What the hell am I doing here?

I read an awesome blog post yesterday and it made me think a lot. I’ve promised a bunch of people for a while now that I’ll write a post like the one below, and felt now was a good time to do it.

My first experience of moving significantly outside of my class came at Cambridge University. It was the first dinner there. I had no family or friends to tell me how to wear the stupid over-sized gown, so I improvised, searching Google to find images of people wearing them, so I could work out how it was supposed to be worn.

That first dinner was a fascinating experience. It was black tie with silver service. What would now be termed ‘imposter syndrome’ oozed through me as I sat at the top table, watching waiters and waitresses bring out the three course dinner (with wine and port). Staring at the cutlery in front of me, I pulled out memories of how to best use it, using the only experience I had; years of waiting on tables and performing silver service at Cheltenham race-course. I wasn’t comfortable enough in my surroundings to ask for help – I already felt like i didn’t fit in, and felt a stronger bond to those waiting tables than those sat around me. A quick look around me didn’t seem to show anyone else who felt the same way.

Socio-economic equality is so much more than about whether you went to a school which provided you with the right opportunities, the best teaching and whether or not you left with good grades. Without a doubt, these are all crucially important factors, and these have an incredibly significant impact upon what a person is able to do with their life.

However, that is often where the conversation about equality ends. But there are many insidious results of growing up poor which often aren’t discussed.

How and where you grow up affects how you think – about the world, about others and about yourself. Coming from a working class, or lower socio-economic background, and trying to culturally fit into middle class lifestyles and jobs can be incredibly difficult.

I grew up in a poor and incredibly dysfunctional family. My childhood experiences lie in clearing sick off my father as he lay comatose on the floor, stealing money from his alcohol fund to pay for lunch for my sisters and myself, hiding behind sofas and cupboards so as not to get beaten (again) by my mother. It lies in learning how to cook at a young age, having to get a job at 13 (yes – 13, not 14 which was the legal minimum) so I could make sure I could buy food for myself – and even occasionally some new clothes. From 16 onwards, in my own house, I became the queen of saving money where I could; turning off fridges and every gadget in the house to save electricity – the only thing in the fridge was cheap wine (to make life feel better – and I could drink it warm) and milk (which could be kept cool in a saucepan of cold water). I would go on dates strategically timed at the end of the month, because I would have run out of money to buy the cereal, beans on toast, and beans in soup that I lived upon. I loved working lunch and dinner shifts in kitchens as they were a great way to get fed on a regular basis at no cost to myself.

I would rarely let on how bad it could be at times – mostly smiling, keeping it hidden even from my partners – because I was embarrassed.

If we are a collection of our experiences, can you imagine how difficult it can be then to sit in polite conversation and try and engage about childhood holidays, where you learned so ski, and how to fit orchestra practice in around your job? As a person, I have literally nothing to contribute that others feel comfortable hearing (and I have been told more than once that I shouldn’t make others feel uncomfortable about this).

These are the types of conversations I’ve had to navigate almost daily since working in the professional world – and every time I’m involved in these I am instantly reminded of my past and have a voice in the back of my head telling me I don’t belong in this space. A voice telling me I’m an outsider. And in many ways I am. As are the countless others who also come from poor or dysfunctional backgrounds and are trying to find someway to navigate through middle-class life.

Middle class is a scary place, full of unwritten rules that are alien to someone coming from a background where survival is paramount. Growing up poor, your brain is constantly working out how to get through today; and planning to work out tomorrow when it comes to it. It’s hard to plan a future, a route through career structures, pensions and life – when you have grown up focussing on the next pay packet, and are thinking about how to make sure you have enough food and electricity to last.

When you come from a poor background you are unlikely to have cultural experiences that can form the basis of many conversations. You don’t have the same shared experiences of locations visited, shows, plays and museums seen. I was nearly 20 before I saw my first play that wasn’t on a school trip. Food is different (hummus is awesome – I didn’t know of its existence until the first time I had to make it working as a chef), clothing is different (you mean you don’t just buy the cheapest things that look ok?) attitudes towards people are different (there’s a lot more subtext, nuance and casualness among friendships), relationships are different, and your cultural reference points are different.

