Shepard develops thrifty spending habits and aggressive saving techniques. “Every $5 and $10 I could save might not matter so much for that one day, but it would be so valuable in the long run,” he says. Is it really that easy? Isn’t it difficult to quit smoking, shopping for unnecessary items, or supplying oneself with the entertainment to which he or she has become so accustomed? Discuss the sacrifices that Shepard made in realizing a successful journey.

11. Shepard is torn about his feelings for the owner of Fast Company: he wants him to run a successful operation, but he is not impressed with his hands-off leadership style. Do you see that as a serious issue in today’s American economy, owners and managers that expect their businesses to run efficiently while they observe from afar? Is this a fair way for things to operate? After all, owners and managers have worked hard and earned an education to obtain their status in life. Who suffers as a result of these faulty management techniques?

12. Throughout his narrative, Shepard writes about his being an outcast. He initially has trouble fitting in at the shelter, his goofiness tends to work against him at Fast Company (his work attire, in particular) and on the dance floor, and the obvious cultural differences between he and BG lead to a physical altercation in chapter fifteen. Does being a supposed outcast work for him or against him throughout his story? See if you can argue both sides.

13. Along those same lines, Shepard discusses the need for more “neighborhood heroes, more small timers stepping up – against the crowd – to show what it takes to embrace change.” While the course is set for Shepard to emerge as a working class hero in his book, Scratch Beginnings takes a different course, seeing Derrick Hale emerge as the champion. He works hard, is smart with his money, and he buys a house, despite a history of having come from economically impoverished Kingstree, SC and having served 24 months in prison. Does Derrick’s story give you hope that the American Dream is still alive or do you see his as just another, isolated situation?

14. Although he accomplished much more than he had set out to accomplish – and in a quicker amount of time – Shepard offers the idea that things might have been different if he had started in another city or town. Do you think his results would have been the same if he would have started in your community? Would his success have been more profound or would he have struggled to even find a job?

15. In comparing his outcome to what it might have been if he would have attempted his project elsewhere, Shepard remarks “that we live in the greatest country in the world.” Discuss how his project might have been different in another country – confronting substandard conditions as well language barriers and cultural differences – and then apply those thoughts to the recent wave of immigration in America.

16. In the epilogue, Shepard comments that “a hike in minimum wage is fun to talk about, but, in the end, economically speaking, it isn't a worthy option.” Discuss why he says this. Do you agree or disagree?

17. Also in the epilogue, Shepard offers seven solutions, institutional changes that can begin to alter the cycle of poverty. He notes that “these are not aggressive changes that will require massive funding.” Do you agree that these seven solutions are feasible options? Offer a solution of your own for discussion.

18. Near the conclusion, Shepard acknowledges that his project was not without its flaws. After all, he didn’t have kids to tow around and he says that he “got lucky working with the greatest mover on the planet.” How might his project have been different if he would have had other responsibilities to adhere to? In the end, is it fair for certain people – people that have had children out of wedlock, for example – to lean on others for support, those that have made more educated decisions? Or is it necessary for them to accept their plight and make the most of their situation?

19. After completing Scratch Beginnings, take a step back to reflect on Shepard’s study. He began with next to nothing, and, in the end, was prepared to confront the limitless opportunity that awaited him. Does his project give you even more hope for the vitality of the American Dream? Do you recognize, more so now than before, that some people are go-getters while others choose to squander opportunity that is placed directly in front of them? Does his story – along with the conclusions that he was able to draw – make you compelled to want to do something for someone less fortunate than yourself, to give a couple hours per week to someone who did not have the same opportunities that you may have had growing up?

Back to Home Page