Friday, April 27, 2012

Fences You Can't Pass

I wonder how the family dog must feel the first time he encounters the invisible fence. There he is, just moseying over, as he always has done, to pee in a nice, shady spot on the tire of your car, when suddenly an unpleasant static charge jolts through his body. Does he immediately connect this sensation with the necessity  to remain within a defined area? If he is my dog, he will try it twice and then look around dolefully, as if the world has suddenly become a place full of cruel electric spankings visited upon very nice dogs. He will whimper and skulk off to mope under a patio chair, defeated. Invisible things are hard to navigate. Give me a nice chain link fence any day. I want to see where I cannot go. I like neither the indignity and surprise or the sudden electric shock of the buried electric alternative.

I don't want to talk about dogs, though. I want to talk about social class. I keep stepping over the boundary. Static charges prick my senses over and over, the adrenalin of my awareness that I am out of place. If I am faking it well enough, no one else notices. Or maybe they do. I am so charged up with my fear of their noticing, I don't think I can see if they really do.

I am a woman destined to feel out of place. One frequently hears the heartwarming story of the first child of an immigrant family to go to college. Imagine this in reverse. I am the child of an educated family, and I have managed to distinguish myself by being virtually the only relation to fail to earn a college degree. My maternal grandfather was a noted minister, the kind of man who had influence over politics from his pulpit, and the author of ten or more heady and beautifully written books. His wife, my grandmother, had a degree in Latin and was a gale force of intelligence in her own right. These were educated people. My father's parents, I believe, were not college-educated but his father was a relatively successful businessman and smart as a whip. My dad went on to study music on the graduate and post-graduate level. My mother worked, while I grew up, as an instructional assistant, just as I do, and then completed her degree, graduating summa cum laude in English with a creative writing emphasis. Brilliant, talented, and certified.

I grew up in a household where correct grammar was spoken, classic literature was read to me, and critical thought was encouraged. I always assumed I would go to college. Two things got in the way. As a teenager, I developed disabling depression and then drug addiction. By the time I got clean and sober, at the age of seventeen, while I did go straight to community college, I lacked any meaningful experience of hard work. I tended to take classes of interest to me, with no particular goal in mind, maintain an almost 4.0 grade point average, and drop anything that bored me or with which I had made any academic fumble. I was aimless and immature. The second death knell in my academic future was my extreme fertility. I got pregnant at twenty-one, when I could easily have finished college already had I had any sort of plan in mind, but hadn't, and ended up on bed rest for pre-term labor. I had a little boy. Then another.

The next years of my life were consumed with children. I was basically a child myself when I had my first son. Still believing that the world would rise up to cradle me should I prove my inherent worthiness to it, I fumbled forth, armed only with an array of cloth diapers and wooden toys, to be the right kind of mother. Here's what you may not understand about this if you have done this the right way yourself, marrying first, completing college before that. When you essentially give up your future to raise a child, you damn well put your heart and soul into it. This makes you less likely to return to school, not more. Having had to answer every kind of question from the well-meaning "Are you sure you are doing the right thing?" to the utterly appalling "Do you know who the father is?" (Yes, I'm engaged to him!), I was prepared to prove to the world that raising children was the best use of my time and talents. The rest is history.

The one time when, after I divorced, I prudently returned to school again and decided to major in Sociology (hence my interest in class), I was again interrupted by becoming pregnant and ending up on bed rest. I bore baby boy number three. I always meant to go back. I waited until we could afford it. I waited until the kids were older. When I was diagnosed with the multiple health conditions that now cause my life to be a daily compromise between my grandiose visions of clean houses and brilliant blog posts and my need for rest, I let the door on my academic future shut gently and finally behind me.

I will never have a college degree.

I work as an instructional assistant. My job employs my mind in a brilliant sort of way. Interweaving a gift for humor, love of children and the lightness of heart it takes to work with them, a knowledge of child development, and something critical to learn and be good at, I am privileged to be able to work with as many as thirty students a day teaching reading skills, and see a concrete difference made with the work I do. I love my writing as well. I feel like it provides something both for me and for the world–on my best days– that I want for the world to have. Parenting is perhaps the best of my jobs. There is nothing more worthwhile than the privilege of helping to shape a human being, to see who that person is growing to become and try to provide some resource for their greatness. I  am, I think, a good mother. These are engaging and worthy acts. They do not, however, come with award, certificates, recommendations or special associations.