When you come from a poor background, you are less likely to have support in education outside of school. There are no tutors, and the family often cannot give you much (if any) support. With a sibling and parent boasting of receiving the lowest possible Gs on GCSEs/O-levels, there was no-one at home who I could turn to for support academically. If I didn’t understand a topic, tough. Far from parents pushing for me to get ahead academically, encouraging me to get better grades and go to better schools, my family actively persuaded me not to attend a private school to which I had a full scholarship because ‘I wouldn’t get along with those types of kids’. For many people from poorer background, you don’t have after school classes in music and dance.

Coming from a poor background there is often little or no familial support in choosing universities or A-levels. As with me, these things are alien to your family; and they have no way of knowing how to understand the systems you are facing.

You are less likely to have role models and you don’t have access to the same informal career advice that many others do. You don’t get insight into what it’s like to work in a lawyers office, as a doctor, or as an academic over the dinner table. My families friends were all unemployed, long term sick, or working in supermarkets. You can see and understand other jobs exist, but they are far more abstract, and it’s never people like you who do them. It’s always people who laugh and talk about their holidays to exotic places, or the semi-famous people they’ve met. Personally, I could never find a way to relate to them. I know others have felt the same.

You are more likely to want to stay hidden, to not make a fuss or rock the boat. At talks and events, I will rarely raise a hand. I don’t have the confidence in myself to navigate that situation. I’ll go and talk to someone after a session and make the comments I’d have wanted to raise. I try to ask questions at times, and am getting better at it – but the desire to hide and not be seen is strong; I’d rather influence the debate and discussion afterwards, quietly. Even in small groups it can be tough, and I’m much more likely to go quiet, and look at my phone than say anything too challenging.

I get stuck when people ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know as a child; my only desire was not to be like my family. I’ve managed that, through some odd and weird route. Yet, I’m still trying to work out what it is I want; what my dream is. I’m driven, but in a very different way from those around me. Growing up I didn’t know what else there was, I didn’t know that there was another possible life where I wasn’t a waitress, running a bar or working in a supermarket.

Coming from lower income backgrounds, we start off feeling inferior – because life and our experiences have told us that we are. We then risk continuing to feel inferior because we are stuck in circles surrounded by people who constantly have access to knowledge and cultural experiences we haven’t.

Those of us who leave our backgrounds behind have to cope with not really fitting in where we are now, but growing in a way that makes it hard to fit in where we came from. We have to prove ourselves to ourselves repeatedly, reminding ourselves that we can belong here. Being surrounded by others who don’t seemingly understand that experience makes it even more difficult for us. There needs to be more of us who are willing to talk about our experiences, and we need to make sure the conversation about equality doesn’t just end on formal education.

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39 thoughts on “What the hell am I doing here?

  1. Brilliant post, Michelle. Have you thought about pitching this to The Guardian’s Comment is Free? It’s just the sort of thing they would go for.

  2. That’s an excellent piece! My blood boiled for you at the idea of being told ‘not to make others uncomfortable’ by reminding them not everyone is as lucky as them. That’s incredibly rude, and exposes the teller as deliberately closing their mind to anything that might challenge their cosy view of the world. Ggggrrrrrh!

