Neither Here Nor There

It’s hard for me to talk about class.  I grew up on small Midwestern towns  and I felt solidly middle class.  My best friend for a while was the mayor’s daughter.  I ran around with the police chief’s son in another town.  (But I also ran with kids that “everyone” repeatedly told me were trash.)  My dad was a minister and my mom taught school.  That seemed middle class to me.  There were many years when my mom didn’t have a teaching contract, so she subbed.  And, in retrospect, it seems obvious that my mom needed to work for us to have enough money to get by.  And many months, especially when I was little, where we ate corn bread for dinner at the end of the month because it was cheap and we kids believed it was an amazing treat.

And then I went to college and learned what middle class really was.

And then I got a job and got a raise that put my salary above my Dad’s.

It’s a weird moment when you’re 28 and you’re struggling to pay rent and you’re eating rice for dinner every night and you realize that you make more than your dad did when you were in high school.  There’s not really any preparation for that.

But my point is that, growing up in small towns, there were class issues.  But the distance between classes was very small (even if it was, in many cases, insurmountable).  And all the differences we thought were so clear and universal didn’t mean shit when you went to a place that was 100,000 people, not 2,500.  So, I thought I was solidly middle class, but I had two pairs of shoes at any given time–every day shoes and church shoes, even in college.  And my prom dresses were either borrowed or home-made.  And I only went to one formal at college because I certainly didn’t have clothes to wear to it.

I was lucky I came up during the grunge era, because a girl could get away with two pairs of jeans and seven t-shirts and two flannels and no one thought anything about it.

I don’t know if any of this gets to what I’m trying to say.  Probably it doesn’t.

What I’m trying to mull over is just how a girl such as myself gets, in the same day, called an elitist and gets used as a local-color prop.  It both seems weird to me and exactly right.

10 thoughts on “Neither Here Nor There

  1. B, I think I get what you are saying. In my little town and public school, we were clearly not anywhere the worst off – this was obviously apparent to me, even though I know things were really tight a lot of the time. But it was never obvious that I or people with less money than us were moving in completely different spheres than people with more.

    But, whoa, going to Oberlin – that put me in contact with a completely different class of people, people I didn’t quite understand, and people who didn’t quite understand me – clearly different spheres. And being in the position of feeling like it was my obligation to set people straight on their unexamined notions about “poor” people.

    And I still don’t know how to deal with that parent thing – how could I possibly be struggling when I seemingly have “more” than we ever did when I was growing up. And yet I do struggle. I don’t know, either, but I’m glad you’re writing about this.

  2. B, the label “elitist” it has nothing whatsoever to do with you and everything to do with the person saying it. It’s the thing people say when they fear, even in some small way, that someone else might in fact be superior to them. It confesses a sense of inferiority not born of humility and seeks to rationalize it.

    Or, it could just be some dumbshit Tennessee fake Democrat parroting a common GOP talking point. You know, there’s always that.

  3. Except that when I called somebody an elitist awhile back it was out of outrage, not fear.

    I wonder, now that I’m the same age my mother was when she finally had all four of her kids, at howmuch they must have kept from us about how hard it all is. Because three years ago when tim was at his old job we made more(adjusted for inflation) than they made at the same point intheir lives. But it was struggling for us and two dogs. But they did it with four kids.

    I wonder, I really do.

  4. LOL, my dad covers the same range. He even has two different voices; before he retired I could tell what he’d been doing recently by which voice I heard on the phone.

    The airline pilot voice was deep, beautiful in its tones, precise and clear in diction, spoke in measured periods powerful in vocabulary literary in quality. That voice could probably talked planeload of people into remaining calm and confident through a crash.

    The voice that meant he’d been hanging out with the good ol’ boys out at the local airport was colloquial, had an accent and truncated diction, and used colorful imagery and much more variation in tone. It also spins a really good yarn.

  5. Pingback: Getting Ready For Class : Post Politics: Political News and Views in Tennessee

  6. I’m glad you brought this topic up.

    I grew up in small town MS – population around 6,000. A lot of the “class stuff” you speak about was determined in my hometown as to where you went to church, and what school you attended. Because the school system in my hometown sucked, the kids whose parents could, sent their kids to either a school in the next town over (my case) or a private school 30 minutes away.

    My parents, because they actually cared about my education, went without a lot to ensure that we were afforded an education where actual learning was stressed – while the kids who went to my hometown school were told by teachers “get by — even if you have to cheat”.

    Those of us who did not go to school in our hometown were thought of and treated differently. Which was something I didn’t understand at the time as I had no control over where I was being sent to school. And it wasn’t just being ostracized on the part of the kids who were stuck at the crappy school — a lot of the behavior came straight from their parents.

