Friday, February 15, 2013

Two Worlds

Well, we busted out of class
Had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three-minute record, baby,
Than we ever learned in school...

Anyone who knows me or talks to me for more than about five minutes knows my roots are working-class and blue-collar.

I've been thinking a lot about that lately, because it's come up more than once in the past couple of months.  The first time, I heard a comment made about how certain people wouldn't be able to understand the kind of big words we English professors use because they were... you know... "firemen."

To say that this comment really chapped my ass would be an understatement.  My dad never went to college and he worked manual labor his entire life.  And let's just say that, in my eyes, if you say anything that even slightly seems to me to be an insult to him, whether you do it directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, well, I can't really vouch for your safety.  I'm going to shoot from the lip, and you may not like what you hear.

You hit a serious emotional nerve.  That's just the way it is.

I did pretty well, though.  I simply commented that I was "uncomfortable" with the assumption that people from a certain social class were marked by a lack of intelligence.

What I wanted to say was, "Well, maybe my dad didn't know any of your high falutin' words, but he taught me the value of people who don't go around judging others on the basis of something as superficial as their job." 

I thought about the time when my thesis adviser told me how, when she first arrived in this country, she worked in a deli.  She had a couple of Masters degrees and a Ph.D., but she couldn't find a job right away, so she took what she could get.

The owner of the deli was convinced that she would rob him blind.  Every time she had to go into the walk-in cooler to get meat to slice for cold-cuts, he'd follow her to make sure she wouldn't take any.  

She's a professor at an Ivy League university now.  Once her visa came through, she was hired away from the deli.

Well I came by your house the other day,
Your mother said, you went away
She said there was nothin' that I could've done
There was nothin' nobody could say.
Now me and you, we've known each other
Ever since we were sixteen
I wish I would've known, I wish I could've called you,
Just to say good-bye...

I think that, when you grow up in one social class and migrate to another, you always live with a foot in each world, never really belonging in either.  The way you respond to life is always shaped by the environment in which you grew up.

I've noticed that the white-collar world of academia often seems to operate on the assumption that the blue-collar world and its assumptions are things to be ashamed of.  In a conversation with someone this week, that point was really driven home to me.

It was assumed that I needed--that I wanted--to rise above the circumstances of my childhood.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  It was assumed I must be ashamed of my upbringing, that I must have baggage that I can't get rid of--a "temper," a "mouth," a lack of "polish"--whatever you want to call it.

I felt a strange double-consciousness while I listened.  I think this is always what happens, when you live in two worlds like this.  On the one hand, I was very aware of what I wanted to say, and on the other hand, I was very aware of what I was expected to say.

Two very different reactions, vying for my voice.  In the end, I bit my tongue, because I decided that it wasn't worth it.  When someone makes sweeping assumptions about you, it often isn't worth the energy to try and disabuse them of those assumptions.  They aren't really interested in listening to or learning about you.

They think they already know.  So, let them.

In such moments, I tell myself to listen instead to what their claims and assertions will ultimately reveal about their own selves.  Recognizing that they know nothing about me (and aren't willing to learn) doesn't mean that I can't learn something about them.

In Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations, the protagonist Pip comments that, "It is a most miserable thing to be ashamed of home."  In my experience, that shame often begins in an odd intersection of the public and the private, when we begin to realize that what we live is not what other people live, and therefore, not what we think we should live. 

That realization, unquestioned and unchecked, can quickly blossom into a painful sense of personal inadequacy.  That's what I always hear when I hear people insist that they've risen above their background.

I remember feeling this way as a teenager.  I remember wanting to leave, wanting a different place to call my own, wanting to be someone other than who I was.

And then, a funny thing happened.  I grew up.  I realized my background was precisely what could keep me grounded.

Now, you hung with me when all the others
Turned away, turned up their noses
We liked the same music, we liked the same bands, we liked the same clothes.
And we told each other that we were the wildest, the wildest things, we'd ever seen
Now I wish you would've told me, I wish I could've talked to you
Just to say good-bye...

Part of growing up is realizing that, for everything you could be ashamed of in your past, there is a good chance that there's something in it you can be proud of, if you just look for it.

My background taught me the value of being frugal.  The value of working hard.  It taught me that manual labor isn't easy, and that doing it doesn't make you any less intelligent.  Instead, it gives you a perspective that can be an advantage, if you know how to apply it.  You have an angle on the world that other people around you might not have, and there's no way that can ever be a bad thing. 

It can be a way of connecting with people in ways that others can't even conceive of.

Now we went walkin' in the rain
Talkin' about the pain that from the world we hid
Now there ain't nobody nowhere nohow gonna ever understand me
The way you did...

It taught me that the lessons from one world can benefit life in another.  And that life itself may be best lived as a constant movement between two worlds--that this kind of mobility offers constant opportunities to learn, to grow, to connect and reconnect.

Being a snob never taught anyone anything. 

As I grew up, I also had to face the realization that, in order to live the life I was pretty sure I wanted to have, I would have to leave some things behind. 

So that's been my experience of living a life of two worlds: that there's always a strange kind of pride--something that occasionally borders on defiance--coupled with a bittersweet sadness at the fact that I couldn't simply stay in one place and be one kind of person and be content with that.

Now maybe you'll be out there on that road somewhere
On some bus or a train, that's travellin' along
In some motel room, there'll be a radio playing
And you'll hear me sing this song.
Well if you do, you'll know I'm thinkin' of you
And all the miles in between
And I'm just calling, one last time, not to change your mind
But just to say, I'll miss you, baby. 
Good luck.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."