New York – 2008
I am a liar, and I don’t know how to stop. My friend, José, tells me I need to. He tells me that people need to see our faces. He says that people like us are here at this university, in this English Ph.D. program, because our classmates, our professors and our students need to know that the poor really exist, that they’re not just some abstract concept. And I agree, in principle. But every day, I construct another lie. I stand in front of my closet, choose a pair of jeans with a label I know the girls will recognize, pull on slightly beat up boots that say I don’t have to care about polished shoes. I try to look just a bit edgy as though I’m confident enough in my place in the world that I don’t have to try to look perfect. Looking too perfect is a dead giveaway.
And, most of the time, I think I pass. My mask reveals what I’ve learned: beige eye shadow is better than shiny purples, a soft brown eyeliner is better than black, a sleek cap of hair is better than curls. Hairspray? Forget it. On most days, I think my students look at me and see what they expect to see: a middle-class student, a graduate student, so older than they are, sure, but familiar, nonetheless.
And, when I speak to them about my life, my perspective, I censor what I say. I speak about college life with authority, like it’s something I know about. I tell stories about the small private college in Boston I attended, but I don’t tell them that I’d never imagined I’d go to college at all. I don’t tell them how long that road to college was.
I teach first-year writing as part of my fellowship, and this week’s assignment from the “class in a box” I’ve been given is an article about the working conditions at Wal-Mart. The article discusses the low wages, forced unpaid overtime, and profiles a twenty-two-year-old single mother who relies on Medicaid for her son’s health care, because even though she works full-time, she can’t afford health insurance.
“So what are your thoughts on this article?” I ask the sixteen students seated in a semi-circle. Several hands go up. “Jasmine,” I say. Jasmine is in the School of Management, and is always eager to contribute to discussions about business. She is soft-spoken, prone to ending statements with a question mark, and, like many of the young women on this campus, wears Ugg boots and leggings on most days.
“Well, I like Wal-Mart,” she says. “And you know, this article might actually be sad if it was about someone with a degree?” She looks around the circle. “I mean, what do you expect if you drop out of high school? And, seriously? Then you go and have a baby and live with your boyfriend. Who does that?”
Who indeed? Well, my mother for one, although without the boyfriend and with a high school degree, but I don’t tell them that. Instead, we talk about the employment options for those without much education. I leave class, drained, as I always am, and go home.
“What’s the point,” I say on the phone to José. “Lots of these kids have parents who were immigrants, worked their way up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard ‘my father came here with nothing, and he worked hard and now he’s a doctor, or owns his own business’ pick your fucking cliché. I don’t want them looking at me and saying, ‘Look, it’s the American Dream; she was poor and now she’s our professor.’” I pause and light a cigarette, something else I hide from my students. “Where’s the lesson in that?”
José laughs a little. “Don’t you think that’s a copout?”
“Totally,” I say.
But I still don’t want to tell them what I know about being poor and illegitimate.
Massachusetts – 1973
We’re in the car going to our new house. Even though I’m five now, I still don’t like riding in the car; it makes my tummy feel bad, and sometimes, when we drive far, I throw up.
My daddy went away. He always goes away, but Mummy said this time he was going far away, to a place called Florida. He’s handsome, my daddy. Mummy says Kevin has Daddy’s pretty dark hair. My hair is the color of mud, like Mummy’s. Daddy had to go away because his job wants him to. My daddy has two families. I only have one. Mummy says that he took his other family because they were there first. I ask when he’s coming back, but Mummy says she doesn’t know.
I don’t throw up today on the car ride, though. It’s raining when we get out of the car, and I see a puddle, but I don’t step in it because I have new shoes and Mummy says I have to keep nice for Kindergarten. We climb a lot of stairs, but the stairs aren’t dark like at our old house, because these are outside stairs. Then we climb inside stairs. These ones have a rug on them. The rug is the color of poop.
At the top of the stairs, Mummy opens the big door and she says, “Hel-lo.” No one answers. I have to pee. I always have to pee and sometimes I can’t hold it even when I cross my legs. Mummy always knows when I have to pee. She says, “The bathroom is right there, Honey,” and turns my shoulders.
