Not the easiest topic – some thoughts on class
When I was ten years old and in third grade, my family moved from the historically working class, industrial city of Lynn, Massachusetts, to the historic and relatively wealthy 17th century coastal north shore town, Marblehead. A mere twenty minute drive from our old house, to our new, was the first big lesson in class differences, for me.
My former elementary school in Lynn while primarily white, did have an ethnic mix, in the 1970s. My best friend lived up the street, her family were immigrants from Turkey. I remember them being very kind and conservative, and I don’t remember if she was Muslim or not. My classmates were diverse and it was normal at the time.
My parents worked hard to support my little sister and I and having lived before in my former Polish great grandparents’ house in Lynn, and in wishing to move to Marblehead they found a small house that was part of a complexes of duplex housing near a large cemetery. When we moved in the yard was very overgrown and a mess, and I watched them after their jobs working hard to clear everything out to make a very nice flower garden. I was proud and pleased to see my parents clean up our yard like that.
In fourth grade I used to wear these sets of clothing we got I think in Filene’s basement in Boston and the shirts had Peanuts comics on them. I really liked them because I was a big fan of the Peanut’s comic strip.
Soon after starting school in Marblehead I made friends quickly, but I noticed that many of my friends who lived nearby lived in much larger houses than my parents. It wasn’t long before two boys asked me if I lived in the chicken coops near the cemetery. And then some of the girls remarked negatively on my clothes. They told me where their parents shopped and what (very preppy and expensive) clothing they had. (Nobody had ever commented negatively on my clothes in Lynn). One of them bragged about how many of the very expensive Italian turtlenecks she had.
When the boys said the comment about the chicken coop, I was totally unprepared, and shocked by their words. I don’t think I had even ever been exposed to such direct meanness until that time. I don’t think I said anything, but what I do remember, was utter rage that they would mock my hard working parents’ efforts.
Years later, myself having lived in a wide spectrum between living hand to mouth to the other end of being exposed for a short time to a high end career where I worked with some very rich clients, I have made peace with children’s cruelty, recognizing their and their parents’ ignorance, and I can even say remarkably some of these people remain my friends.
Being born to very young parents in the then very Irish neighborhood of Dorchester, Massachusetts, I have been lucky to have not only gone to college, but to have worked and traveled to places so far from my origin. Most of my family came to America after 1900, from Ireland, Poland and Italy, all poor, but all hard working, and smart. My elders have mostly passed away at this time, but lived long enough to be very proud to see me and others achieve things that they were not able to, and to pass class and ethnic barriers that were a lot more blatant in their youth for white non-Wasps, but that now many ethnic groups experience in the present (that’s a whole other topic).
I do feel that artists and very creative people in their ability to approach new ideas openly, have a tendency to never quite fit in with groups, and therefore, naturally resistant to classism and social, racial and ethnic divides in general. That’s a huge generalization, I know, but from what I’ve observed, artists tend to want everyone included, and are not big fans, of exclusivity.
My experiences as a child, particularly what I’ve described above (among other experiences), in part made me quite resistant to class divide. When I went to graduate school to an Ivy League college having graduated from a larger less exclusive school, I was shocked by both some of the nonsensical elitist attitudes of some of the academics- which ironically came from the people who came from more working class backgrounds. I could see that the non-moneyed sometimes felt like they had to compensate around Blue Blood elites. It was pitiful to witness at times. Interestingly though some of my favorite professors were ones who mostly worked with very traditional Wasp funded organizations (they were also from working class backgrounds)- and at one point towards the end of school, one of them warned my class, to never make the mistake of thinking “you are one of them”. I gained a lot of respect for my professor that day, as he related a story of his own humiliation when some of his funders for a project, felt he had made that mistake, and how he was shamed into his place. My heart felt for him, and meantime, I lost some of my enthusiasm for my field (historic preservation- in the past very backed by conservative, Blue Blooded funders).
Living abroad- as one often can see, even traveling as well- I was the witness of a lot of sobering realities of people’s bias, and ignorance, things I cannot print here. At this point in my life I won’t stick around if I hear someone spewing crap, but one thing it shows you when you hear it in other cultural contexts, is how relative, pathetic, and lowly it is to have solid biases against people.
One book I read in Japan (a small alternative press written in English) that really startled me was a book that looked at some of the poorest workers from the Philippines who lived in Japan doing severe day labor. There’s a big underclass of day laboring in Japan most people abroad don’t know about. The book described how on the very rare day where these men (they were contracted to work abroad without their families) had off, that they would go out to eat as a very special event to a McDonald’s, and then would hang the wrappers from their food, proudly, where they stayed. This just illustrates the relative experience of wealth, poverty, and values, outside of third world countries.
I’ve also traveled in countries and places where I’ve seen the scantiest of shelter, people living amidst garbage. A friend of mine started a school for the people who are called literally “the untouchables” in India. He showed me pictures of where the children lived, there was no running water, no toilets....he introduced them to soap, (they didn’t even know what it was) and offered classes offering food (no medical care, they are all malnourished), as they had never been to school.
Exposed to some of these things, along with exposure to people’s great wealth in my past career as an art dealer, shifted a lot of my perspective on local nuances of class. Getting away from your home is a good way to shake up one’s views. Personally I probably most resonate most in spirit with my origin and family who were fisherman, cleaners, farmers, tradespeople. I forgive the ignorant in every class level who see class first in a person before they see individuals. My daughter from Guatemala City will have her own unique journey as well making sense of her complex origins and American life.
Thank you for reading, please feel free to share your thoughts with me, email@example.com