None of this has ever bothered me a day in my life. Until I tried to fill in my profile for LinkedIn. Suddenly my life started to have the quality of poverty. No awards. No certifications. No degree. Do you think people will be impressed if I write that people say I am very, very smart and always show up on time?

Sitting amidst groups of women at the Erma Bombeck Writer's Conference, I was lost in a frenzy of rules I didn't understand. Books were mentioned I have not read, although I read avidly. (I have apparently read all the wrong books. How was this accomplished?) I cannot remember which is the correct fork to use when they give me two forks at my place setting. When is it O.K. to place my cloth napkin on the table? I do not have a business card. I have only one cardigan. Will anyone notice? What is the protocol for awaiting a cab at a nice hotel? Apparently, one does not have to stand out on the curb. The driver will come in and retrieve you. Who knew? I felt continually as if I was impersonating someone else. I might be caught out at any moment. Although I was enjoying myself, the tension felt like something I could bite.

People have said very encouraging things and this has been immensely helpful. I have been told I am a good writer and sweetly reprimanded not to be so self-effacing. It occurred to me only this morning that what I am pressed up against is larger than an issue of self-esteem, although it certainly is an issue of self-esteem as well. It is an issue of class.

Class is not so permeable in our society. Data proves this. It tends to stick to generations moving down, more so than in some other countries, more so–much more so–than we like to think. Granted, it sticks much less so than in many, many less fortunate places. Education is, in so many ways, the golden ticket. This is not a political blog, and I am not going to illustrate the inherent unfairness of education for you here, but suffice it to say, that it's not a level playing field out there, but if you can get an education, in a lot of ways, this can be a ticket to an elevation of class. I did the opposite. Through choices I made of my own free will, I moved myself downward. It is not so easy to get back up.

I have two final thoughts about all this. One has to do with my parenting. I go to church and otherwise associate with a community of perfectly lovely people (and I don't say that tongue in cheek–I mean they are. Perfectly. Lovely.). They are, as far as I can tell, all educated people. I believe it may be true that my family is perhaps the lowest class family in our congregation. Again, I don't mean this in terms of anything snide. I mean that we struggle financially, that we drive old cars, and that neither my husband nor I have degrees. Sometimes, someone will say that they very much want their child to take a year off of after high school before going to college, that they don't think grades are all that important, or that, having gotten a PhD themselves, they think college education is overrated. Whenever I hear this, I want to turn on this person and scream like a crazed banshee.

I tell my kids: It does matter. It matters more than you can imagine. It will matter over and over and over, when you are eating dinner with friends, when you want to put your kids in a sport, when you want to go see Europe. Your education will give you choices. If you have a choice and you want to move off of the grid and build a house with your own two hands and grow quinoa, do so with my blessing. I mean this from the bottom of my heart. But please, please, please allow yourself that choice before you do so. No matter how smart and how talented you are, no matter how much potential you have, life wants you to show your credentials. Have some. Know how to work. Know how to jump through hoops. Hoop jumping is a really useful skill. Know and protect your passions like fragile shoots from hard frosts, but do not be afraid to do what you have to provide for yourself. There is a great deal of inspiration to be found in the luxury of not having to work your ass off doing manual labor, day after grinding day.

Here is my last thought: If this is hard for me, (And it is. It really, really is.) what is it like for someone who has a raw talent but cannot use standard written English well? What is it like for someone who did not have the advantage of my exposure to Shakespeare, to Greek mythology, to history? Are we really saying none of these people can write?

I can get on the grammar Nazi bandwagon as quick as anyone. Or at least I could until I realized I was surrounded by my betters in the writing world. I am annoyed by misspellings, driven crazy by misused apostrophes. But what if all I am doing is setting up invisible fences all around me? Fences past which you can't pass if you are dyslexic. Fences you can't pass if you are raised in East LA, exposed to a grammar that follows rules we might find equally hard to follow. Fences you can't pass if you are still learning and growing as a writer. (Aren't we all?)

