EEN kicking around some thoughts about high school in light of the 10-year reunion upcoming… I guess with ten years distance, the angst’s a bit less than it has been, and I’ve got some more tools to grapple with it. This post is about class and race at my high school, so it’s doing that horrible crossing from biography to what I hope might be a critical engagement; but I haven’t put pen to paper about this stuff at all yet, so bear with me if it’s a bit raw/self-indulgent. I hate that in autobiographical stuff, but like it when it’s done well. Old high school angst’s not all gone, but it was interesting to catch up with a friend of mine in Adelaide—let’s call her Christina. She had finally recognised her experience at school as one of ‘ostracism,’ at least potentially. That is, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to use such a word… but I think she’s keen on the whole ‘think positive’ framing, which unfortunately but regularly involves the attempt to refuse to recognise what is, in the end, discriminations and disadvantages of various kinds. There’s a whole other set of posts in that—the disenfranchisement of those already disadvantaged (in some way) that occurs through the (often Christian-informed, as in her case) pop-psych ‘seeing the best in things’; and of course its complex concurrent usage by those privileged to externalise the sources of their unhappiness (presumably because they often fail to query their own understanding and experience—if they’re unhappy, the problem lies out there).
First, some background. I went to a private Anglican girls school in Adelaide—let’s call it PAGS for short. Adelaide is an odd town: it seems small, but has a population of 1.2 or so million. It’s a very suburban place, with a small CBD given the population. And it really does (or has) had the ‘Five Families’ who constitute a kind of rich old establishment. One of those families is the ‘Polites,’ which I don’t feel worried about putting up because if anyone’s been to Adelaide, they’ve probably noticed how that name is stuck on the side of dozens of building, especially in the CBD. Yup, deeply propertied. These five families tend to conserve the parochialism of Adelaide: it’s hard to break into social groups as new arrivals, which we were (I moved from Melbourne to Adelaide when I was 12). It also encourages the bracketing off of racialised groups around the city. PAGS was the school that most of the daughters of the five families went to, while Saint’s boys school, incredibly rich (something like 6 ovals, for fuck’s sake, in walking distance of the CBD!!) had the boys. This meant that Saints and PAGS did things like dancing classes and drama performances together.
Like most private schools, PAGS was hideously expensive. My parents were only able to afford to send me because my dad’s an Anglican priest (and in recognition of the low ‘stipend’ priests get, the school offered I think a 1/4 off the fees) and because I was bright enough to get a partial bursary. I was a scholarship kid, along with a number of those who wound up in the same ‘group’ with me. Christina had a music scholarship for the last three years of high school; and she pointed to this as part of the ostracisation she experienced . There’s no doubt that scholarship kids were already in question. Christina and I, for example, were both very poor—at least by comparison.
Okay, let’s give some detail on this ‘comparison’ business. We were a bit poor while I was growing up, but not horribly so. In fact, we were pretty privileged, in my estimation. We always had somewhere to live (and vicarages are not known for being small or mean places which is just as well given that I’m the eldest of 4!). We always had enough food to eat. (I have a distinct memory from when I was about 9 or so, of asking for seconds or more food or something, and dad looking worried and saying to mum, “We might need to start saying no,” and mum shaking her head and saying, “Oh, surely it won’t come to that.” Which it didn’t. But that conversation certainly had a big impact on me. In true eldest sister fashion, I got furious at my brother’s continual insistence on the most expensive piece of clothing (on one of our very rare shopping trips) and his unwillingness to compromise; I still remember the weary hurt in mum’s eyes as she told him they couldn’t afford it). We lived in hand-me-downs (I think the first clothes bought new for me (apart from shoes) were from Target at age 13) which were relatively prolific given the whole living-in-a-parish thing. We went on holidays (to the holiday houses which I didn’t understand at the time were actually very different to what other people meant when they said they had ‘holiday houses’: my parents bought an old church in the middle of nowhere for $2000 when they first married, which had no electricity or running water and had been used as a cattle and grain shed and we slowly slowly fixed it up; and the second place, on the Mornington Peninsula, was a shell of a house, so we spent holidays laying insulation, walls and ceilings, electricity, plumbing, tiles, building benches, finding second-hand sinks, toilets, showers, wood, and putting them in etc. It took a while before I realised that when other kids from school went on holiday, they tended to spend it doing *only* leisure stuff, not bathing in water heated on the stove, using long- and sometimes very short-drop loos and working! But I totally loved those holidays). So… poor, but hardly poverty-stricken. On income, we still came in under the official ‘poverty line,’ but we did really well most of the time. My parents both had tertiary educations, and our family put a premium on education (probably because my dad loved study and it had been part of my mum’s ‘escape’ from her fairly dysfunctional working-class family. They both got PhDs about five years ago.) Living in parishes in inner-ish Melbourne meant that I was always aware of that fact: people regularly came asking for help, food, money, shelter and so on; churches are like that.