I stop because there’s a lady in there. She has a white bristle brush and she’s scrubbing the toilet. She has long hair, for a grown up. I cross my legs and Mummy says the lady is Jean and that she has a daughter the same age as me, and maybe we will be friends. Jean says, “Maybe,” and then her mouth goes into a line. Mummy says I have a weak bladder, and need the toilet, and Joan comes out. I pull down my pants as fast as I can, but I still pee in my pants just a little. Jean is outside the bathroom, and she says, “Don’t you close the bathroom door?” I flush the toilet. Jean’s eyes are black like her hair.
I find Mummy in the kitchen. It has red and yellow squares on the floor. She says, “Get off my leg,” when I hug her. Mummy says that in this house, me and Kevin won’t have to sleep in the same room as her. She said to go look at our new bedroom, and take Kevin with me. Our beds are there. So is my Irish doll. My daddy gave it to me for my birthday. I want to take her shoes off, but Mummy says I can’t; she’s a sit-and-look-pretty doll.
New York – 2008
We don’t often talk about class in academia, at least not as it applies to those of us inside academia. We talk about class and how it impacts other people. We discuss how celebrations of culture elide material realities – gloss over the shitty living conditions of the poor – of people outside the academy, but inside, we like to pretend we’re all the same, as though an advanced degree is somehow the great equalizer, the educational equivalent of the American Dream that we are so fond of critiquing. It’s not.
Which is not to say that every student in my graduate program at this university comes from the middle class. There are plenty of us who don’t, and we find each other, know each other by the little signs, the not-perfect teeth signifying someone whose family couldn’t afford braces, or the occasional lapse into our home idiom. I, for example, tend to drop my r’s when I speak too quickly. And, my grammar sucks.
And, I know that not all of my students are middle class, either. The credit card boom has made it easier to pass, but I know the signs: one of my students wears her hair pulled into a tight ponytail with barrettes to slick down the fly-aways when she can’t afford to get it straightened; another crosses his legs, and the sole flaps from his worn shoe.
I don’t have a lot now, but I remember not being able to afford so many things.
Massachusetts – 1975
The green car Grampa found for us doesn’t work again, so we have to walk places. I am seven now, and a big girl, so I can help carry the groceries, but sometimes they are so heavy when we walk up the big hill. I don’t want to complain, because it makes Mom mad, but sometimes, I do anyway.
The other day, we were supposed to go visit Aunty Ginny, but it was raining when we went out to the car, and it wouldn’t start. Mom said maybe the car just needed to dry out, but it still didn’t start, even though Mom scooped all the water off the floor with an empty tuna can. Me and Kevin were sad, but Mom says you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I don’t know what that means.
So, today, we walked down to the Mammoth Mart. I like Mammoth Mart, because they have toys, and sometimes, Mom will let me look at them for a little bit.
We are halfway through the aisle that has stuffed animals in it when I see it: a golden teddy bear with a shiny red polka-dot ribbon around its neck. I pick it up and hug it, and it is so snuggly, like falling asleep in the softest pillow. She has a nametag on her side, and it says “Diana.” Diana, the teddy bear. I rub my face in the silky fur on her belly, and it feels like she loves me back. I know I can’t ask, because it’s not my birthday and it’s not Christmas, but I want this bear, and I wish, I wish I could have her. I hug her and hug her, and I know she wants to be my special friend, wants me to hug her forever. If I could have this bear, I would hug her every day.
Mom says, “Come on, Honey. We have to go. Put the bear back.” And I know I have to, so I give Diana one last hug, and then I stroke her soft fur, and I am crying. I don’t mean to. I’m a big girl now. I give Diana a kiss and set her back on the shelf, where she looks at me with her melty brown eyes. Mom reaches out for the price tag, looks at it, and turns away. I know I’m not supposed to cry, there are kids in India who don’t even have food, but I can’t help it, and I don’t know how to stop, and Mom hugs me, and I say, “I’m sorry,” and she says, “I’m sorry, too, Honey,” and I try to stop crying.
I wipe my face on my sleeves and we walk away from the toys. As we walk by an aisle, I see a bag of yellow wrapped candies, just sitting on a stack of boxes. The bag is open. Mom stops to look at something, and I grab one of the candies, unwrap it, and shove it in my mouth. It’s a big, chewy caramel thing and it fills my whole mouth, and I don’t know what to do now. If Mom sees me chewing, she’ll ask me what’s in my mouth, and then she’ll know I am a thief. I won’t chew and I won’t talk. Maybe the candy will melt.