    Without going into detail, I grew up with a lot. My parents weren’t rich, but still I would describe my childhood as being fairly spoiled. I didn’t get everything I wanted – never did get that Barbie Dream House for example – but I wore the designer jeans and had a car at 15 that I was given by my grandparents, a limo for prom and all that — looking back I see that it was too much too soon.

    But it wasn’t just me — and I know people who lived with far more material things than they should have ever been given.

    Prime example, my best friends growing up were twins – their high school graduation gifts were twin BMW 325is – a red one and a black one. Of course, as it turned out, was a guilt present from their dad who was having an affair, and eventually left their mother — sometimes things are not as they seem.

    Here’s my point: I’ve been on both sides of the coin. What I now know, is that all of that STUFF does not make a person happy. And it doesn’t make a person better than anyone else.

    And because I’ve done both sides, I can honestly say am a much happier person now wearing Levi’s jeans, tshirts and flip flops while not having a car payment and working a 2nd part time gig to pay off my credit cards, while being too busy to go to the mall and make myself miserable b/c I can’t have that $500 Betsy Johnson dress that will be out of style next season.


  7. You know, when I was in junior high I was so struck by the disconnect between the money-class structure and the culture-class structure that I saw in my school that I figured out that there was a separate class that most of my friends and I belonged to. Because in our school the range was from shoe-repairer’s kids to a couple of physician’s kids, without any extremely poor or rich families, and we all thought of ourselves as middle class. But my friends and I mostly had two parents who had been to college (very middle class) but they mostly didn’t work high-paying jobs (very service class), and a lot of us didn’t have televisions (poor), but we did all have oodles of books (middle class) but not lots of clothes. By most class markers we were getting a very confused set of messages, but when I finally got to college and studied the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia in Russia I had I great moment of recognition.

  8. Being the kid of a preacher and teacher from small towns myself, I know EXACTLY what you mean. Part of the class confusion is the very white-collarness of pastoring. if you’re the preacher’s kid, you’re viewed as a certain class. It’s not a money thing, it’s a breeding thing.

    But then there’s the other side of the coin. My parents divorced, and I went from not ever quite realizing how poor we were to being very, very aware. Now I was the kid of a single mom in government assistance housing (my mother was always proud of the fact that we didn’t have to live on the other side of the street in the apartments that were entirely paid by the government).

    But my class position was already set. After all, my father had been a preacher, and my mom was still a well-respected teacher. My best friend’s dad was the fire chief. Another best friend (another single-mom household) was the grandaughter of the vice principal of the high school. Our “class” was set by perception and not fact.

    When we moved to a rich bedroom community, I went from socially elite (based on breeding) to virtually invisible (based on income). It was an odd disconnect for me. I hadn’t ever noticed my priviledge until it was gone.

    Later, I moved to my dad’s small town in TN, and that’s a whole ‘nother story of discovery…

  9. Some of the weirdness and disconnect certainly has to do with the way the middle class has been whittled down over the past 30 years. You can’t support a family on a bread-winner-and-SAHM structure anymore, not in the middle class. That takes two earners, thanks to the steady flow of income to the top.

  10. I agree with Pixie. Teachers and preachers tend to be seen as a higher class than their incomes because they need more education for their jobs than their income peers. More education usually means more money and more privilege, but teachers and preachers are the exception that proves that rule. I’ve also noticed that artists, musicians, and actors are kind of off to the side in the American class system as well, maybe because you can’t necessarily tell how much money they make?

    FTR, my dad was a teacher, my mom was a SAHM, but both of their fathers were executives at a medium-sized company (which is how they met). Consequently, there are people I knew growing up who were part of the country club set, yet there was a very definite line in terms of which activities were open to me and which were not. Looking back, those lines become more and more obvious to me, but at the time, I just accepted a lot of it as “done” vs. “not done”. We didn’t have a lot of money (my dad’s Ewell Gibbons phase coincided with a time when money was very tight), and I wore a lot of hand-me-downs. This must have grated on my parents a lot, but they took whatever they were given with a smile and a word of thanks.

    I remember the one time I needed something really nice for a school event, and my mom had managed to score an interview suit from the daughter of a friend. The suit and blouse mostly fit but were a totally unflattering color, and I begged for some new underwear to wear underneath. IIRC, my attitude at the time was something on the order of, this is a big event for me, I’m wearing hand-me-downs on the outside, please at least let me wear my own underwear. (I still associate being poor with wearing hand-me-down underpants, but I guess you can’t buy used underwear at Salvation Army anymore, so maybe this mental tag fails nowadays.)

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