(Teehee… I remember when I was about 4 or 5 a woman came from the nearby high-rises to visit my mum (probably to sort out what kinds of assistance were available to her and her family) and brought a couple of kids. One was close to my age, and told me such terrible stories about how she had no toys at all and I had so many and was just so lucky until I offered her one of my own and we fell into a pattern of her taking a toy each time she visited. I remember feeling guilty, like I was doing something wrong, even though I really wanted her to have toys to play with because not having them would be so bad. It took a while, but I think the kid’s mother noticed eventually… I don’t remember whether we got them back. Remembering it makes me grin, though.)
So up until high school, I hadn’t really thought of myself as being poor. Suddenly I was a scholarship kid at a school full of rich kids—and they were rich. Phew. Second-hand uniforms were signs of poverty; and these were horrible but well-made skirts, jumpers, blazers, dresses, which lent themselves to re-use. I remember being really aware of how much the whole thing cost mum and dad, so that I went through a stage in I think year 9 where I paid for lots of school stuff like pencils, protractors, compasses, bus tickets out of my (really pretty small) allowance so that it wouldn’t come up on the bill. (Mum found out and said in a slightly sad way, “Oh, WP, just let us worry about that!”)
Christina recounted to me the moment when she realised just how rich some of them were: on the way from school to a sports thing, a fellow classmate suggested they drop in at her house to have a drink. “And we walked in, and it was like walking into Vogue magazine. Seriously. And her mum was all like ‘oh, hello girls!'” I can imagine this scene incredibly vividly. Christina said that she spent a lot of time at school wanting all of that stuff. It was utterly out of her league: her family were just far too poor, and her mum, an ex-Catholic Born-Again Italian migrant, both insisted that Christina go to PAGS and refused to allow her daughter to participate in the ‘excesses’ of the culture that surrounded it.
I wasn’t really aware of it at the time, but class had a huge impact on the ways that my year cohered and failed to cohere. The rich kids saw each other outside of school all the time, and already knew the Saints boys of about our age from families socialising together. My ‘group’ saw each other as well, but there weren’t really huge parties funded by parents to attend. Christina described the way she declined a few birthday invitations and they just stopped coming. She turned them down because she didn’t know what she would wear, and her mum wouldn’t have let her wear what she wanted, anyway. This had evidently been a huge and hard thing for her to negotiate.
I, on the other hand, was dubbed a ‘square.’ This wasn’t just a mark of being bright—though I did well at school—but being poor and bright. Others got the marks I had and better, but weren’t marked in such a way because a) I was sneaking in under scholarship and b) other’s good marks were set against the background of weekend and evening socialising, doubtless complete with amusing D&Ms (Deep and Meaningfuls), fun bouts of silly drunkenness, secrets, boys and other things that tend to bind people together, that I wasn’t a part of (at least partly) because I was too poor. Too poor to have clothes that might let me fit in (demonstrated on ‘casual’ days), too poor to buy proper presents for birthdays, too poor to have developed the right sensibility at parties: to behave as middle-class people should, to know what to talk about, to flirt properly and to be open and approving of whatever guys were there. (Most of the guys at parties I went to were so fucking boring and proper (mostly boys from Saints and other boys schools) I couldn’t actually find them attractive once they started talking. I went out with one of them in year 9, a disastrous experience which ended because he showed off by telling a man on the street who was campaigning against politicians’ ‘golden handshakes’ that politicians deserved all the money they could get. I recall being uncomfortably disgusted at having kissed such a right-winger! :-))
I tried for a while to break into that space, but it was intimidating, not least because many of the richer girls had established friendship groups not just through their parents but by attending PAGS primary school. My response to being dubbed a ‘square’—with what looks like a frightening lack of survival skills in retrospect!—was one of scared disdain: the emphasis my parents placed on knowing stuff and learning (all very aspirationally middle-class values), and my determination to be ‘who I was’ (yup, ultra-liberal lefty at school. I grew out of (bits of) it) meant that I had grounds to refuse to take on the idea I shouldn’t be so bright, that I should apologise for or attempt to hide it. It was hard, in lots of ways, but I was trying to maintain the idea that I should be and be able to be myself. Interestingly, this wasn’t really combined with arrogance (which it easily could have been): the disdain was limited to their assessment of me. This thinking meant I could challenge teachers when I thought they were talking crap (which happened quite a bit), not least because I felt like I had some responsibility to do so. (My chem teacher, for example, described some particular bonds between molecules as “imagine there’s a beautiful woman in the middle of a room. All the men will be equally attracted to her.” Laughing contribution from class: “what if one of them’s gay?” Response: “Well, that’s not natural, it doesn’t happen in nature. Cue WP’s entrance to the conversation (which went on for about an hour after class with him quoting the bible at me, the Christadelphian
nut erm… believer…)). I was still reasonably friendly and open, if a bit shy (in year 12 I became a kind of surrogate counsellor). I stuck to my dad’s principle that everyone’s good at something, which meant that while I wasn’t willing to pretend not to be bright, I remained pretty generous, helping people (as in, anyone who asked) with homework, explaining stuff in class and so on.