    1. Being told not to make others feel uncomfortable stuck with me for a long while, and I tried to just accept it for a while. I found this really alienating, and didn’t result in happy, healthy friendships. I kept more ‘stuff’ to myself than ever, and felt like I was having to keep secrets. That’s changing gradually… (and perhaps rather more rapidly writing a post like this)

  3. Marvellous. Thank you for posting this! It clarifies a lot of the things I experienced – though nothing in my background was as extreme as the things you mention.
    My parents had a seaside guest house, so we were “well off” in the summer (provided we didn’t need new clothes or equipment), and only “poor” in the winter – we saved pretty paper to wrap Christmas presents, planned every penny’s expenditure in detail, and thanked God for Family Allowance (Now Child Benefit).
    You say you’re getting used to it gradually & have reached the stage where you can make comments to a speaker after the event – I wish you every success, and hope sincerely that you’ll grow in confidence to the point where you will enjoy taking part in these things at the time xx

  4. As ever from you that’s an extraordinary and moving story.

    Just one small remark, relating to your line in the 3rd paragraph: “A quick look around me didn’t seem to show anyone else who felt the same way.” I would bet there were people who did feel the same way, but they were probably all trying to hide it too.

    I’m from a family of Guardian-reading teachers and civil servants, yet I felt more or less the whole time at Oxford that I somehow didn’t fit. Perhaps it was more politically than culturally, but I felt like an impostor. Now whether impostors in such a situation can find solidarity with each other I don’t know. My solution instead tended to involve opting out of as many of those traditions as I could (although I am not sure that’s a solution either), rather than being an impostor or confirming.

    1. Thanks Jon, I appreciate it.

      Looking back at it from where I am now, I imagine there were may others who felt incredibly awkward at that first dinner. For me, I can still remember exactly how I felt, the thoughts running through my head, being waited on in such a fashion. If I were to be back there now, I am sure I’d deal with the situation very differently. I totally sympathise with the ‘opting out of traditions’ – and largely did the same. As you say, I don’t know that it’s a solution.

      The post isn’t just about my time at Cambridge though; it’s about the many small conversations I get involved in on a daily basis, the subconscious expectations others bring that can act to exclude, the cultural gulf that can lie between how people view and frame the world based on experiences.

  5. Thanks for writing this – it can’t have been easy.

    When I went to Cambridge my parents told me three things: always break bread rolls, don’t cut them; always pass the port to the left (my father had learnt this one the hard way, in an Officer’s Mess); and if in doubt, look at the poshest person there and do what they’re doing. At my first dinner there was cheese and biscuits instead of a pudding; the extremely posh girl opposite me methodically cut the cheese into tiny, tiny pieces and then tiled the biscuit with them, like a sort of cheese mosaic. So that’s how you do it!, I thought. Ha!

    For what it’s worth, reading your post gave me a new appreciation of the phrase ‘lower middle class’ – some of what you felt shut out of was part of the furniture of my life, but other things I felt shut out of myself. (No tutors in our house, and at university I never felt my opinion was worth anything – and it’s still a wrench to buy clothes at full price, even now that I can afford it.) There needs to be much more honesty about these things & how they shape us – particularly now that the posh boys are back in force.

  6. I’ve felt that embarrassment so, so often. ‘Not for the likes of us’ was the soul-crushing mantra in response to anything outside of a tiny comfort zone. Now I’m doing my best not to pass any of that on. Thanks for such an open and moving post x

  7. My father an Oxbridge graduate, as his father before him, rejected that life. He became a church minister in Scotland where our family originate from. You know this mystical Glaswegian divide where life expectancy drops by 20 years when you cross the highway? I grew up on the wrong side of the road. It’s a hopeless place, where people don’t have expectations. People are SCARED of having expectations. They believe that society wants them to fail. They see no path out of there, and we don’t give them one. We are all complicite in their failure, every one of us.

    Why do I write they and not we? I’m not sure. Growing up there I became that place. I became hopeless too. I went to the school where no-one wanted to learn. Where people would rather not go to the exam than be faced with their failure. Where anyone that did succeed was tortured and bullied to point the point where success was no longer an incentive. Success was a curse.

