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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Class-ification

Jody over at Raising WEG has a great post about class, mobility, and what remains unspoken in American culture. Here's a quote:
"everyone knows these class differences when they see them, although few people like to admit it. It's implicit in everything we do: the foods we serve, the vacations we take, the television shows and movies we watch, the big-box stores we shop, the goals we have for our children, certainly the churches we attend."
She is dead on target here, and I use the word advisedly. What's the difference between Walmart and Target? Walmart is larger, and caters to the working class. Target: slightly smaller, and caters to ne'er-do-well members of the upper-middle class (like myself). Like Jody says, class is as much about lifestyle and choices as it is about money.

Her post resonates for me today, particularly, as I sit on my parents' back porch.

In his earning heyday, my dad -- a doctor -- made a lot more money than my husband and I are ever likely to make. Their house is twice as big as ours. They sent all of us kids to prep school and college. I don't mean to whine, since I was given tremendous advantages and have made my own choices about how to use them. But I admit that when I come to my parents' house, I feel the panic of downward mobility grip me. Unless I make a sudden mid-life (oh my god! I am old enough to talk about mid-life!) career change involving, say, law school, we are never going to be able to afford to give our children many of the things my parents gave me.

I grew up acutely conscious of how different I was from my peers in my hometown just outside blue-collar Mitty City. "Class" was not the word we used, but there were more than enough markers pointing the way. Where we shopped. What we watched -- PBS -- and what we listened to -- NPR -- sometimes both on at the same time! My parents were several years older than my friends' parents, and my grandparents lived far away. Nobody moves to Mitty City, or they didn't back then; all of my classmates had extended family in town. We had more books in our house than the local public library.

In retrospect I almost wish I had felt a little more uppity about my privileged position. I should have enjoyed it. Instead I went around feeling sheepish and apologetic all the time. It wasn't bad enough that I was Jewish in a town where everyone was Catholic. It wasn't bad enough that I was smart in a town noted for its citizens' group dedicated to draining the funds from the public schools. No, I had to be rich, too. What was my problem?

Even when I started attending high school at the local prep school, where it was painfully apparent how small potatoes I was on the food pyramid of riches, I still felt sheepish. Guilty. Eternally sorry to the world for my unfair advantages, the advantages that my penniless grandparents in steerage-class ships had dreamed of giving to their imagined, beloved offspring.

Now, in a one-income family in a two-income world, we make less money than most of our peers by education and class. And, unlike my blue-collar hometown, we live in an area that's filled with our peers. Last Monday at playgroup, another parent whom I like a great deal described the house that she and her husband had just bought: a stately home built in the 1820s, with 6 bedrooms and enormous beech trees in the yard. It had been, in previous lives, a brothel, a casino, and a stop on the Underground Railroad. Property values are so insane around here that shacks go for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but this house, with a large yard, may well be worth over a million.

And for all my snark about McMansions, I was jealous -- more so when I saw the house yesterday. It hit me for the first time that I live on the wrong side of the tracks. My neighborhood is made up of little houses built for undernourished mill workers. Her new home is across the tracks, on the hill, where the wealthy people always live.

Have I stopped being upper-middle class? Can I stop feeling guilty now? Well, no. Because ultimately class is as much about education and opportunity as it is about money. And I've had plenty of education and opportunity. My kids will have less money, but, God willing, they will also have education and opportunity. We're still upper-middle class. We're just in that rarefied segment that gets to feel guilty AND jealous at the same time. Whoo-hoo!

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