Most of you who read this blog know that I come from a working class family. Well, we're working class when things are going well, and I clearly remember a few years when things went spectacularly poorly and we were underclass. (Again, that information is purely for context. I have few complaints at this late date.) I generally pass for middle class, though, because I grew up in an affluent town. This is not to say that I currently pretend to be something that I'm not, although there were many years in which I tried to do just that, but rather that I have learned most of the dialect markers of the middle to upper middle classes and know how to use them a lot of the time. For social survival.
When I was an undergraduate, I thought the startling differences in beliefs and attitude between me and my peers were mostly attributable to our age difference. I mean, I knew that some of their "woe-is-me" stories were laughable, but it didn't really sink in that these stories were partly a product of privilege rather than pure immaturity. My family required my financial assistance as soon as I was able to give it; I needed to work full time right after high school. I got 'technical training' and worked for nine and a half years to be able to save enough to a) pay for college, and b) be able to work 4 days a week rather than 5 so I could actually make it to my classes. I was old, and I had a lot on my plate. So, I only encountered my fellow students on campus, preferring to socialize with my friends from work whenever I had the time. And I just assumed that all the things that struck me as weird about these kids had to do with the fact that they were, you know, kids. In ten years, maybe after they had kids of their own, and knew the experience of having people count on them, we would be able to interact more. What can I tell you? I'm dense.
The Point Lives in Here Somewhere, I Hope:
Then came the mind-bendingly selfish choice to go to graduate school. I won't bother you with a description of the emotional maelstrom that surrounds that choice every day. If you're a working-class person in the academy, you're experiencing it yourself. If you aren't, you don't have the structure in place through which you can understand it. Just as I can't understand the moment I'm about to describe to you.
While we were all sitting around enjoying a grad student neurosis-airing moment recently, a friend of mine put her head in her hands and groaned, "I don't want to be a loser." And several others expressed the same sentiment. (It was a glum meeting.)
Now, my cultural background and current weirdness led me to read this part of the conversation entirely incorrectly. I mean, I nodded knowingly because I thought I understood what they were saying. I, too, have the fear of being the loser. I am the child who has excuses made for her in conversations with extended family and close family friends, because:
- I don't do work that builds anything tangible.
- And I don't make good money at this ephemeral non-worky work I do.
- And I don't want to marry and have kids, which is just weird.
- And it's unfortunate that I'm so booksmart, but can't really DO anything anymore.
- And I never go to Sunday dinner.
- And I'm always late with the money for my mom's medications, so my sister always has to front the money for me.
- So, what good is it that I think I'm so smart when I'm practically committing matricide-by-failure?
- And everybody else has to do the emotional heavy lifting for me because I'm at Microburg, and I always have homework to do. At 35.
- And I'm not really a snob once you talk to me, even though I'm always reading. You just have to think of me kind of like a recent convert to religion who annoyingly tells everyone all the new stuff I've learned, but not because I think you're going to hell for not knowing it, too, but because I'm excited by it for reasons no one understands.
- And there's proof that I'm not just lazy and avoiding work in graduate school, even though it's clear I don't do work here, because I did do work for so long. There were paychecks.
So, I started to respond with comfort that I would need if I made a similar statement. Which earned me confused looks.
Because, when these people said they didn't want to be losers, most of them were talking about their parents both finishing PhDs in 5 years or less, and their siblings all being accepted to the #1 graduate programs in the world in their respective fields, and progressing even faster, or having gotten a T-T position at a "great school" on their first year out after finishing a PhD in 3 years. The others were talking about the low salary they could expect as academics, and how that would make them look stupid in front of their families when their cousin Bob is making the GDP of three nations already.
What they were emphatically NOT talking about was the fear that they would get their PhDs, and then not get jobs, which would cause several generations of their family after them to refuse to go to college at all because Aunt Heo spent half her life at college and was such a spectacular failure anyway. Or that the debt they'd acquired was so beyond the scope of their ability to imagine it that they were having difficulty sleeping. Or that they really were afraid that they were literally killing their relatives by not having enough money to give them, in a timely fashion. Or that they fear that all the "you're not quite good enough" messages one often gets from one's professors doesn't so much speak to the quality of a sentence, or a paragraph, or even a whole draft of their work, but rather to their quality as people. So that one person, having a bitchy day, or needing to prove his/her power over others can send them into a month-long tailspin of crushing angst.
You know how, when you speak a language really well, and you go to the country where that language is spoken, and you begin to lose your accent, and you start believing you are indistinguishable from the natives in a lot of ways, and then a folk song comes on the radio and you realize in that instant that you are, and will always be, a foreigner living in their land?