“Come on,” Mom says and we go to the cash registers, and I stand beside her, looking at the grey squares on the floor. The tears are still thick in my throat, and mixed with this big round caramel, I’m afraid I might choke. Why did I take the candy? I turn away from her a little bit, and try to chew, but the candy sticks my teeth together and I can’t open my mouth now. There are rows of candies at the cash register, and I pretend to look at them. Mom is getting ready to pay, but she turns around and picks up a package of Chuckles, their orange, green and red gumminess coated in sugar. “Honey, would you like these? You can share them with Kevin?” Mom doesn’t buy us candy. We know not to ask. We don’t have money for astravagances. I want to say something, to be grateful, but I can’t open my mouth, so I just nod. I try to work the sticky candy free with my tongue, but I can’t.
Mom pays and I follow her feet out the door that opens when you step on the mat. When we get outside, she hands me the package of Chuckles and says I can carry it. She stops and scoots down in front of me. I look at the sidewalk. She puts a finger under my chin and turns my face up to hers. “Kimberly, look at me,” she says, so I do. She pets my hair, and says, “Honey, I know you really wanted the bear, and I wish I could get it for you.” I don’t ever remember my mother saying she wanted to buy me something. My mouth is still stuck shut and I can’t say anything, so I nod, but then I see her eyes are all full of tears, too, and I have to say something, to tell her it’s ok, but I can’t. She hugs me, and whispers, “Maybe Santa will bring you the bear,” and even though Christmas is a long time away, I nod.
New York – 2008
Last weekend was Parents Weekend. Most of my students had said their parents were planning to drive up from Long Island and New York City. These are first-year students, and some have been homesick.
I ask them, “So, how was the big weekend?” A few smile, but most grimace – the faces of the long-suffering who have just wasted a perfectly good weekend. Jason shrugs and volunteers, “Well, I got a lot of stuff.” Vigorous head nodding follows, and several students talk at once.
“Dude, I totally cleaned up at Target,” says Ryan. He’s a slender guy whose personal essay was about how pissed he was when his parents made him leave his friends last summer to spend a month in Europe with his family. He concluded though, that the trip did help him appreciate his little brother more.
“My parents felt so bad for me when I showed them the mall here,” says Mackenzie. She is one of the students I can count on to contribute to class discussions, although sometimes her unflagging optimism grates on me. “But, then we went to Target, and I got a whole bunch of stuff, and that was really cool.”
“Sounds like it was a good weekend for Target, then,” I say. We move on to an ongoing conversation about troubles plaguing the university’s basketball team. One of the star players was recently arrested and accused of dealing drugs. Most of the class condemns him, and Jason pronounces him a “dumbass,” for throwing away the chance to pull himself up and out of his crack-plagued home town. I point out that most athletic scholarships don’t provide any spending money and that the player in question has a baby. Of course, I say, that doesn’t mean he should deal drugs, but desperate people sometimes do unwise things. They nod but look unconvinced.
Massachusetts and Maine – 1977
It’s almost like a fairytale. Mom and Dennis went on a date right before the 4th of July, and now, Mom is going to marry Dennis and we are going to live in Maine, really close to Grammie and Grampa. We are packing up and moving just in time for me and Kevin to start the new school year. There’s going to be a wedding in a church by the ocean, and I am going to get a new dress – one from a store, not one Mom makes. Mom says I can have a pair of pantyhose to wear with my dress. Dennis has a house, a real house with no one else living in it and I can have my own room. Dennis says I should call him Daddy from now on.
The wedding was fun, but not as fun as I thought it would be. It was 101 degrees, a record heat wave, Grammie said, and my new dress had long sleeves and a vest. Mom told me not to wear the pantyhose, she said I would die in them, but I said, please, please, please, until she said, “Ok, but don’t complain to me when you’re sweating to death.” I didn’t, but I sure wanted to.
Mom looked pretty, but not like I was hoping. She didn’t wear a dress like you see on TV, because she said she was too old for that. She made herself a dress, but it was just a normal dress that was whitish. She wore lipstick, though, and she is so skinny right now that I can put my arms all the way around her waist.