    Once I made it to university I met the middle class, the part of society that the rest of my family comes from, that I actually identify with somehow, that I wanted to be part of. Of course I didn’t have the right accent, or the right interests, or understand their rules. In the beginning I wanted desperately to be like them, but I couldn’t, I never will be. I drifted, suffered depression, was completely lost. From the outside their world looked beautiful, from the inside it was just as ugly as the place I’d come from, maybe people are just ugly. At home people don’t hide their ugliless, they let it hang out, like a badge of identity. At uni people hid themselves behind a facade of fashionable pleasentries, it seemed more conceited, more ugly than the world I had come from, the one I had been so desperate to leave.

    That was 10 years ago. Somehow I found a scholarship to go to uni Australia, then did a biology PhD in France, now I work in Belgium. I guess one day I’ll try to fit myself back into the UK. With distance it becomes easier to understand the social forces that shape us, that decide who we become and the lives we will lead, and accept it and get on with it. But I can’t help thinking back to the kids I grew up with. They are no less talented than the people I work with now, who control a continent and shape the future of every one of us. They are some of the most creative and brilliant people I have met in all my travels. If we give them the chance they will help build a future for the UK in this changing uncertain world, I am sure of it.

    When I write ugly above I now know it’s not true. It’s reality. The distain that some people hold for social “underclasses” is partly just a fear of what might have happened to them if life was less kind. We can’t cut off whole communities, we have to give them opportunities. I don’t think it’s about redistribution of wealth, just a redistribution of attitudes :-)

    (Sorry for the VERY long self-indulgent comment, oops, I felt something when I read your blog and wanted to add something, I’ve never written any of that down, or even spoke about it that much, thanks :-)

  8. Love this! Although my personal situation has never been as extreme as yours, I can feel your pain with much of what you say, the last paragraph in particular strikes a chord. The more people who speak about the less obvious effects, the easier it can become for the next people to experience this.

  9. Great post, Michelle. Thank you for sharing and trying to get people to see and understand things in a different light. And I love the writing – insightful, coherent and fluent. Brilliant!

  10. Powerful blog post and some good comments. I grew up on the TX-Mexico border, and though technically “Anglo” (white) I still identify a lot with the Latino (Mexican) culture and people. I was told I should not play with “Mexican” kids or call them friends, but I felt comfortable with them. I did not fit in because we were relatively poor and my parents were divorced–my father was at the other end of the country and my mother worked full time to support us. Because she had a middle-class background, she pounded into me some middle-class stuff (which fork, respect for education,etc.) but I never felt I belonged, perhaps especially in college. I too heard (many times) it was my responsibility not to make anyone feel uncomfortable by talking about my background. Even my own father, years later, scolded me for answering honestly a question he asked about my experience, which let him know something he didn’t want to know.

    Now, in my late 60s, I still have imposter feelings…still feel peculiar when I do spend money on a vacation or (most recently) opera tickets. Last fall I was an author guest at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., my travel and posh hotel stay paid for. You would think that would cure the imposter thing. ..but it didn’t. It felt like a Disney fairy tale, unreal. The other writers all seemed to fit that milieu, especially the women…not me. I enjoyed it, but the inner voice was reminding me all the time that it was an accident, a mistake, and not to expect it made any long-term difference. Eat the cake while it’s in reach, because tomorrow can just as easily be beans or rice. Although I can now speak out–sometimes–I can also be silenced by the memories.

  11. Excellent post, thank you. It sums up just how I feel about my background. The only difference is that I moved from Canada to the UK, so now I have an excuse if I get things wrong. I can tell people I am Canadian, I have no class! But it doesn’t take away the impostor feelings.

  12. I related and took a fair few things from this article, some resonating more than most could imagine but possibly have a grasp of now. I thank you very very much for writing it.

  13. I took a fair few things from this article, related to the social awkwardness around about. These are things some people cant possibly imagine but as of now can grasp. I thank you very very much for writing it.

  14. Never, ever be intimidated by the middle class. They are all wind and bluster and who on earth would wish to emulate them?Compete with them, by all means, and work in their environment, by all means, but never feel inadequate to them!

