College, they tell us, is the great middle class-making machine. When I think back on my own cross-class interactions at college, I mostly feel gratitude for the worlds my wealthier friends opened up to me and the way they included and shared with me. My closer friends were solidly middle (including comfortable working-class) and upper middle-class folks, and they influenced me in numerous ways.
First, there were my apartment roommates. One, a grad student, weekly drove both me and our other roommate to a supermarket where food was half the price of our local minimarts. I had precious little extra money beyond tuition, books, and rent; tuna, mac n’ cheese, milk, bread, eggs, frozen veggies, rice, potatoes made up my $6 weekly food bill). I was one of the few who, as a college student, lived better than my family, in a nicer place with more varied food and furniture in better condition. I brought no record player to college, no leather shoes, no hair dryer. In fact, I’d never had my hair cut in a beauty shop. I did bring a manual typewriter, blankets, a pillow, my mother’s canned tomatoes, jam, and pickles, a cast-iron skillet, a coat with a ripped lining. My first year I bought one pair of jeans, one set of sheets, a couple tee shirts, and I went to a movie in a cinema once—courtesy of my other roommate.
Because of my roommates, I got to try middle class pleasures: canoeing, for example, a play which my roommate gave me her ticket to, and cross-country skiing. My grad school roommate invited me skiing at her boyfriend’s cabin and we all drove up in his car; I didn’t pay for gas and it seems to me she must have paid for the ski rental too. I still remember the myriad stars blazing in the northern sky, the excitement of enjoying rather than enduring winter, the luxury of leaving town for a weekend. At Christmas, I gave my roommates some paltry gift, and they showered me with things I couldn’t afford: a new wool skirt and matching vest, a matching red wool hat, mittens, and muffler, other things I can’t recall. One roommate let me use her electric typewriter. Both shared anything they had cooked, and they were always cooking.
With my friends’ example and accessibility for my questions, I learned about middle class things like napkin rings and the Masonic society, summer camps, sailing, where to buy certain clothes, and so many kinds of food. Before college, (of course my college years coincided with the food revolution so non-poor people might have experienced similar restrictions) I had never eaten any of the following: artichokes, avocados, bagels, English muffins, Greek food, garbanzo beans, yogurt, Black Forest Cake, cream cheese, challah bread, halvah, croissants, rare roast beef, French onion soup, Brie, soybeans, pomegranates, crepes, and much more. I had never had friends who were Jews before. I’d never (to my knowledge) known someone gay.
I had one badge of middle-classness that I carried with me as armor against the too-sharp contrast between my background and that of other students: through the generosity of a couple at church, I had been able to accept my selection as an exchange student and live in England for a year. Thus I had been on an airplane. I had even been “abroad.” I had seen London. Those were the distinctions I could claim, and, embarrassing as it seems now, I retained my British accent for a full year, a psychological defense, I am certain, against my overwhelming sense of deficiency, inferiority, and absolute inability to compete in every other area of material possession or experience.
It took me a very long time to find value in my experiences of poverty, even to value the food I grew up with much of which was extremely nutritious, picked fresh from our half-acre garden in summer, canned by my mother; the special food of my ethnic heritage: smoked fish, summer sausage, pickled herring, pickled beets, rhubarb pie, wild-plum jam, wild strawberries, onion tops in vinegar with homemade bread and homemade butter, “government beef,” otherwise known as venison shot out of season.
Finally, I have to mention a quirky gift from a very wealthy friend I met in grad school, the most unassuming person imaginable. She lived in one of California’s costliest areas on a spread with tennis courts and swimming pools (I discovered when I visited), but she showed no external signs. Ironic as it is, she was the one who turned me on to garage sales, thrift stores, and flea markets. Before that, I’d felt a morbid dread (perhaps realistic in a small town) of buying and wearing a second-hand garment, and being seen in it and commented on by the original owner, so I never took advantage of the money-saving advantages of recycled goods. (I’m happy to say I’ve more than made up for that in later life)
When I think of the value of college, at least half of it consists of this momentous cross-fertilization, of this opening up of possible ways to live. One thing I brought with me to college was a certain class resentment and judgment, and because I had little inkling of the very very wealthy, my resentment tended to be aimed not so much higher than my family, toward the people who had a big freezer full of ice cream, who could afford to stay in a motel when they went on vacation, who ate steak, who had two cars that weren’t rusty. They were the ones I envied, not the owners of businesses, of six mansions, the pals of senators and governors. The latter were too far away, too hazy in my imagination, not real.
How very much I hope that the poor students of today can attend a residential university or at least a commuter campus. To sit at home with a computer and take online classes as some of the wealthy seem to feel is good enough for the poor, means missing all of those opportunities to physically inhabit another way of life, to meet and live with people who have different customs, histories, perspectives, and sorrows, to get a perspective on our pasts and build new futures.