Storytelling has been referred to as the fundamental unit of communication. Only through exploring and sharing our own class stories can we begin to decrease the prejudices and upend the stereotypes that keep us from working together to reduce inequality. Class Action has been creating opportunities and safe spaces for people from across the class spectrum to do this work for over a decade. In honor of the release of our new anthology, Class Lives, we are collecting and sharing your stories.Submit Your Story Here
Both of my parents worked in factories. Although they took me to the library when I was a child, they never expected me to become a bookworm, and in fact ridiculed me for it. My love of books led to my becoming a good student. Against their wishes, I attended a prestigious college, and spent three years studying in Europe. I also developed a passion for high culture: literature, art, and classical music.
Years ago, I worked at a job that required the use of my four foreign languages. My co-workers knew me as an intellectual who preferred classical music to pop. One day, one of my co-workers told me that his parents had both grown up blue-collar. I replied, “So did I.
It was at church (Methodist) that I first experienced class discrimination. I was raised in was what was then typically labeled ‘white trash’ – too small a house for a family of 6, no landscaping and junk all around the house, working on beat up old cars in the front yard, police stopping by about a brother’s questionable actions or my father’s not paying a debt. The neighborhood had been blue collar when we settled there after the war, but by the 1950’s it was becoming middle class. The effects of that gentrification were particularly strong (and irritating) in our church where increasingly the parishioners were people who didn’t want to have anything to do with the working class people who had started the church.
The processes of exclusion were subtle. Same-age kids lived in nicer parts of the neighborhood and mostly hung-out with similar others; they went on trips to the zoo, movies, or out-of-state; they had new bikes and toys; their parents had new TV’s or fancy cars. My brothers and I quickly heard and saw the signals that we couldn’t compete – that the other church kids weren’t interested in our beat-up toys; that those kids would make fun of our ill-fitting, patched, out of style, hand-me-downs clothes; that parents wouldn’t let kids come over to our house; that there was no money to join them (if we had been invited) on trips to the zoo or movie. Though we didn’t understand it, there was also another level of being selected out because our parents were also excluded and thus didn’t provide a bridge to the middle-class social circles of the other church-goers.
One key thing I picked up 60 years ago in that church environment was a habit of using withdrawal to avoid the risk of being excluded. Fortunately that withdrawal was associated with a bookishness that later helped me gain some analytical skills for trying to address class issues. The other thing I started on 60 years ago was an awareness of, and anger towards, the nuanced ways that social class discrimination works.
I grew up in Massachusetts, in a town which I always considered “small”. My father grew up on a farm, my parents live in the same small house since they wed, and my two sisters and I shared one bedroom for most of our childhood. We did our back to school shopping at Wal-Mart, most of my closet consisted of hand me downs with awful 90’s patterns, and my sisters and I all had jobs when we were fourteen-years-old. We were not poor, but we certainly were not rich. Nobody in my town was, at least not to my knowledge.
My first memory of class privilege was in junior high school. I grew up on the “South” side of town and only had classes with kids from the “South” side, until junior high. When I entered junior high as an awkward, braces-wearing teenager, with no knowledge of what a hair straightener was, I was suddenly surrounded by girls who grew up on the “North” side of town. As I walked the halls in my dad’s flannel shirts or my sisters’ hand me downs, these girls paraded the halls in their Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts, surrounded by the popular boys (this was also my first experience recognizing popularity). Often during that year, I would wait for my older sister to go to school, sneak into her closet, and snatch the one Abercrombie shirt that lived in our house. I would then rush home from school, change out of it as quick as possible, and hang it back up before she noticed. Eventually she caught me in the act and hid the shirt from me, exactly as you’d expect a big sister to do!
Each year after that, I would beg my mom to bring me to Abercrombie to buy my back to school clothes. Every time she would tell me we could get the same thing somewhere else without the logo. Looking back, I always wonder if she thought it was unnecessary to purchase a logo, or if we just couldn’t afford it. We weren’t poor, but we certainly weren’t rich.
