April 15, 2010
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“Share a story about a time you felt your social class,” our minister invited.
Silence swept the room. We mined our memories. This was a class on social class — a touchy subject in egalitarian America.
“I remember my mother, a widow, a seamstress with a small dress shop … I remember her nervousness when meeting my future in-laws who were wealthier and more highly educated,” one woman said.
She tearfully recounted her relief when her prospective father-in-law warmly welcomed her mother into the family fold. This daughter of a seamstress would rise to state senator, fiercely advocating for Vermont’s underprivileged in Montpelier’s hallowed halls.
Another classmate, a retiree who qualified for Section 8 — affordable housing — recounted telephoning a senior community in Shelburne to ask if they’d accept his certificate. With monthly fees alone far exceeding his means, he was out of luck. The leafy life care retirement community seemed beyond his reach. He mentioned how some Burlington seniors — poorer ones — felt more comfortable eating meals at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf than the senior center. Socioeconomics separates in ways age cannot.
I shared a story from my arrival in Vermont in 1991. Hired as an associate director at a Vermont higher education institution, I was trained by my predecessor, a confident graduate of an elite college. The state college I worked my way through was definitely “minor league” by comparison. While in her office, she took a call from her father. The half of the conversation I heard went something like this:
“You’re where? New York City?” she laughed. “You’re calling from a limo?” The banter continued as I sat in what would soon be my office.
Long before the proliferation of cell phones, car phones demonstrated extravagance. Call concluded, she turned to me and said, “That was my dad calling from New York. He’s there on business. … What does your father do?”
A sense of surprise and unease welled up inside me.
“My father is a school custodian,” I said, hesitantly.
“Oh,” she responded, unimpressed, and returned to work conversation.
Did she think less of me because my father’s profession involved mopping floors and cleaning toilets? Did she have a clue what she was asking? I felt angry she’d ask such a question. What did my father’s job have to do with anything? Should I have explained his education was interrupted by war and imprisonment as a teenager in a Nazi slave labor camp? Would she care he came to America a refugee, working two and three jobs to put food on the table? Could she possibly understand he took a janitor job at 64 when the factory closed and my sister, still in college, needed health benefits? Her question made me feel smaller. She played the class card, unmasking my lower status.
My roommate in college was friendly, outgoing and not exactly “academically oriented.” We got along well enough. I lived in the dorm Monday to Friday, travelling home to work on weekends.
Her father, a suited salesman who wore too much cologne, slipped into town periodically. He’d treat her to dinner and drop a thick wad of bills. She gleefully worked through the stash over the next several nights, going out to bars. I might have done the same — if I walked in her sandals.
I was often in our room studying when “Dad” arrived. During one visit, her father cast a glance toward me and asked with a hint of sarcasm, “Kathy, why don’t you go out and have some fun? You study too much.”
My weak response was something about how I had to work in addition to attending school. The door shut behind them. Tears of anger — at his cruelty — rolled down my cheeks as I redirected myself to my schoolwork.
Each Friday, I’d take a bus to a train to a bus to get home to my restaurant job. I’d reverse the jaunt early Monday mornings to get to my on-campus Work Study job before class. Travelling Route 9 near Boston, I passed Wellesley College on my to and fro journey. I often stared at the sign, wondering what it might be like to attend a fancy school like that. Wellesley felt as unattainable as Mars.
It’s human to ask each other questions. It’s a way to get to know someone, to demonstrate interest. It’s also a way — if you’re of a certain persuasion — to assess pedigree, or lack thereof. For folks from socioeconomically disadvantaged circumstances, these can be emotionally loaded questions.
When getting to know others, I am most curious about “the hand” they were dealt in life and what they’ve chosen to do with it. Pedigree has its advantages — but so does a lack, thereof.
Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.