Monday, March 07, 2005

Class Is in Session

Both Charlie and Bitch, Ph.D. have written recently about class--a subject dear to my heart as well. People like us--me, Charlie, Bitch, and probably quite a few others, I'm guessing, based on their writings (off the top of my head: bellatrys, tbogg, Suburban Guerilla, Flea)--occupy this liminal space in American culture, which provides an interesting perspective on society, politics, economics, you name it. I'll let them tell their own stories, but here's mine.

As I've said before, my parents' occupations were firmly working-class. My dad was a sheet metal worker (and union member) for 40 years, most of it in my maternal grandfather's mecahnical (sub)contracting business, and my mom was a secretary. My grandfather started the business selling large appliances and doing plumbing and heating in homes; they gradually dropped that side of the business and started doing schools and similar-sized projects in the early 1960s. When my grandfather wanted to retire, he turned the business over to my dad and my mother's brother, who was a plumber. My mother had an associate's degree, though she only went about 50 miles away for college. None of my grandparents had any higher education, and not all of them completed high school. My mother's brother graduated from college, though he made his living as a plumber, and his wife was a registered nurse, but otherwise I don't believe any of my aunts or uncles had any higher education, either.

This was all pretty typical for my hometown. There was one major industry, and some minor ones, and the popluation (of 18,000; the largest town in the county) mostly worked in those industries. There were farmers in neighboring counties, still, though that land has mostly been gobbled up for development by now, and there was a farmers' fair in my county every year. There were some "rich" kids in town, but these were mostly the sons and daughters of local doctors and lawyers, and therefore not overwhelmingly wealthy. (I believe that branchlets of the Colgate-Palmolive money and the Campbell Soup money lived in town, too, but even they went to the public schools.) There were also "projects" in town, and probably some bad areas, but, really, in a town of 18,000, how bad can it get? My parents had gone to grade school and/or high school with the parents of the kids with whom I went to school, and people therefore knew a lot about each other.

My parents insisted that we live well within our means, and even save money, and I knew that we weren't rich. My mother always shopped for bargains and stocked up on things like soap or toilet paper when they were on sale. We ate economically, which meant we didn't eat TV dinners or premade or single-portion meals, we froze and canned fruits and vegetables that we got from the farmers' market, and, when we could afford it, we bought a side of beef because it was cheaper, over the long run. We weren't allowed to go on the rides at the fair because they were too expensive. Despite these economies, I never thought of us as poor, either. We didn't go hungry, and we weren't afraid of going hungry, and there's a lot to be said for that, but I sensed that we didn't have the same kind of money as the doctors' and lawyers' kids.

My generation was probably the first from which a sizeable number of people would go to college. My parents fully expected that the three of us would go to college--the gnashing of teeth that ensued when my brother decided to become an auto mechanic was substantial--even though they had limited experience of it themselves. Most people went to nearby state schools or to community college, so my going to a small, private, liberal arts college (SPLAC) was odd (though I didn't realize that at the time). And how did I end up going there? Because my maternal grandfather, the anarchist, was associated for years with someone who edited an anarchist newspaper, and one of this man's sons was a professor at the college. The college had a well-deserved reputation for being liberal, and I figured if it was liberal, I'd like it. (I also remember being impressed that they included the Gay Union in the list of student organizations in the admissions brochure. Though I'm pretty straight, I figured that was a sign of their openness.) So did I pick this place after extensive research? No: it was because I'd heard of it at the yearly anarchist picnics and figured it was probably a good choice. It was, and I was extremely happy there, but my selection process bears no resemblance to the finely honed strategies of today, or, probably, even of the strategies at the time among the upper classes.

