Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time has a superb reflection on growing up “not-in-the-middle-class”, disguised as a sort-of-review of a book I haven’t read.

To a certain extent, the class divide in the States can be nicely symbolized by one of her lines:

I always understood how much things cost.

A lot of what she said resonated with me, so some quick (not as quick as I thought, though not necessarily well thought-out) reflections on my own experience of class.

I grew up already what Dr. Crazy calls a “straddler” of classes. My mother was raised solidly lower middle class, similar to the family described in the book—her father had a good factory job that later shifted to management, her mother stayed home and raised 5 Catholic children, my mother was the education star of the family and got scholarships to good schools that had her associating with people with a lot more money, I’m sure. But my mother diverged from this pattern geographically and ideologically, and for most of my childhood, was downwardly mobile from that class position.

Nevertheless, since I was largely raised by my mother, I was raised with middle-class values, plus the values my mother had acquired in her wanderings—education was a priority, I drink wine out of crystal wine glasses and use cloth napkins at times, to follow the “class as table settings” trope that came out of the book I haven’t read. (I had an odd interchange with a friend once who offered to bring fancy cloth napkins when I invited her to dinner, and was surprised to hear I already owned some. Not sure what that was about—-her reading of my class values, perhaps?)

In writing this, and reading Dr. Crazy’s piece—-it might be useful to think about class, as least for children, in terms of security. One of the comments at Dr. Crazy brought this out, and I agree, partially. If your family has a job that keeps a roof over your head and pays the bills, that’s middle class. When I feel that I was raised lower-class or working-class, it’s the moments of insecurity that I remember—-the “oh, the electricity is off again because the bill wasn’t paid—get the kerosene lamp, find the matches.” You can go two or three months without paying an electric or phone bill before they cut you off—that’s something I grew up knowing as a fact. If you write a check on Friday without having the money in the account, it will clear as long as you deposit the other check before the end of business on Monday (probably no longer true). These types of juggling funds were second nature. And that added new values:

I always understood how much things cost.

Having straddled classes, I’m constantly making the choice of how I position myself when I talk about my childhood memories.

I can emphasize the pool in the backyard, or getting government cheese and milk powder and taking food stamps to the grocery store. The pool was in the backyard, however, of a house that wasn’t quite in the ghetto, insofar as my city had ghettos—but people got shot on a regular basis if you went a mile north, south, or east from that house. I learned later that my mother had somehow maneuvered around threatened eviction for three years. But I don’t need to mention that when I talk about the problems of keeping a pool clean, making me seem a bit upper-middle-class.

I can mention that I went to Catholic girls’ high school—uniform and all—without following that up with the fact that I was on scholarship, and scholarship girls had to clean the chalkboards and straighten the classrooms after school every day, that I took the city bus an hour a day while 99% of the student carpooled, and that the friends I met there sometimes weren’t allowed to drive into my neighborhood at night.

I’m not a first-generation college student, which is getting a lot of play these days in discussions of diversity in academia. My mother the brilliant one had some college, but never finished—my father did get his BA (with some credits earned because my mother helped write papers while he was in jail), but never did anything with it. When I remember him working, it was in construction—frequently an insecure, lower-class, occupation. So I was raised with the idea of going to college, supported in the idea of going to grad school, but a far cry from the professors’ children I met there.

One other thing worth bringing out—I was aware of class well before I got to graduate school, because there were a lot of moments of disjunction that I recognized even as a child.

Our own class status changed a lot. The moment at which my mother got a steady office job was a key turning point in the finances, moving us much closer to security. Insecurity became not “will the lights stay on?”, but “do we have money to put gas in the car?” (I’ll save the question of cars and transport and class for another post.)

And my class relationship to those around me changed. When I went to the local public elementary, I was in the middle of the class rankings—I lived in a house, not an apartment like poorer students, but many students lived in houses in better neighborhoods. I was always poorer than my classmates from seventh grade onward, when I began busing across town to go to better schools. But the class standing and values of students at the good public middle school were very different from the range of incomes on display at a private Catholic high school, and a private small liberal arts college in the northeast offered a range even beyond that.

So—I’ve always straddled classes both in my own life and in the worlds I move in. I wonder sometimes, what my class identity really is.

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