I think I will stop cracking wise about people's misused apostrophes. The world would be a richer place if it were filled with the voices of all of us–voices edged with the hard beauty of the street vernacular and the southern drawl and the fascinatingly off-kilter English of the immigrant. Imagine the written world a cacophony of voices and all of us a little more able to listen for the beauty in every one.

Images are used according to allowable terms from MorgueFile.


  1. Tara, there is so much I want to say to you, and about this post, and I'm afraid a comment won't cover it all. You know what I put in my LinkedIn profile? Nothing. Because my worth is not measured in those kinds of degrees, and neither is yours. I am unconvinced of the value of what I am doing, and hold out hope that just the right person will find me, pen in hand, scribbling in a Moleskine, at a soda fountain counter somewhere. That still happens, right? You are in a class by yourself, friend.

    1. I would love it if you emailed me. I live for lengthy discussions of weighty topics. And I will tell you what. I am completely convinced of the value of what you are doing. I read a lot of blogs and a lot of books. You are a singular talent. There is not one doubt in my mind that you have the talent to be very successful. In fact, I am sort of fixated on it. Whether or not you care to do all the nasty finagling necessary to get "discovered," never, ever doubt that you have the talent. If someone tells you that you don't, move on to the next person and try again. Every great artist I ever heard of was rebuffed at least once. I would be delighted to recommend you on LinkedIn. Not sure if I am your most highly credible source, but I would be very happy to.

  2. Tara, this is beautiful. It never occurred to me when I met you that you were anything except a brilliant, vibrant, fun person whose writing I admired. To me, the college experience I have is far less useful than the real world experience I have gained--in and out of the workplace.

    If LinkedIn gave you a complex (and I'm sorry it did), then never venture forth into Klout. Essentially a popularity contest, it assigns a number to your "importance" in the online world. I know people who have shed tears over their rank (or lack of one.) Why?! It's not real. It's not definitive. It's a tool and barely useful.

    As the flip side to your experience, my parents are college educated but my in-laws are not. I have a BA and my husband has more letter AFTER his name than in his name. So from our low-class beginnings, we have moved up a few socio- economic classes, which is GREAT but hard. We live in a nicer house than I could have ever imagined but we both miss the mark on the proper, expensive shoes, purse and belts. (I can't bear to part with more than $20 for shoes or a purse.) Our house is the only yard which is half dead because I can't talk myself into paying for lawn treatment or the expense of watering it. We rarely attend social events because they are all fundraisers at $100 a plate for rubber chicken. I don't own a formal dress to attend anyway. And I am not the required size 4.

    As Connie Schultz said, There is no whining on the yacht. Granted I don't own a yacht but I have reconciled myself to never belonging to either class of people--our family back home nor our counterparts at work and home. I read in marketing class that you can't leap more than two social economic classes successfully (there are 14 classes). I believe that is true. And I'm not sure where it leaves my kids who have grown up, secure but with frugal, oddball parent.

    1. Klout! I love Klout. I may include my Klout credentials on my LinkedIn profile. "Tara Adams is a an influential thinker on the topic of knives,terrorism and poetry." That could give me a boost. Klout is so silly it doesn't actually upset me, believe it or not. LinkedIn has the flavor of something real. Which, honestly, is O.K. I have done some things. I lead a citizen's advisory committee on creek restoration. I wrote a newspaper column. I even met some influential people doing these things. I just have to dredge my life for evidence of this, I suppose.

      I know what you mean about the $20 purse. I don't think I could ever get to a place where I wanted to spend more than that, no matter how well we were doing. A certain kind of financial anxiety creeps into your bones, I think. I think my kids will always be penny pinchers of a sort. They are too aware of the finite quality of cash.

      I think social class is a fascinating topic, actually. I find it all the more fascinating having been raised with the background of one class and the life experience of another. It's so much more than money. I get by a lot on what appears to be education, but isn't. Guess at heart I am still a student of sociology.

