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.