My name is Liora and I’m fourteen years old. I’ve attended public schools my whole life except for the last year and half when I went to a private school. At this school, the classes were small and there was support and help anywhere and anyhow we needed. Not the case in public school. This was a sad piece of class difference that I noticed on the first day.
This past year, I completed a six-month school project about classism and class stratification. I began with the caste system in India, then Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how that relates to class. Over the months I gathered lots of resources, including a great documentary (“Country Boys”), a college text book on sociology, and some helpful websites. I got the privilege to do interviews with a sociology professor and a well-known local newspaper columnist who has written extensively about a poor neighborhood in my city. But this research was only the start.
Later, I came up with a survey for my fellow students. I wanted to know how they defined “middle class” “poor” and “wealthy” or “owning class” and where they put themselves in terms of class background. I included some purposely ambiguous photos of different families and people and asked them to label which class they thought these people belonged to. Most students responded to this part of the survey, but others objected and didn’t want to ‘put people in boxes,’ or base their assessment of people’s class background on just appearance, clothes or belongings. And believe me, I respected their awareness that sometimes the material level isn’t everything. In one of my photos, a man stood by his large motorcycle that could have cost $50K. Is that the most expensive thing he owned or was it one of many things? Things like this are hard to tell from one photo.
The last survey question was “what class do you think you fit into?” The majority of people, at my private school, answered “middle class.” In answering the question “when you think of upper-class people, what do you think of?” Many people wrote “having a great education.” My school provides this extremely great education, yet most of my classmates (attending a school that offers such a great education), still placed themselves in the middle class. I can’t know for sure how wealthy anyone is, but I knew that many of my classmates take vacations all over the world (a true geography lesson!), many had second homes, some had very large first homes. Many kids, plus their siblings, have gone to this school for kindergarten through eighth grade.
No one wants to say “yeah, I’m wealthy, I’m privileged, I have all these great advantages.” It seems like bragging. I think people placed themselves as middle class because it may be more comfortable. When you’re middle class, you’re not going to get “hated” for your wealth or “pitied” for lack thereof. I wanted classmates’ perspective on class since it’s not an everyday dinner-table conversation. It’s hard for people to admit that they have all the resources that they have actually have. It’s also hard to admit that you don’t have what other people have.
Another piece of my project was to choose two good friends from different class backgrounds, and, with their and their parents’ permission, compare their homes, belongings and perspectives on class. I took photos of where they each live (one a town home, the other a larger home), including things like their computers, musical instruments, in one case a hot tub in a backyard.
My friend from a more basic middle class background was more aware of class, had more worries about money, and she might not get to go to overnight camp this summer. My other friend, from a more upper-middle class background, agreed that her friends don’t talk much about class but they do compare things like vacations, how much they get for allowances, etc. She didn’t seem worried about money issues, and understandably so. When I asked them each to differ between need and luxury (from “nannies” to “college” to “vacations” to “office supplies”) my first friend viewed more of these things as “luxuries” and my other friend felt these things were more in the “necessities” category.
The final part of the project was to present what I learned and to display it for the public (a.k.a. friends and family). It was a wonderful night where I got to share my research and talk to other people who were interested. Studying classism was a great topic, full of heart-breaking and mind-opening information, that gave me an awareness of class issues I’ll never lose.
Kathy Modigliani says
Thank you for presenting the work of this promising young researcher and thinker. Can you use it to encourage other schools to support similar projects?
Betsy Leondar-Wright says
Yes, it would be terrific if other teenagers and other schools saw what Liora wrote about her class stratification project. Anyone with youth/school connections, please pass the link on!
We always encourage viewers to forward links to Classism Exposed posts to whoever might be interested. I know there are millions of kindred spirits out there thinking about class!
Linda Baie says
Your article assembles so much of your learning in one place, Liora. It’s a terrific summary of the issues, particular in the environment you described. Would have been interesting to do a similar survey at the public school, wouldn’t it? Hope your summer is going great!