I was raised by my grandma at the end of a dead end street. Our place was know in the neighborhood as ‘The Witch’s House”. My grandma was out of her mind with grief since the death of her husband and the suicide of her son (for which I was present). She did the very set she could and I finally get just how difficult it must have been. I had regular needs like new clothes for school or to go places and she was tired, alone and broke. I developed a chronic sense of despair, envy and deep self loathing. I hear people say that they never knew that they were poor but I sure knew. We were surrounded by homes with two parents where things appeared to be “normal”. My mother would occasionally live with us when she was not at the psychiatric hospital. On several occasions she undressed and went into peoples houses on the block. I became even more reclusive and attend school, at the most, two days a week often missing the whole week. I was ashamed, embarrassed and my grandma had no leverage to know what to do with me. We frequented churches to get food at the end of the month and gram would whip up Bisquik pizzas and italian soup that she’d freeze for perpetuity. Being Sicilian she had a way with making something from nothing. Eventually at age 13 I became a ward of the state of NY where I served one year at Hopevale, a placement facility for “bad girls”. I began drinking quite early and would regularly black-out and not know what ad happened. I started losing my teeth to horrible decay and experienced much pain with abscesses. Money does matter, it makes going to the dentist a possibility it also creates options and avenues for parents who can leverage their cultural capital as well as their money to find solutions and get support. My grandma had no clue about what to do with me. People make statements about mental illness but the nomenclature of illness and distress needs to shift because people who chronically struggle are bound to manifest “symptoms”. I am a strong advocate for people and through my own experience, I have developed a ferocity that doesn’t allow racism, classism and other degrading syndromes to be indulged. Growing up poor and frequenting the mental hospital to visit my mother gave me a special education about the world in which we live.
Anne Marie's Story
It was the “Spirit of ’76” in North Reading, Massachusetts. I was an 8 -year old girl with dirty blond hair walking alone down a dirt path that had been worn onto the street-side lawns of local businesses in the absence of sidewalks. It was not an unusual sight, though not entirely typical either, to see in the 1970s when many parents felt more free to let their offspring find out the world on their own. I was sent out to Main Street about a mile away from the Section 8 apartment on the pond to get something for my mother, she was exhausted from work that day so I had to go. I don’t see this as a bad thing. Families help each other and love each other one way or another, right? The thing is, that place and time was and still is simply magical. I am thankful for a nation and state that kept me strong of family, strong of body, and for a Massachusetts public school system that kept me strong of mind one way or the other. I love Massachusetts, my home state, and always will. I loved my town, it gave me more than I asked for on a daily basis, and sometimes that was good, and sometimes, it was not so good, and this is what I count as good in life.
I arrived at the convenience store on Main Street and found my mother’s onions and ketchup. I found at the counter the counter the Hershey bar (25 cents) that she told me to get for my sister and me to share. I handed the older man at the register who most likely owned the place at the register a 5 dollar denomination pulled from the stapled booklet of food stamps I had brought that food stamps with a blue paper on the back covered in printed English and Spanish how peanut butter and beans stretch into Tuesday next first of the month, understand, comprende? (Comprendre Frenchie?).
Is disgust and sympathy combined as one feeling easy to describe? Is it even a word? Is it more than a thought that disgusts anyone to feel? I saw it on the older man’s face. I had disappointed the spirit of America. He was sorry for me, for how sad a tale it is spending food stamps at the convenience store. How sad it is that the urchin’s mother has to send her kid out alone. How sad it is that the child is paying from a ripped-up booklet of never-had gold. It brought the house down fast. He didn’t even fake a smile. He only gave me a sad frown as he handed me my plastic pellet change numbered in cents, Massachusetts food stamp change. It is only now, all these years later, that I realize that his frown hid his tears.
My 5th grade picture reflects some of my experiences with the class diversity. In 1966 both my parents were employed. We bought a home in 1961 after a short period of living in a subsidized housing project. My bother and I had our own bedrooms. There was a yard which meant we could get a dog, which we promptly did – Sport! Living in a family with two incomes, (one a union wage), and two children meant that we had what we needed, and extras. Most of our vacations were to visit my mother’s family. Occasionally we took a special trip. Once we went to Niagara Falls, “the Canadian side”. I had more class privilege than some of my classmates and less than others.
David had 5 siblings. His father worked at a well paid union job. His mother had not learned to read and write because as a kid she had to work and she did not work outside the home. He’s one of the boys in the picture not dressed in a tie and suit jacket. Sometime my mother would treat us to a movie or the county fair. It was a cross class alliance that meant we could have experiences beyond playing tag, frisbee or hide and go seek in the neighborhood. Mrs G always had a spectacular garden full of vegetables which she very generously shared with us.
Diane and I were friends the way it was acceptable for Black and white kids to be friends with people at that time, at school. We did not visit each other’s homes or play together except on the playground. Her family owned their own home and did not move there from the projects. There were a few of the white kids who also lived in the projects. Timothy H.’s pants were always too short and shoes quite worn. I don’t remember ever seeing him in new clothing.
Writing this piece makes me very curious about others. Where are you Mrs Kingsberry’s 1966-67 class?
I’m getting old. Just ask any one of the 206 bones in my body. (We’re born with 270 but some fuse together by adulthood.)
I gave up dying my hair over seven years ago. I started feeling my first arthritic aches and pains while still in my 40s. My hearing and eyesight have gotten worse but they’ve always been bad. My sex life is not what it used to be but that’s okay. I had enough sex during my cute years to last me a lifetime.