      Thanks for playing along, by the way. :)

  3. Hi Tara. Tom King here. Wow, what a wonderfully thoughtful and insightful essay you penned here! I quite enjoyed your perspective on social class, and how easy it is to go some place where you have no clue as to the "rules" that should be followed. As a smart geek who never cared about sports, and who read scifi since fourth grade so much I was mostly a loner, college for me was a wonderful liberation from being subject to the "jock class." And since my Dad worked for the UN, I got to travel overseas, to my longterm benefit. But since I have Asperger's Syndrome, I get too professorial sometimes, and don't clue into how to "relate" to many people. I strongly endorse your comment "Know and protect your passions like fragile shoots from hard frosts" but also, I agree with the utter need to stay open to all types of people from all kinds of classes and experiences. And while English misuse is something that's bugged me from my reporter/editor days to the present (i.e. teachers who write a note with flawed contractions or spelling), still, I'm married to a teacher and agree with you that helping to shape another person's life is doing a tremendous amount of "good" in this life.

    Also, as someone who developed the chronic ailment of insulin diabetes around age 40, coping with a persistent illness is a hassle. You have my support and sympathies. But re your lack of a degree, hey, no sweat. I didn't begin writing scifi/fantasy professionally until my late 30s. So, besides being a great mom and helping young kids enjoy the "trip to somewhere else" that fiction reading always offers, you can still do something new and unexpected no matter what your age.

    Tom/T. Jackson King

    1. Thanks for sharing your life experience, Tom. School for me also felt like a refuge, except for the years when I was really most impacted by depression and addiction. I even liked tests. What was hard was relating to other kids. I never felt I understood how to play by their rules either.

      As I was writing this piece, I actually flashed several times on what it must be like to live with Asperger's Syndrome, always wondering if you are following the rules, trying to figure them out. I don't usually have to live that way. Only when I get removed from my native habitat. I have nothing but admiration for the adults and children I know and have known who do this every day, as a part of being who they are. We could all learn a great deal from them, I think.

  4. I connected with this in so many ways. Feeling 'lower class' is a struggle for me, but more because of my children. I don't mind so much for me. I, too, want them to go to college and have choices.
    I love to write and never thought much about it, I just did it. I'm learning that there is so much I don't know because I lack that college education. Luckily, I have sweet internet friends (Tanlgedlou and Masked Mom among them) who have been tutoring me in my efforts.
    Then there are those like you who just inspire me with their brilliance.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Jewels. I admire your courage. It really takes something, doesn't it? The sensation is very like having walked into a formal dress party wearing only casual clothes and trying to figure out how to cover well so you can stay. Thanks, also, for the compliment. Never forget, though, that you are that for someone else.

  5. This was a beautiful post Tara...made me cry a little! Love you!

    1. Writing it made me cry, too, to be honest. After I published it, I felt slightly eviscerated. (Can you feel SLIGHTLY eviscerated???) It may be the most completely honest thing I have ever written. It is still giving me the willies.

  6. I remember making phone calls as I tried to work out which grad school would be best for me. As I spoke on the phone with a guy in the History Department at Harvard, he asked what my language background was. I told him: 11 years of French, and a 4.0 for the year I lived and studied there. He tsked at me sadly, and said, "Oh, no, no, no. You should've been studying German this whole time." At which all I could do was laugh. What a ridiculous thing to say. And funnily enough, two years later, I was actually courted by the Celtic Studies Department, and only failed to get in because they hadn't graduated enough people to take any more on. And the only reason I don't have a Ph.D. after my name is because my History program didn't think medieval studies was a "worthwhile field of study." So they slowly cut my funding and degraded my work in annual reviews (by people I'd never taken a single class with, who probably wouldn't know me by sight) until they'd given themselves leeway to cut me from the program entirely.

    As UUs, we both know there is no One Right Path. It's the same in life as it is in religion. How you treat others along the way, and how happy you are with where you end up are all that matters. If it took being sexually assaulted to make me the person my husband fell in love with, I'd go through it again in a heartbeat. If it took slights and humiliations and discriminations to give me a bone-deep, honestly felt compassion for every other being on this planet, I'll take them daily for the rest of my life. And if knowing clever, funny, beautiful, talented people like you is what I get for running up against an invisible fence every so often, I'll suffer those shocks gladly.

