Alison Stine | Longreads | February 2019 | 9 minutes (2,250 words)
This essay was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit organization.
I had never seen so many tennis courts in my life. I had never heard of rugby or lacrosse. I mispronounced genre in class because I had only ever read the word. I didn’t know girls my age owned pearls. I felt equally stunned by black dresses and those pearls at the dining hall on display Sunday nights, something many in sororities wore. I didn’t own pearls, or a nice black dress. I was born in Indiana, where our neighbors grew popcorn. I was raised in rural Ohio. My public high school was small, flanked by fields. The last day of senior year, a student drove up in his family’s tractor. It had taken him hours to get there, puttering along back roads. I was the first person in my family to attend an elite private college, partially on multiple scholarships, and partially, I think, on my parents’ sheer will to get me out.
I wasn’t the first person in my family to go to college — I was the second generation, after my parents — and on teachers’ and guidance counselors’ advice, I had applied to several schools, including state universities. But the private colleges were the ones that seemed to really want someone like me. They courted me. They offered me money, and I couldn’t say no to that. I couldn’t afford to.
I would soon learn that private colleges in this country have a social class problem. Each year, as spring break approaches, I think back on my time in school with particular sharpness, remembering other students going to warm islands or ski resorts. Unlike me, my classmates definitely knew how to ski. They parked their Land Rovers and BMWs on campus, and they landed coveted unpaid internships in the summer — something only rich kids can afford to do.
All of these trappings of wealth were new to me in 1996. But it appeared I was going to get an education in class privilege as well as liberal arts.
I was hardly alone in my experience of class bewilderment. Now, as then, there is no special orientation for students who identify as poor or rural, no workshops on the culture clash we might experience in college. Based on the price of required books, most professors had no idea of our financial reality. Students are reprimanded for not buying books on time, or not having money on a copy card, or for personal printers running out of pricy inks — but these are real and valid issues for those not raised in wealth. While our intellects can keep pace with our wealthy classmates, our wallets can’t.
I sometimes think it is difficult for our former professors to reconcile the academic and intellectual successes that I and my fellow scholarship kids had in college with our difficulties after graduation. A friend who works as a stay-at-home mom, raising multiple children, admitted to me she couldn’t face going to back to campus and seeing beloved teachers. Another friend, struggling to find work at the time, had a visceral, violent reaction to an annual fund request, sent on expensive, engraved paper only weeks after the Wall Street bailout in 2009. A few years after graduation, I returned to campus for a memorial service for a community member. One of my favorite professors asked me what I was doing. When I answered, “Teaching high school,” he said, “That’s a waste.”
I know he meant I was spending all my time working a very difficult job — and not the one for which I had studied — rather than writing. But for most of us, difficult, non-dream jobs are all we have, all we can hope for.