Our kids’ day care center is a left-leaning, free-thinking, equity-seeking kind of place, and lately, the board of directors (which truly governs the place, and on which I squirmily sit) has been talking about ways to make sure that families with a wide range of income levels have comfortable, affordable access to the center.
Everyone agrees that this is an important goal, but there is much back-and-forth about the best way to accomplish it, and, because we are Americans, the discussions are very strange. Thinking about the subtext of these conversations, I’m starting to understand in a really everyday way the statement that I heard over and over throughout my liberal, upper-middle-class college education:
Class is one of the most salient ways we divide ourselves up in this country, and it’s extra powerful because next to nobody is willing to talk about it openly.
The strangest and most interesting place I detect this idea working is in the always-present but never-overt value that runs through our conversations: secrecy. We mustn’t publicly thank parents who give money to the school, because it may cause discomfort. Parents with extra, pre-paid school day ‘slots’ they can’t use may make them available to others for free, but we should institute a system to keep the exchange anonymous, so that the interaction doesn’t create resentment. If we need to impose a maintenance fee on the membership but don’t want to cause financial hardship for anyone, it’s better to charge a lower-than-needed fee to everyone rather than allow families to opt out on the basis of need, because that would require them to disclose their financial status.
I get that the opposite of this is no good either. I hate the idea of anyone being resented for their bank balance, whether it’s because of wealth or need, and I’ve been in plenty of communities where snobbery, jealousy, and separation were the rule. But papering over this type of diversity doesn’t work any better.
Our little school is big on affirming gender, sexuality, & family type differences. A good 1/4 of the parents and teachers (maybe more) are GLBT. The kids and teachers draw family portraits and talk about the different shapes families take and even, in a really nice, simple, beginning way, about gender identities other than male or female (May has referred to one of the teachers as “a little bit boy and a little bit girl,” an assessment with which I’m pretty sure the teacher would agree). I am really happy to see my kids having completely ordinary experiences with types of difference that, in my childhood, were stereotyped, distanced, or powerfully ignored.
We would never expect our children to feel inclusive about these difference if we were, for example, working our tails off to keep them from knowing which of their friends have two mamas and which have a mom and a dad. Why should we expect anything different when it comes to income and class differences?
I think that, more than anything, we are at a loss for where to start talking about these things, and it just seems too darn hard. We all have this very vague vocabulary about “middle class” and “working class” and “financial need.” We don’t have a good way of separating class from income, or of really identifying the class-making that underlies so much of the way we act.
May came home from school one day asking about “poor people” (“Do we know any?”) I’m sure the use of that term was not teacher-initiated, but still. Ew. And I didn’t exactly know where to start, but I launched in about money; more and less. She pointed to a page in the Peter Spier book People, the drawing with a mansion, a row of bungalows, and then a cluster of shacks made of scraps. “Are those people poor?” “They might not have enough to eat,” I said, “and it doesn’t look like their houses would keep them warm and dry, does it?” “But are they poor?”
I am guilty of the same hiding of it. We do operate and live, a lot of times, as though these categories are concrete and unchanging—poor, working class, middle class, rich—and we recreate those categories through our actions. It seems wrong to keep using the words that define something we wish would go away, and yet it’s obviously not going anywhere.
I wonder where the beginning is.