    You could of course just asked someone at college. A great piece of advice my ‘machine shop’ Dad bequeathed to me was ‘if you don’t know then ask someone.’ It’s a great ice-breaker and if you choose the right people you can make friends.What’s not to like?

  15. “That first dinner was a fascinating experience. It was black tie with silver service. ”

    Personally, from my point of view, part of the wider problem is right there in one of your first sentences.
    It’s absurd to me that official events at an educational institute are so blatantly elitist, it can appear like they are setting barriers to catch the proles out (they probably aren’t deliberately it just doesn’t occur to them that it could be any other way).

    Surely we should try and make educational institutions more welcoming and inclusive to all classes, and especially try to get more confidence into children (regardless of their class/culture)

    Personally I come from a working class background (not poor – my father worked absurd hours in the factory so we weren’t that), and you are right the social barriers are absurd (on top of the financial ones.

    My experience of uni was finding out the grimy pubs I felt happier in, friends who liked the same, and avoiding black tie nonsense (even as a professional – I always feel irritated by ties/suits and the like, I see them as a pointless distraction. I’d rather just be tidy and well presented.).

    I suppose I’m unconsciously a bit of a class warrior, and find the idea of a “middle-upper class culture/dress/etc.” a bit weird and annoyingly pretentious.

    1. But every subculture has its own social barriers and rules–as one of the first comments said, if you’re in the hopeless-class, and dare to have hope beyond what’s allowed, they’ll try to beat it out of you. Every class and subculture has its own dress code, its own way of talking, its favorite hangouts…the exclusiveness, the desire to keep the outsiders out and the insiders in, is no different at the bottom than the top. What changes is the style…and the money to afford a particular style…and how part of that style (like attitudes about hope, about failure, about the possibility of change) affect an individual’s ability/desire to understand other subcultures.

      Despite my lingering imposter syndrome, I am glad my mother taught me “which fork” early, and I’m glad I grew up in a multicultural corner of the country (having now lived in some that aren’t…) Learning to move across the boundaries–even though it’s uncomfortable–has let me see that people are people in all the little separate bubbles, that no class or subculture is without familiar problems. For those bound to a particular group (no matter what it is) this often seems like treason. When I was in college (scholarship) middle-class kids who moved toward political activism on the left were told they were traitors, just as some poor kids seeking a middle-class life were hassled for the same thing. (Less, I think, in the US, where upward mobility was a tradition and carried little if any stigma.) It was annoying, though, when kids who thought “living like poor people” meant eating the meals I grew up on, buying their clothes in the basement of an expensive store instead of upstairs, and then lectured me for having what they assumed was the privilege they grew up with. Apparently they didn’t realize white people could be poor, too.

      It’s ridiculous to blame working class families for not giving their children cultural background advantages they can’t afford or access…but some parts of the code are accessible and can eliminate some (not all) of the distress on first-contact. ( I remember a particular dinner when my publisher and his assistant took two of us out to dinner, in a very expensive place–and one of the things served was some kind of cooked grain with a square of gold leaf on top. I tried to pry it off and was told “It’s OK, you can just eat it.” Right. Eat gold. Sh*t gold. That is absurd, insane, disgusting, obscene, a waste of resources and it’s no wonder this dinner with little bits of one fancy (but not particularly filling) dish after another costs so much. That’s not just having “manners”–that’s conspicuous consumption.)

  16. It’s fantastic that this blog post has raised such a lot of fuss – even if I think some of the commentary has rather skewed the points you are making. As a practical thing, all universities should make more use of a buddy/college parent/whatever-they-call-it system, so that older students are actually trained to give support to new ones, to be sensitive to the challenges faced by people from different backgrounds and cultures etc. That first formal dinner would have been much more comfortable with a companion who had learnt the ropes (or bread rolls) – perhaps you can go on to perform that role yourself.

  17. Thanks for this – I just found it through the Poverty Commission site and much of it resonates. I’ve just come back from working overseas – in contexts where my skills and capabilities were consistently overestimated, to the UK, where they are consistently underestimated due to my background. I’ve started writing a blog that will cover some of these issues at metronomy.org.

