Saturday, August 13, 2016

Class, J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, and the First Jobs Meme

I'm more and more realizing that I come from a middle-class family that thinks like a working-class family, according to the levels of savvy about m-c norms that J. D. Vance talks about in Hillbilly Elegy.

 Vance describes wildly dysfunctional families--mine was not; it was wonderful and happy--but in terms of general class cluelessness, I offer this:

--Neither my parents nor I had any conception that there was such a thing as financial aid for college. No. Clue. I had a Regents' scholarship, and we thought that was all that was available. [Edited to add: The idea that you would get competing offers from private schools and play them off against each other, as is apparently common, might have occurred on Mars for all we were aware of it.]

--Intense mockery from the larger extended family for wanting to do what Hamilton calls "rise above my station."  Which job did I want? Nurse or teacher?  What's puzzling is that some of them were professionals--lawyers and such--so I think this was probably gender rather than class-based.

--Which state school did I plan to attend, the one 40 miles away or the one 60 miles away? (Vance talks about this place-bound thinking as a class issue; ditto for private versus public institutions.)

--Rules were for keeps, whereas for middle- and upper-middle class students, rules were meant to be bent with a well-placed phone call.  Here's what I said about them in 2009:
 As I said in a too-long comment over at Sisyphus's blog, if you were raised with working-class values (as I was, and which transcend technical middle-class status), you thought that when someone told you the rules, they were really the rules. You didn't realize that you could argue your way out of them and convince people to do your bidding, because that's not how the world works for you if you don't have class privilege to back it up. And then, when you saw others sail past the rules that you'd abided by, you felt angry and betrayed, because you'd played by the rules and they hadn't.
 I did not know that rules would bend to class privilege until well beyond graduate school.  Now I make a point of telling students like me, "Look, let's make a call and see what we can do."

So, forthwith I give you, as seen at Flavia Fescue's, the first jobs meme.

1. Babysitting, a lot of it, enough to buy my first typewriter in high school. Now that I think of it, some of my wages from being a cashier probably paid for part of it, too.

2.  Tried to get a job at the library but couldn't. Ditto a newspaper job. Jobs were scarce in those days.

3. Supermarket cashier. My mother, using her influence, got me an interview at the local chain supermarket, where I worked at a checkout stand through high school and college. I felt lucky to have this job, since each summer I had to earn whatever spending money I needed for the whole school year. This was back when you had to memorize prices (no bar codes), so I got to be good at it fairly fast.

4. Job I did not try for: waitress, due to an intense hatred of smoking and knowing that I'd have to clean ash trays. This was before "smoke-free" anything.

5. Worked in food service in a dining hall, both on the serving line and prepping vegetables.

6. Drugstore clerk. Hated it.

7. Filing and typing in an academic office.

Flavia, I thank you for posting this list, for I had thought that maybe I was making it up about the class dimension of jobs.  In thinking more deeply about it, I can see that I wasn't.


Nicoleandmaggie said...

Wow, powerful observations. I have a post coming up in a few weeks about the opposite. I was raised with class climbing values. Even if some lessons were outdated, the ones that were the opposite of what you talk about here clearly were transformative.

Flavia said...

Thanks, Undine! Although I didn't grow up with working class values in this way, I definitely relate to the sense of having grown up with values that weren't exactly those of the class to which you, financially, belonged. Both my parents went to college (though while living at home), but not all of my uncles and aunts or cousins did--and my parents made such a huge deal out of the importance of going to college (any college) that doing so clearly wasn't quite assumed. So I still felt pretty close to the first-gen experience, and alienated from college classmates who didn't work for money, or didn't know anyone in the military, or whatever. (And I think it's no surprise that I married into a similar family.)

Class is a weird and complicated thing in America.

undine said...

Nicoleandmaggie--I will look forward to that post. As a girl (not so much woman) in that era, my #1 responsibility was to get married so I would "never have to work." That was how success was defined for me, although I could be a nurse or a teacher so I would have "something to fall back on."

Flavia--thanks for starting this train of thought. My parents were college graduates, but again, for me as a girl, the important thing was to go to college and then get married. Then I could play bridge and do charity work, as society and God intended, for this was the class thing to aspire to--NOT a job. It sounds completely screwed up now, but it took a long time for me to realize that.

nicoleandmaggie said...

My great-grandmother was a divorcee -- her husband got into a railroad accident and it did brain damage that changed his behavior for the worse. He died not long after the divorce from complications. (This is something I learned as an adult-- as a child I thought she was a widow!) She eventually became a school principal. My great-great-aunt a superintendent. The idea of never having to work is just not part of our family history. (Sure, a great aunt here and there who married someone wealthy, but Great Great Aunt Gladys kept busy with volunteer work.) My grandma worked as a school nurse despite having 7 kids (or, she would say, because of). My mom's a humanities prof, my aunt is a judge, my other aunt is a phd nurse practitioner.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm thinking I was raised lower-middle-class-with-aspirations: government cheese in the fridge, but we went to the library every two weeks.

And this came to the fore when I did my own "first seven jobs" (on that blog-killer Facebook) and mentally contrasted it with those posted by my other academic friends, who had, at most, one job before age 18, and most other jobs were things like "research assistant in university library"...

First seven jobs, in order:

Age 12: Newspaper Delivery Girl for the now-defunct Oregon Journal
Age 16: Busser at a buffet restaurant
Age 17: Summer live-in nanny with a traveling carnival
Age 17: Fast food worker
Age 18-19: Clerical worker at one of those extortionate finance companies that predated payday loan joints (I learned a LOT about how credit worked at that job, and what sorts of loans I would NEVER take out)
Age 20: Dishwasher at one of Portland’s first espresso bars, after which I graduated to…
Age 20: Barista at one of Portland’s first espresso bars.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--That's a record of high achievement by the women in your family, right there. My grandmother was a nurse who loved to work, but for my grandfather, that meant he wasn't supporting her properly, so he pressured her to stay home.

NotoriousPhD--same as far as the library! Your jobs list looks a lot like mine--very little in the "research assistant" mode that you get with a well-placed phone call from one connected parent to another.

But I hope you write about the traveling carnival sometime.

profacero said...

I am schizophrenic about class because my father is from a middle to upper middle class economically but they think like working class people, whereas my mother is form the same but they think like aristocrats. This gives me no middle class thoughts at all, but only a middle class reality that I do not know how to think about.