But what truly passes judgment on me as an old person is money. My retirement savings, or lack thereof, give away my class status immediately. I’m still working and will probably have to work well into my 90s. I’m so scared and ashamed for my friends to know, I still talk as if I’m working because I want to work. But the truth is I’m exhausted and poverty seems like a better alternative if I can sleep in.
If I take the time to explain it, I’ve got plenty of good reasons for not having the savings I deserve. I can blame a faulty past marriage and divorce. I can point to health issues that devastated me financially. I can attribute it to low wages from jobs that didn’t value me because I was a woman, because I was a woman of color, or because I was a disabled woman of color. You get the idea.
We can talk about the fact I didn’t go to college til I was in my 30s so I got a late start on the American Dream. I can give you cultural reasons and tell you how often I sent money to my extended family members instead of saving it for myself. (Friends often told me to forget my family and keep the money instead.) I even lost money like so many other Americans when I had saved up a small nest egg and watched it eroded by the Crash.
I think I want to time travel in my old age and tell my younger self that money will not, in fact, become obsolete and to invest in something called the Internet.
My first experience with people being very class conscious was rapid and intense. It was my first two weeks in college. I had never really thought about class identity before. The city I grew up in, my high school, and my large extended family were a mix of incomes from low income to wealthy. If someone was wealthy they were not particularly arrogant about it because it was not a city associated with wealth and prestige. It was a jolt then, when my first two weeks in college consisted of multiple insults because I had not gone to the “right” high school or grown up in the “right” town with the “right” income. But there were also a lot of people of all incomes who just didn’t care what your parents’ income level was. But they did want to go into high income careers. And over time gaining those careers made them members of the economic upper class. They just weren’t obsessed with ethnicity and religion. Perhaps the new class identity based just on money is just as damaging in percentage terms. The less well off become easier to forget about and to ignore and that affects the way people vote. And people forget. They think they made it on their own and forget about the low interest student loans and scholarships that greatly lowered their tuition. And now they don’t see why someone else should need that. We now have the widest split in incomes since before the Great Depression. These experience have made me seek a place to live where there is a mixture of everyone and to work in a career where there is a mixture of everyone. I have been happier because I have been able to do that. 70% of wealthy people according to most studies just don’t care about class identity. And that makes me optimistic. But they are not noticeable because they live in average sized houses and don’t drive luxury cars. But the 30% of people who are very class conscious have outsized political influence. And so it remains a problem.
An energetic 30ish man came for career counseling, as he predicted that mismanagement was going to eliminate his agency and job. He grew up in a rural Iowa town of 600 and then went to an Ivy League school. He did not complete his degree at that college because his parents insisted that he return home and he resented his parents for that interruption and for treating him in general as if he had little value. Tom sought to develop confidence in himself and in making his own choices. He identified two selves in conflict. He called one “loser Tom”, who believed the negative things his parents said to him, and “winner Tom”. I had him move “loser Tom” into a different chair so that these selves could have a dialogue. As they spoke, he realized that “loser Tom” had many strengths. His blue collar, Harley riding side could be courageous, loyal, independent and stand up for what he believes in. Renaming his two selves, I had “white collar Tom” thank “blue collar Tom” for providing protection to both of them and Tom felt more whole. At our next session, we learned that “white collar Tom” was interested in becoming a college professor, lawyer, writer or any job that dealt with complex issues, problem solving, creativity, ongoing learning and offered time flexibility and independence. “Blue collar Tom” wanted to make sure he could meet his financial needs through a steady income and health insurance. With both parts of him expressing their career values, we were able to explore what occupations might offer what both needed. To boost his self confidence for job interviews, I assigned the VIA Survey of Character Strengths (free at www.authentichappiness.com.) His top strengths were a blend of his two selves: being able to see the big picture, persistence and industriousness, citizenship-loyalty and teamwork, fairness, modesty-humility and gratitude. He ended therapy feeling prepared to engage with his career exploration on his own and two years later is satisfied working as a f acilities operation director. This story shared with the client’s permission and his name has been changed.
I could recount the well-worn markers of class, the “proof” — that both my parents worked as janitors at the same time after their divorce. That i spent afternoons in the catholic school helping my dad stack chairs on desks, and nights with my mom in office buildings playing with the toys in the doctor’s waiting room while she cleaned. That one night the landlord’s vomit can through our rental unit’s ceiling light fixture, literally. That we burned kerosene by the pint because we couldn’t afford to fill the oil tank of the apartment. That my mom built a solar thermal panel to heat the space, because she couldn’t afford heating oil. That I’ve been in debt continuously for twenty years now. That i have no kids at forty-one and probably won’t have kids, and it’s go so much to do with my class standing. I can’t “afford” to find a storybook love. Who would want to hitch up to me? I’m a liability. Well, I have to go and work to make some money, even though I’m going to end up living in the woods in six weeks and I’ll never be out of debt until i die.