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.
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