Want to share books with me?
Want to share books with me?
My name is Michaela, and I’m an upper-middle class white girl. (Hi, Michaela).
Well then. Now that we’re all a little more acquainted (or at least you know something a little personal about me), let’s talk.
I’ve been at Bryn Mawr as a student now for approximately 3 ½ months, but I spent many of my formative (read: awkward teenage) years here as the kid sister to a BMC student. My sister graduated class of 2010—another fact about me, another thing that I don’t necessarily like to bring up for fear that it reveals my unfair privilege.
In high school, I tried to empathize with the less well-off kids at my fairly diverse, but still very wealthy, public school. I’m from around DC, so I wanted to identify with the “real people” of DC, not the ones like me who were truly from the affluent Maryland suburbs but told people that they were from the city (the count is up to three on things that I’ve now told you about myself that are a little tough/embarrassing/shameful (?) to share. If you comment, will you tell me at least one?)
I worked with City Year, part of AmeriCorps, in trying to clean up the city and various run down public schools in the minimal way that a team of high schoolers spending eight hours on Saturdays can. Here is where I had my closest encounters with “real” DCers, the African American and Latino kids who were also in the program, but lived a life that was much closer to those of the people we were helping. They went to schools where teachers literally fell asleep at their desks, and lived in less than ideal homes, unlike my family’s moderate sized house on a hill in the highest-educated zip code in the country (or something of the like).
Being at Bryn Mawr, though, I’ve met a lot more “real” people here—those who aren’t sure how they’re going to pay for college beyond sophomore year, those who work several on-campus jobs, those who never join in when friends call for takeout.
I’ve come to realize (as you probably did two paragraphs ago) that I was just using “real” as a euphemism for “poorer than I am”. People with money have pulses and neuron activity and other bodily functions that I probably should have taken an anatomy class to learn about—they are just as human as those without, but, as a mechanism for coping with my own class privilege and distancing myself from others in a similar income bracket, I confess to making them (us) out to be less genuine than those who have really struggled, “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps even when they didn’t have boots,” as wise President Obama would say.
I never know how to address it when it comes up—I feel a little cornered when the topic of work-study hours or continuing financial aid makes its way into the conversation—and I often wish there were someone around with whom I could exchange an understanding (if disappointed at the state of socioeconomic inequality) look. Sometimes, for the sake of fitting in with my peers, I just sort of nod and smile, pretending that I come from a less privileged background than I actually do. But isn’t that selfish of me? Don’t I need to just suck it up and appreciate my privilege for the opportunities that it has afforded me? Can I really be a poor little (kind of) rich girl?
After taking this Emily Balch Seminar on the impact of class on education and general livelihood, I feel more confident that I can feel this way—that everyone struggles with their class and socioeconomic status, whether it’s below or above my own. No one is truly comfortable with the topic; it tends to be a taboo in polite company, or even in private. When I interviewed three of my friends for a project about their financial aid resources, each of them gave me the impression that they felt that talking about money, or lack thereof, was against the Honor Code.
I respect and understand this hesitation, having experienced it myself. But then again, I think of all the possibly life-changing conversations that could be had if we opened ourselves up to the discomfort of discussing class. Although it has made for some awkward situations in our ESEM and in Class Dismissed? events outside of the classroom, I have always come out of these frank conversations feeling like I have learned something new about my classmates, and oftentimes, feeling more comfortable knowing that others also struggle with their privilege, or lack thereof.
So I ask—do you want to share textbooks with me? It’s not that I couldn’t afford them on my own, or even that I want to offer you charity if you’re one of those “real” people that I mentioned a while back. It’s that, while I accept that I have a serious leg up in being lucky enough not to worry about money, I also realize that I have to be aware of how money works—not only how I spend it, or how my peers do (or do not), but how it can be used to support or hinder the often classist banking or financial systems that are so often in the news.
That’s what being a “real” person should truly mean to me—knowing one’s own abilities and limitations, recognizing and being sensitive to those of others, and then moving past them to work to make a real change in the way class defines who we are and what we can do.