I grew up working class poor. My parents moved to Springdale, Arkansas in 1980, and our house only cost around $14,000. I knew my family had less money than my peers, but it was only when a friend of mine asked to go home from a slumber party because she didn’t like my house that I truly realized how being poor made one an outsider.
My parents worked long hours to provide for us. My mother grew up in Springdale too, in the 1950s, and dropped out of school in the eighth grade. She didn’t drop out because she hated school; she quit to find a job to help my grandmother feed her nine siblings.
My grandfather couldn’t read. I don’t even know how much schooling he had; he was a hard, calloused man, and I was afraid to talk to him much. My grandparents lived in a broken-down trailer in the country that smelled of cooking grease and cigarettes and rot. My grandmother read the bible a great deal, and wrote letters. This is mostly what I remember about her. She looked so old for her age, and I don’t remember her smiling very much. I remember her as a serious woman. Then again, getting married at fifteen and having ten children would be cause for seriousness. I believe that poverty and struggle smothered out any remains of youth or joy. Her life was hard from the moment she entered this world, and she found joy where she could, in the smiles of her children.
My mom always wanted to earn her GED, but she was too intimidated, so her job options were always limited. As a kid, I remember worked in a lot of restaurants. In Arkansas, she worked for a while in an insulation plant, and her last job ever was working in a freezer in Tyson Foods. Working those long hours broke down her body, and by 2003, she simply couldn’t physically do the work anymore.
My dad, a high school gradute and military veteran, also worked in factories most of his life. I remember him working for Bama Pie in Tulsa, in the warehouse. Once, I was able to go in with him, and I still remember the fragrance of cinnamon and clove, clinging to him like a second skin.
He worked for Glad Manufacturing, which sold to Clorox, for over 20 years. That job was everything to him. When he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 57, and was told he couldn’t work anymore, a part of him died right there in the doctor’s office. He loved his job, but I belive that job killed him. Twenty years of inhaling plastic fumes and glue residue sealed to his kidneys like cement. He didn’t have a chance of beating the cancer. The tumor was nine millimeters in diameter when they found it. He died two years later.
Even though my parents worked more than forty hours a week, it wasn’t enough. Our family of five had food and a house, but just barely. Mom and Dad fought constantly. Sometimes, after work, Mom would pull up in the driveway and just sit in her truck chainsmoking. She didn’t want to come inside.
When we moved into that house, it only had two bedrooms and one bath, and it had a curious smell, like mothballs. It didn’t have central heat or air, only a gas stove that cracked and popped, heating a small circumference of the living room.
My parents remodeled the attic into two bedrooms for my sister and me. There were no closets in the house, so my dad built them. The floor in the attic was porus, and light shone right through. I remember tin cans were smashed into the floor in an attempt to plug up the holes. Dad and mom replaced the floor and put in drywall. They opened up the walls to put in insulation, and there were newspapers inside from the 1920s. There was also a giant scythe, like the one you see illustrations of Death holding, inside the wall. I couldn’t sleep for weeks thinking about why that sythe was in there. My ten-year old imagination went wild. I pictured a lone serial killer, hiding his weapon of choice in the walls. Honestly, it still freaks me out a bit.
My husband and I were married months after graduation. I tried college, but was unprepared for the rigor, the cost, or the time. I dropped out. We had three kids, and we were also poor. We worked dead end jobs and never had enough.
My husband decided to go to college first. I thought he was crazy at first. We could barely pay our bills. We were my parents. But, he insisted education was our way out. I wasn’t sure. He worked full time at night and attended class during the day. It took him five years, but he earned his BS in Chemical Engineering, and it changed our lives. We moved to Texas, and his salary doubled. We felt like celebrites.
It took me a while to decide to go to college. I flirted with higher education for a few years before I committed. I earned my AA at a junior college, and every single day I attended, I felt out of place, until I found writing. Writing helped me feel a bit more like I was part of things.
When I transferred to a four-year university, I never quite felt that I fit in. For one thing, I was fifteen years older than most of my peers. I struggled quite a bit with assignments. I was working night shift, full-time at a hospital, and most of the time exhausted. I constantly felt guilt for not spending enough time with my husband and kids. I fought introversion and did not want to ask for help, or to spend any more time than necessary with other students. Luckily, I made friends in spite of all these factors, and I had very supportive professors. In the back of my mind, I worried incessantly that I’d fail. I always felt like an outsider, in spite of everything. I didn’t belong.
Once, I mentioned this to one of my favorite professors. She said, “Oh, that’s called “Imposter Syndrome.” It’s very real.”
I began reading everything I could find on the topic.
I ended up graduating with honors, and I was the President of our school’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society. I won awards for my writing, and was published. My college featured me in their magazine. The local paper did a story on me. I was interviewed by the local news channel. I still did not feel like I belonged. I felt like a fake.
When I walked across the stage with my diploma, I felt an enormous relief. I was the first in my family to ever graduate. Until I held my diploma in my hands, I worried (just a bit) that there had been a mistake.
I began teaching right away. I realized I wanted to teach college, and that required a master’s degree.
I still remember the first time I logged onto Blackboard as a graduate student. I had no idea what anyone was talking about. I had to look up terms right and left. I felt that most of my time was spent trying to cover up my ignorance. Any moment, I thought, they will find out I don’t really know anything. Any day, everyone will see what a fraud I am.
I did earn my master’s, and I’m working on my doctorate. My dissertation is exploring the intersection of academia and working class studies. I have been reading everything I can find on these topics, and I’m obsessed.
In an article entitled “Social Class and Belonging: Implications for College Adjustment” (Ostrove & Long, 2007), the authors cited daunting statistics regarding retention numbers of low-income students. Citing a New York Times study (2005), “Class Matters,” the authors focused on students feeling alienated among their peers as a factor hindering adjustment to college life and persistence.
Using the NY Times study as a springboard for their study, Ostrove and Long evaluated social class as a primary factor regarding the feeling of belonging among first-generation, working class students, specifically focusing on how alienation to others within a shared college experience (whether perceived or factual) might be related to student retention/success.
The authors found their hypothesis to be true in that class background was indeed a dominating factor to a student’s sense of belonging and adjustment to college; it was not as significant to their overall experience of adjustment to college life.
The most significant correlation noted in regards of student GPA was the mother’s education level, but mostly only among female students. Mom’s education matters to their daughters.
Perceptions of students’ family class status was noted as significant to feelings of belonging or exclusion from peers. Family status was not found as significant to adjustment to college, but remained important to a student’s sense of belonging.
Admittedly, Ostrove and Long recognized the study’s limitations in the demographics studied in a small liberal arts college that often had more upper-class or upper-middle class students factored into an increase in alienation among low-income or middle class students. However, the authors did note it “critical” that readers understand the importance of social class background and its substantial influence on belonging, which directly impacted student success and retention.
I’m very glad my daughters are both college graduates. My son is a current student. They have seen the importance of education. They lived it.
I published two books, magazine articles, poetry, and editorials. The feeling of “passing” as educated will probably never leave. It’s stamped like an internal tattoo, completely self-inflicted. In my mind’s eye, I am always the little girl in the poor neighborhood, the one in the old house that has a bit of a funny smell. I’m not ashamed of where I came from–I’m proud of my roots. But I will always be an impostor in my mind’s eye.