I am wearing my new dress again today, my first day in the new school. I’m going to be in fourth grade again. Well, not really again, but last year, in Massachusetts, I was in a special class for third graders and fourth graders together. Mom said it was because they thought I was smart, but they were wrong. I couldn’t see the board, so they made me get glasses, but I still didn’t do good. So, I’m happy to go to real fourth grade.
Mom packed me a lunch today, but she says I get to have hot lunch for free. I am supposed to ask the teacher when I can have that. My new school looks a lot like my old school, except the teacher looks nicer than Miss McCarthy was, and I hope she is. Mrs. Williams is talking now about milk tickets and lunch tickets and when we have to bring in our money for them, and I know this is my chance. I raise my hand, straight up in the air. “Yes, Kimberly?” she says. I am sitting in the back of the room so I speak loudly and clearly so she can hear me. “Mrs. Williams,” I say, “My mother said I get to have free hot lunch. Can you please tell me how that works?” Mrs. Williams’ eyes widen and then she looks down at her desk. Several kids suck in their breath, and then one boy laughs, and a few kids turn around and look at me. I’ve seen this look before, but I have a daddy now, so I don’t know what has followed me to Maine.
New York – 2006
It’s my second semester in the master’s program. Initially, I wasn’t offered a campus job. But after I make repeat visits to the graduate director’s office to pester her to find a job, any job, for me, she offers me a position administering the department’s study abroad program in London. I say I’ll take it.
Today, I am hosting an information session for prospective students, and the senior faculty member on the program – a retired professor I’ve never met – has asked to meet with me before it starts. I’ve set up the photo slideshow, and have my speech prepared, when the door opens, and a seventyish man in a crew-neck sweater, button down shirt and khakis steps inside. He looks me up and down and then shakes my hand. I describe my presentation and ask for his help identifying the landmarks in the slide show.
“The pictures all came from former students,” I say.
“Well, haven’t you been to London?” he asks.
“No,” I say.
His lips purse a little. “That was always a requirement for this position.”
I look at the computer and check the connections.
“Well, you must have been to Europe,” he continues. I look down at my pointy-toed shoes and think the skirt and sweater I’d carefully chosen was a bad call. I should have worn a suit.
“No,” I say.
He shakes his head slightly and raises an eyebrow.
“I went to a small college,” I say, “and the only study abroad program we had was in France, and I don’t speak French.”
“You didn’t study French?”
“Spanish,” I counter. I feel my spine curling, but I force my shoulders straight.
He turns away and goes to the back of the room as students start to filter in.
He doesn’t help me with the slide show, and when I misidentify the Tower of London as London Bridge, he corrects me and shakes his head.
When the presentation is over, he gets up and leaves without looking at me.
Still, not the worst job I’ve had, I remind myself.
Maine – 1990
Four years after I graduate from high school, I am dangling on the edge. I’ve had ten jobs since graduation: from cashier to car salesperson. Most recently, I’d been waiting tables, but the restaurant I worked at was seasonal, and when it got too cold for the lobster-gobbling tourists, the restaurant closed for the winter. I applied at most of the other restaurants in town, but no one was hiring, so I applied at Friendly’s Ice Cream. The manager said he didn’t have any wait staff positions, but he is my uncle, so he offered me a position as a grill cook, on the four to midnight shift. “But don’t think that you get special treatment because you’re my niece,” he said. I took the job.
I have been renting a room in a friend’s partially furnished basement. I have my own bathroom down here. The walls, though, are made of wood slats, and tiny black worms live in the walls and slip between the slats. Every morning there they are, coiled up in the corners of the olive-green bathtub. It drains slowly, and, as I’m showering, coiled worms and gray soapy water drift past my feet.
This room was fine in the summer, and even into early fall, but now it’s winter, and the basement isn’t heated. Every night, I come home, run downstairs, turn on the electric blanket, and then go back upstairs and talk with my friend or her husband, if either of them is still awake. Ten minutes is long enough to take the bite of cold off the sheets so I can get into bed.
I have two uniform shirts, tan striped short-sleeved polo shirts, and one blue skirt. Every night after work, I wash a shirt and my pantyhose in my bathroom sink, and hang them on the towel bar, where they will be dry in a day or so. I sponge the day’s grease off my black sneakers and pound them together to get the mashed French fries out of the treads.
