A story of crossing the tracks

I was born and raised in working-class Philadelphia.  Growing up I did not see myself as an underrepresented and repressed segment of society.  Certainly I saw that there were those who had more money and material goods than I did, but it was not something I dwelled on.  This was because everyone I knew was working class, and none of us had any more or any less than the next person.

In high school I forayed for the first time into the white-gloved world of privilege and prestige that loomed beyond my own.  I was a very gifted and talented student and decided to apply to an elite college.   My parents were dead-set against it. Not only did they fear that I would be summarily rejected due to my social class, they also had a future cut out for me in a secretarial pool because that was where all nice working-class girls ended up after high school.  Undaunted, I applied to the college.  I’ll never forget my interview.  I sat down with the dean herself, who had asked to interview me because my grades were good.  As soon as she took in the entire working-class package sitting before her, her attitude turned frosty, and it was instant dismiss.  Needless to say, I received the rejection letter the following week.

I was accepted by a lesser-known two-year college, where I received my Associate’s degree, and as soon as I did, I wanted to take the next step and get my Bachelor’s.  But my parents would not allow me to live under their roof while I furthered my education.  College, they insisted, was a waste of time for anyone, but especially for a woman, and that I should have been grateful for the two years I had.  A few decades passed, and when I was finally living under my own roof, I took the plunge and went back to school.  In December of 2013 I will, after more than twenty years, finally earn my Bachelor of Arts.

School has thrust me into the upper-class world whether I want to be here or not.  Every day I see the differences between myself and the privileged young people who surround me.  What astounds me most of all is that many of them do not apply themselves to their studies as rigorously as I do.  I couldn’t understand how these underachievers were going to prosper in the post-college world, but then it became clear to me.  These kids don’t have to kill themselves to get good grades so that they could find jobs.  After all, either their parents, or friends of their parents, will help them get cream-puff positions in Corporate America.  They are in school only because they need a piece of paper that officially declares they have a brain.  I, on the other hand, have no such connections.  All I have to go on is the gray matter between my ears and my capacity for hard work.

I now live in an upper-class neighborhood close to school.  This has also created culture shock.  Most of the people have lived here their entire lives and don’t take kindly to outsiders, especially those from the wrong side of the tracks.  Even though I am polite and well-educated, my blue collar somehow peeks through, as every so often when I go shopping at the local strip mall I’ll have a door slammed in my face or get a hostile stare from a stranger.  However, my working-class upbringing has made me tough, and I ignore the disdain and move on.  My attitude is that if you don’t like me, then deal with me, because I’m not going away.

Although my social class has disadvantaged me throughout my life, I am grateful for it.  Only the strong survive in the working-class world, and it has been this strength that has enabled me to fly very high.

6 Responses

  1. Stinky

    Great post. You’ve an excellent point concerning academic rigor of lower income compared to the more well off students, not many people I ever talk to get what you just pointed out. What you have articulated and figured out on your own as have I, is what the difference social capitol can make in post college life. The younger students not applying themselves actually don’t really need to, as far as success with employment goes, because of the example you gave of family friends offering employment which is summed up in a larger context as social capitol.

    I never thought anyone with a degree would ever admit this because nobody outside the social sciences seems to get why lower income people like myself would put the effort into their studies that we all do, after all the GPA isn’t too bad. I’ve known why from the start, but in comes good ‘ol ARMCHAIR PSYCHOLOGY to prescribe dualities and subjective superficial conjecture. You know what I’m talk’n about and so do the majority of lower income self supporting first time or returning college students. The objective limitations, like lack of social capitol, get dismissed for purely subjective hand wavy assumptions about your work ethic or effort towards learning the material.

    Armchair psychology says that if you’re working very hard to actually learn the material and get just above average grades, then the reason for that effort is the result of some wanna be Freudian nonsense about you being this overly driven person that has to be the best at what you do or is competitive. Again, completely dismissing any and all objective limitations in the person’s life that may require them outside their own ego, to work towards an outcome of grades or understanding of the material (there is a difference) which will allow them to bridge the social capitol gap that exists between the classes.

    Those with the social resources simply lack the adherence to a rigorous set of academic standards out of objective class advantage, not some superior level of psychological conditioning. The rest of us can’t afford not to apply ourselves to the material because we all innately know, even if for want of better articulation, that the future is almost completely devoid of any social ins so far as employment is concerned. Therefore, we must by any means make the academics ours and not just the domain exclusively partitioned out by the educators or centralized “validators” of our credibility. The ability to do this includes application of our understanding to the course material and it is for us a given, not some ego gratifying one up; applying oneself is implied in order to maintain a baseline of future self actualization.

  2. Celeste Harmer

    Hi Stinky!