  7. You're so sweet, Jessica. Sometimes, I think my job in life is to always show up at some table where I am not quite dressed the right way, don't quite have the same opinions, sit there chatting for awhile and then say something that makes everyone stop and stare.

    I have this job at church. I am one of the only third generation UUs, one of the only lower middle class people, one of the only recovering alcoholics, one of the youngest mothers of a teenager. I always have something surprising to say. Once I get over the dislike of that startling electric shock through my system, I sometimes remember that it is a privilege to walk between these worlds. All the more so, when I have company like you.

  8. I struggle with this class issue/lack of education thing tremendously. Unlike you, it has actually paralyzed me to some extent. As I commented on one of your conference posts, I can't imagine ATTENDING a conference at all--in large part because of those social anxieties.

    I graduated high school and took that "year" off, which has now turned into (can it be?) 26 years off, during which I have mothered four fantastic children and held a variety of low-paying and fairly unsatisfying jobs. (My current job is slightly higher paying (but still not double digits per hour) and offers a higher amount of personal satisfaction than any I've had before, but I still feel like I am wasting whole swaths of my days just to keep the electricity turned on.) Throughout the nineties, I toiled away on little essays and greeting card texts and made a tiny bit of money on my writing, but grew increasingly distracted by my life and also discouraged by my lack of measurable "credentials."

    One of the things I sold was for the back page of Woman's Day magazine which used to be home to the "Back Talk" column--it was the highest paying piece I've sold to date and it was about living on food stamps. The day the editor called to tell me the piece had been accepted, my electricity had been shut off. After the piece ran, I was approached by a woman who runs a GED program in town--she wanted me to speak to her GED graduates at their award ceremony. Feeling wholly unqualified but also ridiculously flattered, I gave a speech about some of the things you've talked about here--about doing things "backwards," taking a different path and how hard it can be to get back to a recognizable path once you step off the expected one.

    After my speech, the recruiter from the local college offered me his card (and his wife made licking motions at my tattoo, but that's a story for another time) and basically said he could help me get letters after my name that would help me do something more with my natural talents. I carried his card in my wallet for years--it may even be in there still. I still toy with the idea of college, but at this point, I would be paying off student loans out of my social security checks. This logic does little to nothing to assuage my insecurities.

    Thanks for an empowering reminder that all kinds of voices matter in the global conversation. And sorry I just left the world's longest comment, which I just made longer by apologizing. That's the blogging equivalent of using the "wrong" fork, isn't it?

  9. I actually love that this post generated long responses. I am a long response kind of a girl. Thanks for sharing your experience of taking "a year" off. That is why I am so opposed to the idea for my kids. Life tends to work life this: Whatever you are doing, it is easiest to keep doing that. Of course, I'm sure it works great for those special people who have more discipline than the rest of us normal folks, but, mostly they don't want to do it anyway. I can so relate to your experience of devoting one's life to keeping the electric bill on. It seems simultaneously so ridiculous and so necessary.

    Your whole journey is so interesting to me. I guess I'd love to hear more of that from us iconoclasts. I hear so much of where everyone went to college and whatnot, which is actually interesting. But I find the other kind of experience just as interesting. I hung out in high school with kids that committed burglaries–really smart, witty kids from Compton and Detroit, and they taught me A LOT about being alive. I wouldn't take any of that experience back, as dirty as it could be. Without them, I was destined to be really stupid about what other people's lives are like. Because of them I actually get, on a personal level, why kids join gangs. Yet I had the luxury to step back out.

    I have friends who worked as prostitutes–some of them addicts, some clean and sober. I have a dear friend who sold meth before he turned his life around. I have other friends who went to ivy league schools and got PhDs and others who never finished high school. Because of all this, my life is very, very rich.

    I guess forks are the least of it. :)

  10. I have to chew on this for awhile. In the meantime, this video immediately popped into my head when you wrote about forgiving the errant apostrophes. :) It's about writing.

    I love this video so very very much!


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