By JULIO ALVES
Having worked at colleges and universities my entire adult life, I've overheard many student conversations about social class. Some of them are spillovers from the classroom: "We totally have the wrong approach to affirmative action. It should be based on class, like in Cuba." Others are just conversations between friends.
Recently I overheard this conversation between two Latina students, one of whom I know. They'd just picked up their mail at the student center and were on their way back to their dorm, strolling and chatting. I was about to overtake them, impatient with their pace, when the conversation got interesting and I decided to slow down. Rosalba, a first-generation student at Smith who is receiving a lot of financial assistance, said to her friend: "So! She opens up this letter from her parents, right? And she goes, 'Uhhh, I told them not to send me any more money! They just sent me $200 last week!' And, I'm, like, 'Girl, gimme that check! I'll take it!' Can you believe it?! This place!" Rosalba shook her head in disbelief and amusement. Conversations like that always make me think about my own experiences with class, and class in America in general.
I grew up in Portugal during the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar and Marcelo Caetano, lived through the regime's collapse in 1974, and was strongly marked by the communist euphoria that ensued. Perhaps as a result, I tend to see the world primarily in terms of social class, as opposed to, say, race. I completely disagree with the many native-born, highly educated Americans I've met who deny the significance, even the existence, of social class in this country. Granted, class is a tricky, elusive notion and only one of the many elements that make us who we are, elements like culture, ethnicity, demographics, gender, nativity, citizenship, birth order, mother tongue, religion, skin tone, and race. Consequently, class is always experienced through multiple filters, never in a pure form. Feminist and black-studies scholarship have shown us, for example, that men and women of the same class experience their class quite differently, as do poor whites and blacks.
Still, my experience as an immigrant and the son of immigrants tells me that social class is very real in America; indeed, its existence was painfully apparent to me from the day I arrived here in 1975 as a 13-year-old. I didn't have to go to an impoverished urban enclave to see evidence of it. It was right there on my suburban New Jersey street for all to see.
The other new arrivals in Westwood, N.J., where I landed, also happened to be recent immigrants, from Israel. Ofra, the daughter, and I were the same age. We went to the same public school, and neither one of us spoke English. But that's where the similarities ended. I lived in an overpriced rented apartment; Ofra lived in a single-family brick home her parents had recently bought. My mother cleaned houses for a living, and my father was a kitchen worker in a restaurant; Ofra's mother was a homemaker, and her father was a briefcase-toting executive in New York City. After a year, we moved to a different apartment that we shared with another family; Ofra stayed put. We moved around a lot; Ofra didn't. We didn't have a car; Ofra's family did. That's class. I was working class; Ofra was middle class.
For years, all through college and graduate school, I spent countless days and nights with friends debating the existence of class. I spent weeks — months trying to decide whether the subject of my dissertation was the working class, the lower-middle class, or the petite bourgeoisie. These days, that's all water under the bridge, as the saying goes. Those issues no longer interest me; I bequeath them to new generations of students and their sociology professors. My concerns are more practical now. Because I direct a learning center I am more concerned with what happens when class and education collide: specifically, how working-class, first-generation collegegoers often cheat themselves out of some of the best opportunities their colleges and universities have to offer. It happened to me, despite my poster-child success in college, and it's happened to many students I've known.
Part of the problem is very basic. Education for many of us working-class kids, especially if we're immigrants, is not an end in itself but a ticket, a ticket out. Education was my salvation, my escape from an unsatisfying existence in a suburb I never liked or fit into. I yearned for a different life for myself, far away, in a city. I couldn't wait to leave my tiny Portuguese suburban enclave that knew no better what to do with me than I with it.
Like all tickets, however, education has a price, and it's usually more than financial. For me, it was the burden of proving that I could succeed. "There are so many colleges close by, why does your son need to go so far away?" my late aunt (God bless her) would say to my mother, adding, "The ones here are cheaper, too, and he can live at home." What she was really saying was: Your son is spoiled and uppity — he thinks he's better than we are, you think you're better than we are. My cousin Carl commuted to DeVry Institute (now DeVry University), a fine place if I'd been interested in computers. I went to Boston University, without ever having visited it, on a full scholarship — not that it mattered to my aunt.
We working-class kids arrive at college with a repertoire of tried and true success strategies. Unfortunately they are often double-edged. They get us far, but only so far; they get us through, but not beyond. Some of us even know that our favorite strategies can be our worst enemy, but we cling to them, for they have helped us get this far, and the journey is not over yet. In college the competition is tougher than ever, and we have a lot more at stake. This is not the time to experiment. We have something to prove. We play it safe.
My favorite success strategy in high school was a common one: being the model student. I worked hard, did my homework, studied for tests, went for the extra credit, paid attention, didn't get into trouble, was respectful. At Boston University I stayed a model student. I did well (honor's thesis, Phi Beta Kappa, all that), but I took few unnecessary chances — being there and doing well was chance enough, thank you very much. Chances imply risk, and when you have a lot to prove and no cushion, you tend to sidestep risk. I know now that I cheated myself, that education is all about risk, about reaching beyond what you can already comfortably do, about taking a leap and not knowing how and where you're going to land. But I couldn't risk failure — I had to vindicate my parents' faith in me, and I could never go back to New Jersey. While my peers were taking life risks as well as academic ones, I burrowed in. Drop out? Take time off? Those thoughts never crossed my mind. To do what? To go where?
With all due respect to some of the wonderful, inspiring teachers I had as an undergraduate (among them the inimitable Howard Zinn), I never seriously considered throwing caution to the winds and pursuing some of the more challenging endeavors I could have taken advantage of: studying Plato with Scott Austin, taking an upper-level seminar on Marxism with Murray Levin, learning about Holocaust literature from Elie Wiesel. In fact, I studiously avoided some of the best educational experiences Boston University had to offer, so scared was I of failing, even after three and a half years there.
Like so many other working-class, public-school-educated, scholarship kids in higher education, I lived in fear of being unmasked. We were quick to realize that we were getting a decent education, but we also suspected that our American-born roommates were doing better, knew more than we did. We'd heard of Plato and Marx — maybe — but our roommates had studied Plato and read Marx. They'd even heard of Elie Wiesel — go figure! I was afraid that the minute I walked into one of those fancy classes, everyone would see how little I knew, and they'd think I was stupid. There was no way I was going to take that chance.
Definitions of class may evade us, but the consequences certainly don't. They are real, very often regrettable, but not insuperable. I make sure to check in with Rosalba, and others, as regularly as I can, to see how she's doing, how her studies are coming along, what her plans are. I encourage her to drop in. I tell her about my work, my family. She tells me about her courses, her family. Once in a while we actually make appointments to see each other, usually about writing, my specialty. We talk a lot about taking risks, and my questions and advice are so predictable that she'll say them before I do: How are you defining success? What's the worst that can happen? What's the best that can come of it? Go for it! And finally: If you run into trouble, you know where to find me.
After all, I know what it takes to overcome what the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb so astutely called "the hidden injuries of class" more than 30 years ago. I learned it in those heady days of post-revolutionary fervor in Portugal, encapsulated in a word I recall seeing for the first time written across a red banner with a hammer and sickle: solidariedade.
Julio Alves is director of the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching, and Learning at Smith College.