  18. I think few will have made it through what you did and those who did would be made to feel embarrassed by it, conspiracy of silence. I applaud you and would see you as having multiple educations.

    My background is similar though with a racial religious twist, working for a global multinational I often meet the ‘A’ crowd, Eton, Oxford and City firm, the people offer a staggering disjoint from the 98%, they live with high risk and reward and low liability. It is easier for them to job switch, make a mess and rely on the ‘network’ to allow latitude for the next mess. Deja vu for me to fix it, at the age of 50+ outranked , undermined and underpaid!
    You really got to like the job, I have 6,14 and 18 year old, positive is essential as you can pass on a negative job work attitudes through a moany persona, this reminds me of what you state about the urge to stay silent. You have so much to offer to widen perspective and include aspects, in future engineering of AI systems we need inclusion of ethics and trust models that deliver for people, not provide cages to exclude or subdue.

  19. It’s good that you made it into the middle class, have you noticed its under attack? When they say we should all be equal, they don’t tell you who they want you to be equal to. A lot of poor people are coming into the middle class it seems. Some of them being literally pushed into it. Most of the things you have described are the undertones of the decipline that middle class people have, which the poorer classes don’t have. You had decipline, so here you are. Now don’t try to take away from that discipline as it is what forges the strength of the middle class. If some things make people uncomfortable, there is a reason. Being brand spankin new to our class please don’t commit one of the low class errs by wanting to lead, or change the system of things we have when you haven’t even got your feet wet yet. The people of the middle class can end up in the low class, as disciplines are removed from life and they experience the same culture shock as you. Only in a bad direction and this experience is up played for them by the media. I don’t care if what I’ve said sounds radical, I believe in god, I believe in discipline, I believe in family, father mother children. I believe in hard work, integrity, honesty. I believe in a days work for a days pay. I believe in making a living. Tell me why any of that is bad? Why are there people actively hating on my way of life? They are the radicals.

  20. Reading your story has been so inspirational, I have a daughter who is 17 at the moment and comes from a lower class family. she attended a normal state secondary school and left with 10 a* and 1 b. she got accepted into a six form grammar school and is currently doing IB her predicted points of IB is 40-41 which meets Cambridge entry requirements, which she will be applying for. While achieving all of this is has also been my sole carer (since a young age) because I am disable, I just want to say that her experience has made her stronger and determined to make a success out of her life, it’s been rough at times in the environment we live in but she wants to succeed. I think coming from a lower background is a positive thing cause it has make her value education more and not take it for granted, I guess it’s doesn’t matter what background you have come from because you all have the same rights to be there just as anyone else and don’t let let anyone else tell you anything less. All you need is the determination and the values and that is not brought my money. I may not have much but I support my daughter and love her so much i am proud of the person that she has become because of her experience.

  21. I have felt the same thing my whole life, I am now 33 and have come from a lower working class background, living in social housing for many years and done a whole load of rubbish jobs to get by.

    I then went to uni doing computing and websites, I got very good at it and made over £1m in 1 year from one of my websites. Straight away I bought a house in a middle class area because I lived in such a slum.

    I am finding the same problems though, i don’t quite fit in with the middle classes due to my working class background, my accent/vocab is different etc etc, but I could never go back to that hopeless, ‘all in the same boat’ trying to beat each other down mentality of the working classes.

    I remember working behind a bar and telling someone I was doing a degree in Computing and they asked, “What do you think you’ll earn when you get your degree?”, I replied, “About £20k to start with” and they burst out laughing. As if £20k a year was some kind of mission impossible. That’s the small-mindedness that I was dealing with where I came from.

    But do I get on with people from more ‘privileged’ backgrounds? Nope. Not at all. They rarely know what it’s like to fight, to scrape around at the bottom for years trying to find a way to make money from nothing. I feel like a true ‘in-betweener’ of the classes.

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