During my six or eight hour shifts, I cook square burgers, fries, mozzarella sticks, grilled cheese. Other than breaks, I stop only when my glasses blur with splattered grease, to wipe them off with the hem of my uniform skirt. I’ve always had dry skin, but this winter, I tell my friends, I really don’t need moisturizer.
Cooking twenty or so burgers on a three-foot deep grill requires coordination. Keith, the guy who trained me, told me that the rare burgers should go in the front, and the well-done in the back, and that seemed like a good system, but keeping track of all the burgers, when the waitresses keep putting new order slips up over my head is tougher than I’d imagined. I’d never cooked a burger – or much of anything else – before I started working here, so Keith showed me how to gauge the patties’ doneness by poking them. He demonstrated with his thumb tucked up next to his index finger. “See,” he said as he pushed at the bulge he’d created. “This is medium rare,” he tightened his thumb, “and this is well done. See?” I didn’t see, but I nodded, and just tried not to burn things. Usually that worked.
The square patties are often still partially frozen when I toss them onto the grill. When they hit the grease slick surface, they hiss and splatter tiny beads of grease onto my hands like a Fourth of July sparkler. When I reach over the rare and medium rare burgers to flip the well-done ones in the back, the grease leaps up to sting the tender underside of my forearm.
The French fries, onion rings and mozzarella sticks are their own kind of hazard. They are never unthawed, and when I drop them into the fryolator basket and lower them into the hot oil, they roar and sometimes the ice crystals that cling to them pop to the surface, leap out of the oil and onto my skin. My hands are peppered with tiny burns. I’ve learned to lower the basket quickly and jump back. Just when I think I’ve got a system figured out, Friendly’s rolls out their new menu, and bacon seems part of every sandwich. Now there is a thicker layer to scrape off the grill into the grease trap, and the extra snap and leap of the bacon fat to dodge.
Tonight is a brutally cold windy January night. I have worked nine days in a row, which means I’ll get some overtime, but I am so tired. I’ve been to the huge walk-in freezer to restock the frozen burgers, sliced open the twenty-pound boxes, and lugged them back to the grill station. At about 11:30, I am scraping the grill clean. We haven’t had any customers in at least an hour, and I’ve been watching the clock, anxious to turn off the fryolator, drain the black brackish grease, and clean it. At 11:45, four guys from the nearby Navy base walk in and, of course, they all want bacon cheeseburgers.
An hour later, I finish scooping the black sludge out of the bottom of the fryolator, and the little fragments of French fries, onion rings and mozzarella sticks that slip through the baskets, and when my bucket is full, I grab it by the handle and short step it to the back door. I push open the door, and the cold wind makes my nose hair feel like it’s frozen to the inside of my nostrils. I lug the bucket across the snow dusted parking lot to the grease dumpster, and as I heave the heavy weight to shoulder height so I can pour the grease into the grated trap, it slips on the icy slick lip of the dumpster and the still warm sludge hits my bare forearm. I try to jump back, but the grease pours over my legs and feet, and then slithers to the ground. It’s so cold that for a moment, the thick warmth of the oil is a welcome heat, but then I slip and land on all fours in the slick puddle, next to the bucket. For a second I don’t want to get up. I try to rise to my feet, my sneakers slipping and I grab the handle of the dumpster. “Fuck,” I think, “Now I’m going to have to take a shower before I can go to bed.” I look down at my legs; blood wells from the tattered flesh of my knee. My last good pair of pantyhose has a hole in them. That thought sets the tears searing down my cheeks. I have to wear pantyhose to work.
The next day, I think about the local technical college’s ads. Maybe I could be an x-ray technician. I request a brochure, look at the photos of smiling women in white lab coats. But looking at one college has me looking at others, and I think maybe, just maybe, there’s a way I could go to a real college.
Maine – 2008
Lauren, one of my grad school friends, is moving back to the West Coast, and she wants to see some of New England before she goes. She asks if she can come to Maine with me over the short September break. My parents’ house is really, really small, I warn her. My hometown is boring, my adoptive father loves Rush Limbaugh almost as much as he loves Bill O’Reilly, I add. But Lauren says she wants to see the coast of Maine, and so we go.
It’s about 10:30 when we pull into the driveway of my parents’ tiny ranch, built as temporary housing during World War II. The driveway and side yard are full of cars – three or four sedans and a 1983 Toyota pick-up.