It's also worth including some of my parents' commentary from the time, because it was the first inkling I had that our situation was what I'm calling liminal. Of course I contemplated the Ivies--I knew I was smart, and I had good grades and test scores, so it's not out of the question that I could have gotten into one of them. My parents pointed out that many of my fellow students at the Ivies would be going off on fancy-ass trips and the like, and, although my parents would certainly help pay for tuition, they would be unable to fund my participation in the rich kids' social lives and that I'd likely feel left out. I realized my parents had a point, and I went to SPLAC quite happily. It turned out to be a perfect fit for me, so, basically, I lucked into a much better education than some parts of my background would suggest was likely. Yes, there were rich kids at SPLAC, too, but my first roommate came from a farming family from a teensy town in South Dakota, I knew a number of people not unlike me, there weren't any nearby places for the rich kids to have an extravagant social life, and the rich kids didn't flaunt their wealth, at least not in ways that were discernable to me.

After college, though, I had no clue how one did the next thing, or even how one chose what that next thing would or could be. I had no immediate plans for graduate school. I had done no internships. I had no contacts in any field that seemed likely or promising. I had absolutely no clue how one even got a job. When I was in high school and writing lame short stories, the biggest problem I had with my characters was figuring out what they did for a living. I had no clue what the real range of occupations was, or how one prepared to find them or enter them; clearly the problem persisted after I'd finished college. Thus, I moved to Philadelphia with my boyfriend, primarily because I couldn't think what else to do. (He was a year behind me in school, so he'd only be there for the summer, but his family was in Philadelphia.) What were my other options? Stay in tiny town where SPLAC was located? Why? Move back to hometown? No possible way. What else could I do? Of course, I had never lived anywhere larger than 18,000 people in my life, and had probably spent fewer than three weeks total in any city. I didn't know what I was qualified to do, and I had no sense how to talk myself into anything. So, I did some temporary secretarial work. I temped at the boyfriend's mother's law office. I eventually got a job as a secretary at the boyfriend's father's place, a non-academic department at a university.

It's worth pointing out that my younger (by 17 months) sister was better at this planning thing than I was, though there's no telling how it would have turned out. She, too, went to a SPLAC, though one that was neither as rigorous nor as liberal as mine. She did an internship; she spent a semester at another school, in order to learn more about her field. She found mentors. She joined a service organization as preparation for what she wanted to do next, which was go to the London School of Economics and then work with an organization that worked in developing countries. Clearly, she had a better idea of what she wanted to do and people who helped her figure out the steps she needed to take to do those things. (She died while working with the service organization, but that's a story for another day.) I'd say that education was an end in itself for me--I loved doing philosophy, and political theory; I loved figuring things out--without really thinking about translating it into a specific job. I had a vague notion that I liked to write, and think, and sort things out, but I didn't know what kind of job one could get, other than "professor," that involved those things, and, really, no one sat me down to talk to me about it. I don't think it occurred to anyone that I was so clueless about it.

In any case, while working in Philadelphia I started taking classes at the university where I worked, partly out of boredom, partly because it was free for staff. I decided I wanted to be a professor, which meant I had to go to graduate school; it seemed like a good occupation for my skills, and I liked the idea of teaching, reading, researching, writing, and working with students and colleagues. I switched from philosophy to political science because philosophers didn't seem to care much about real people's real problems. (As noted, if I'd know about the guy at Princeton I might should have gone there.) And even in this decision I displayed a certain amount of ignorance: I applied to only two schools, and the criteria I used didn't have a whole lot to do with who was at this or that institution. In retrospect, given the way faculty up and move, that's not so terrible, but it's more evidence that my cluelessness was still pretty unchallenged.

Other kinds of clues had made their way into my life, though. When I started graduate school, the chair of the department had a meeting to welcome the new grad students, blah blah blah. In his talk, he mentioned that this was one of the top ten departments in the country--which I had not known. Really; I didn't know that when I applied or when I got in or when I made plans to move halfway across the country. Yes; I know; clueless. My first thought was, "What the fuck have I gotten myself into?" My second thought, though, was, "What's the worst they can do to me? Throw me out? I buried my sister three years ago; it's not going to be worse than that was." I was both right and wrong about that, but the point is that that attitude, plus the fact that I was five years older than most of the other new students, made me fearless in ways that graduate students often are not. As this was the beginning of the end of my cluelessness, I'm going to break off here and pick this up in a later post.


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