    Thanks for responding to my post, and you’re right, social capital gets you practically anywhere you want to go. It’s aggravating, and it ties into discrimination against us, the working class, as we foray into the white-collar world. When I see jobs in my field requiring X amount of years of experience, I know it’s just a smokescreen to keep people like me out and make sure the jobs get into the hands of those with the social contacts.

    But in the end, the respect goes to those who work hard and come through. No amount of money and contacts will obscure laziness and apathy. Granted, these rich kids can continue to get away with this, but most people aren’t stupid and will treat these brats accordingly. I’m beginning to see this now in the classroom with the end of the semester, as the professors have tired of the rich kids’ goofing off and have now given their quiet approval to poor kids like me who actually study and do all the assignments. I’ve noticed that professors will grade the poor, hard-working students more leniently than they will the rich, indifferent ones; it’s because the former take their studies seriously and the latter do not. Of course, the rich kids will still get the better career opportunities because of their social contacts, but at least their indifference has been noticed. It’s a small victory.

    I agree with you in that we must make the academics ours. We can do this by continuing to be smarter than our competition (the rich brats) and making our voices heard. Thanks again for your response, and good luck in all your goals.


  3. YoungLawyer

    I can certainly understand where you are coming from. I am the son of a carpenter and a secretary, and I am a lawyer. In college and in law school I did well academically, and had several internships, part time jobs in my field, and Research assistantships. I agree completely that it is possible for someone to do no work, spend their waking hours in a state of inebriation and walk away a winner. While I have a great job, at a great firm, I had to get to that point on my own. The professors generally were more accepting of the harder working blue collar students (well the “new school” professors were). I do find it rather difficult to balance both my blue collar background and my white collar life. My success and choices in life seriously strained my relationships with family, and destroyed some childhood friendships. In the end, although it has been very rewarding, my journey through life has made me a hard person. Being a straddler is hard, but life is what you make it.

    1. Celeste Harmer

      Hi YoungLaywer!

      Thanks for responding to my posts, and it looks as if you and I have had similar experiences as we traverse through the white-collar world. Your story is comfortingly close to my own, as I know the agony of working hard to achieve academic goals while the better-off students slack and yet still go on to success in the career world. Like you, I know the pain of friendships destroyed and family relationship strained from the white-collar path I have chosen. It’s the ugly side of upward mobility that no one tells you about that you discover the hard way. But as you say, life is what you make it. We have chosen to make our lives fabulous!


      1. YoungLawyer

        Very true, it is the ugly side of moving up in the world. I wish I had known about it when I was younger, I may have done some things differently. Not surprisingly, the most difficult thing in my life and career is connecting with my “peers”. I tend to connect more with the assistants and paras more than with other lawyers. Law school was not a fun experience, especially when surrounded by more than a few people who don’t think you belong there, but those of us who were straddlers found one another and for the most part we are still very close. On the other hand having worked n the area I am from for a while, I also found myself unwelcome among people I knew for years, and most of those who were not hostile, were uncomfortable. Without a doubt the most awkward moment I have had was when I bought a high end laptop for use at work. The bestbuy salesman who sold it to me was someone I grew up with. You would have needed a chainsaw to cut through the tension.

        The other angle that I think people never really mention is that your options are limited after working your way up the ranks. You lack the cultural capital that goes with being born in a higher station. You don’t have daddy’s contacts, or a bunch of similarly situated fraternity or sorority friends to get you a job, and most importantly, you may talk like them, dress like them, and carry yourself like them, but you will never be one of them. But it doesn’t matter in the end, so long as you know that you can best them, and stay true to yourself at the same time. I know that I will never make partner in a large firm or high end firm of any size, but I am more than ok with that. It takes a certain type for that, and I’m glad I don’t have what it takes.

        1. Celeste Harmer
          Celeste Harmer

          I feel the same anguish you feel when dealing with the people from my blue-collar world. The pain is pretty bad when family members or friends start distancing themselves because they think you’re their superior now that you have a degree. I’m going through that at the moment with certain people in my life. You can probably relate when I say that I wish I could tell them that I’m still the same person I always was, that the initials behind my name haven’t changed the me they’ve always known. As you pointed out, there’s an ugly side to social mobility that no one clues you in on; you discover it only as you move up the social ladder.

          To make matters worse, and I pointed this out in my other blogs, a Straddler often finds herself at odds not only in the white-collar world, but in the blue as well. My new white-collar world thinks my blood isn’t blue enough to join their ranks. My old blue-collar world views me as a white-collar sell-out. It doesn’t matter to me that the white-collar world, like you, will never give me its approbation. But it genuinely hurts when the blue-collar world disdains me.

          I believe you are every bit as competent as the others in your firm! You can probably even start your own. We Straddlers are conditioned by our hardscrabble upbringings to weather any storm, so you have what it takes! 🙂

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