Lauren looks around. “Wow, your parents have company this late at night?”
“Nope.” I turn off the car. “They’re all my parents’.”
She laughs. “Seriously? It looks like a used car lot.”
“Yep,” I shrug. “My dad likes cars.”
Lauren knows my parents didn’t make much money, but I don’t know how to explain to her that my dad celebrates his long climb to the middle class by not selling his old cars when he gets a new (new to him) one. He saves everything. Every closet in the house is crammed with magazines, dress shirts with shoulder-wide collars and boxes of 8-track tapes. Coffee cans and baby food jars full of screws and nails fill the basement. My father’s other great love is his television, and every night, he takes control of the remote, puts on Fox News, and turns the volume up loud enough to be heard in every room of the house. This was good training. I can read anywhere, no matter what else is going on.
After two nights with my parents, Lauren says, “I get it now; it really must have been rough growing up in a house this small.” I think of the one-bedroom apartment my mother, brother and I lived in until I was five, and the four and a half room apartment we lived in until my parents got married. “Yeah,” I say, “It was hard to find much alone time.”
A few years ago, I discovered a collection of essays written by academics from working-class families. When I saw the book, I thought, these people will understand me. While they understood the sense of being alienated from their families, all of those academics shared something that I did not. They were all, early in life, identified as gifted and talented, tracked into programs for intelligent kids, did well or exceptionally well in high school before they went off to college. That wasn’t me. Though I read every chance I got, including through most of my classes when I wasn’t supposed to be reading, I could not get my head around geometry, which according to the guidance counselors, meant that I wasn’t college material.
I did try, but somehow, my brain couldn’t grasp how to calculate the volume of a sphere. I remember the geometry teacher staring coldly at me through his wire-rimmed glasses when I asked him to help me, and then saying, “I don’t understand, Miss Vose, why you fail to understand what I’ve just said.” I asked my parents to help me, but they hadn’t taken geometry either. I’d been told, we all had, by the guidance counselors and our teachers, that if you wanted to go to college, you had to take Algebra I, II and Geometry. And I believed them.
Maine – 1992
I am sleeping under my parents’ roof for the first time in six years. I just finished my first semester in college, and I am waiting for my grades to come in the mail. I am not very confident. Although I studied alone in the library every night until it closed at midnight, I still don’t understand what a comma splice is, or why my English professor keeps finding them in my papers. I got a C on my Western Civilizations mid-term, and I don’t know if I did any better on the final exam.
I am twenty-four, too old to be a freshman, and I feel completely out of place at the expensive private women’s college in Boston I had miraculously been accepted and offered a scholarship to. Most of the other women there have torn down the brown and yellow striped curtains that the school provides, replacing them with Laura Ashley curtains that match their comforters. My next-door neighbor complains that she has to drive an Acura because after totaling two BMWs, her father won’t buy her another one. I don’t tell her that everything I own fits in the back of my Hyundai hatchback.
I know I’m not smart enough to be in college, and the school made a mistake letting me in. Soon, they’ll know it, too, and kick me out. I don’t know what I’ll do then.
Dad and I usually don’t have much to talk to each other about, but he and I are alone in the house, so I try to make conversation. I tell him that my hairbrush broke and I need a new one. He nods.
I try to make myself useful. I just finished mopping the brown linoleum floor, checking all the angles to make sure I didn’t miss a spot, as Dad watches me from his recliner. I think I’ve done a pretty good job, but he points out that I’ve missed several spots, and wonders what I’m learning at that college. As I dump the dirty water into the sink, I hear the thud of the mail carrier’s footfall on the front steps, followed by the clunk of the recliner shutting. My father opens the front door, and a minute later says, “Kimberly, you’ve got a letter from Pine Manor.”
I walk into the living room, take the slim envelope from him, and go to my old bedroom to open it. I slip my finger under the flap and pull out the grade sheet inside. I unfold it, take a deep breath, and force myself to look down. It reads, A, A, A-, A. 3.93 for the semester. I look up and my father is standing in the doorway. “Well?” he says, and I hand him the sheet of paper. He looks at it for a minute, nods and hands it back to me. Then he reaches into his back pocket, takes out his worn black billfold, and pulls out a twenty-dollar bill. “Here,” he says, “Go buy yourself a new hairbrush.”
New York – 2008
I walk into the classroom, and my students continue talking to each other, and I’m not sure if that means I don’t scare them as much as I should. I’ve assigned an article about how more and more students from low-income families are finding it increasingly difficult to go to college. Financial aid is not keeping up with the price of tuition, and more than ever colleges are offering merit-based scholarships to students whose families could easily afford to pay their tuition. Several hands go up when I ask for comments. Mackenzie says, “I worked really hard in high school. I spent weekends with a tutor, and I didn’t get to have as much fun as a lot of my friends did.” She raises her chin. “I earned my scholarship.”
I look at the oversized Coach bag she’d tossed onto the floor. I’d run into Mackenzie on campus a few nights ago as I was headed home. She was getting out of a cab with some other young women. “Hi!!” she’d said, “We’ve been downtown, ‘cause we don’t like to eat dinner in the caf. The food there is so gross.” I’d thought about the many nights in college I’d eaten cereal for dinner. Crunch Berries were my favorite. I feel sick to my stomach now.
I look around the room, at Sasha with the row of barrettes holding down her fly aways; her arms are crossed over the pilled sweatshirt she’s worn once a week all semester. I’m sure she’s here on a scholarship, too, but she’s never said a word about it. In fact, she hardly speaks in class at all, and rarely looks at anyone. I think about the boy with the sole flapping from his shoe, who also rarely spoke in class. He dropped out midway through the semester. And I think, who am I protecting? Doesn’t Sasha need someone to speak up for her?
Before I can stop it, the question I’m not supposed to ask comes tumbling out of my mouth. “How many of your parents did not go to college?” The students look from one to another, and I raise my hand. My arm hangs in the air, vulnerable, exposed, and I fight the urge to snatch it back down to safety. Instead, I look around the circle, until first one hand is hesitantly raised, and then one more. I let my hand drift back to my lap, close my eyes for a few seconds and swallow. My throat feels thick. “My father drove a school bus,” I say, “and without financial aid I could never have gone to college.”
As I look around the room, I expect, I don’t know, judgement? Some students nod or compose their faces into polite seriousness, some, including Sasha, look at their hands, others look interested. No one looks shocked. I look to the two who raised their hands, and realize I’ve been holding my breath. Time to breathe. I don’t know if it matters, this baby step, but I hope it does.
Postscript – 2020
It took a while for that baby step to lead to another. I finished my graduate school course work, and moved to California, where it took a couple of years for me to feel secure enough in my new job to reveal anything about myself at all, even to my colleagues. However, at the university I teach at now, almost sixty percent of our students are low income, and there came a point when I realized that I was doing them a disservice by pretending to be something I wasn’t. I remember the day clearly: I was telling a room full of students about how important, how powerful, writing and storytelling is, and though they nodded, I could see in their skeptical faces that they didn’t really believe me, didn’t think I meant their stories.
We’d just read an article about storytelling, in which the writer used an example from their job. I looked around the room and asked if anyone had ever picked fruit or vegetables for pay. I could tell by the way they exchanged glances that I hadn’t created an environment where they felt comfortable talking about the agricultural fields that literally surround our campus, the fields where so many of their parents worked. So, I told them about my blueberry raking job, and how hard it was to rake those low-bush blueberries, bent over all day in the steamy August sun, mosquitos buzzing around my head, slugs impaled on the tines of my rake; about being paid by the bushel, ten dollars a bushel; how I’d been told that good rakers could rake ten bushels a day, how I was imagining I’d be a good raker, but even though my back cramped and my arms turned to rubber, I never managed to rake more than two bushels a day; how my grandmother cooked up a batch of blueberry something (pancakes, pie, cobbler, blueberries for your cereal) in their tiny trailer in the middle of the blueberry fields. Every. Single. Day. About how I wouldn’t eat blueberry anything for a couple of years after that.
The strawberry and lemon picking stories rolled in from my classes, and that was the last time I hid.
Kim Vose is a native New Englander happily transplanted to California, where she lives with her husband and three cats. She holds a Ph.D. from SUNY Binghamton University, where she was an editor at Harpur Palate. She is Assistant Professor of English and teaches writing at California State University Channel Islands. Her work is forthcoming in The Rumpus and Celebrating Calabria: Writing Heritage and Memory.