I was fortunate—privileged, really, by having a family that valued ‘intelligence’—that I had other things going on which allowed me some of these strategies for rethinking, at least compared to Christina who angsted over her exclusion without grounds to reject it (even for herself), but it meant that I kinda accepted ostracism as a payoff. It took talking to her to help me understand how much these things were a function of the way class worked at PAGS.
Just one more note about class here: PAGS shaped me in lots of really pretty visible ways. Quite aside from the education I got there, it affected the way I speak, the way I stand, the way I tend to conduct myself. I learnt very quickly as a scholarship kid that appearing confident was one way to escape the nastier kinds of teasing (and part of how I proved to myself that I wasn’t letting their assessment of me as a ‘square’ get to me). This has stuck with me, so that much of the time when I’m most uncertain, feeling most out of place, I appear most confident, most solidly middle-class, most easily at home. Most people mark me as simply and utterly middle class, and in a lot of ways I really really am. My concerns about possibly being seen as refusing to mark the privilege of my own position (i.e., being self-indulgent) almost made me not write this post, though, and there’s something significant in that as well.
My awareness of privilege and class didn’t just come from my tertiary education. PAGS made me both really really aware of the ways that class works (albeit implicitly), and made me develop the tools that both allow me to appear but not feel privileged, at home in all situations etc (which really does have marked benefits: I interview well, for a really obvious example). But in lots of ways, that doesn’t undo all the marks of the ambiguities of class. Someone once asked me—trying to prove to me my own privilege—whether there had ever been a social situation I had been in where I hadn’t know how to behave. My god, yes! One example amongst thousands: the family of a boyfriend in first year uni were so bloody upper middle class, and I revealed over and again my—well, whatever class I ‘truly’ am, so that his mother particularly disapproved of me, thought I was rude and in no way good enough for her son. But with the tracks of PAGS all over me, lots of the time I cover. It’s a kind of passing, I think, passing as properly middle class; one which I have numerous moments of failing, and means I usually feel like an imposter. Being self-aware like this is, I think, one of the curses and clearest marks of non-privilege or maybe sometimes just critical self-awareness; its absence one of the strongest marks of privilege. Intriguingly, though, all this also means that I’m also hyper aware of how middle-class I appear, and how intimidating that can be, and so I feel awkward in working class settings or around working class people, hyper aware of the class of my comportment, my dress, my speech; I never was a part of those spaces and ways of socialising (as an teen) either, because the school I was at was so upper-class. It’s a complex little system.
I also promised some consideration of race at PAGS. Being white, I was much less aware of this than many of my friends probably are, and so I don’t have many recollections of the specificities of its operation. It really wasn’t something we talked about most of the time. I recall sitting at lunch in the year 12 common room with a friend of mine (call her Rose) talking about racism, race and ethnicity (I was reading Heart of Darkness by Conrad, so that’s probably why). Then I said, “Wow, look at where all the people who… look different are sitting…” In our year, there were only a few girls marked as recognisably of a racialised heritage: a couple of Asians, an Indian, the Christinas (Italian and Greek), a Fijian… and they all sat in ‘our’ group, the ‘out’ group, the group of scholarship kids and relative poverty. The school itself never demonstrated any awareness of class, race or religious difference (except via the scholarship ‘merit’ system) and this meant that none of the white, rich girls ever questioned their situations, and none of them ever thought they ought to. When I recounted this story, Christina told me that she was teased about her facial hair at some point at school, that this was part of what contributed to her feeling ostracised (or not, given she didn’t like the term). I don’t think she’d really thought about the race aspect of it that explicitly before then… and it makes me think about the way that the choices of curriculum, for example, are so utterly marked by the maintenance of privilege. The things I know now could have the potential to really change the ways that these differences function in schools. It wouldn’t have to be the geek-fest joke that “no one is square in space…” to get around ‘square’ capturing the dovetailing of brights and poverty.
Perhaps I’m a bit hopeful, but if we’d been explicitly taught about the ways that race and whiteness, class and gender shape not just people out there (we were taught that because we had an education, we could be scientists! lawyers! doctors! whatever we wanted to be! though of course this was in amongst all else, bound up with a heteronormative imagining of a life-plan that would inevitably make us all wives and mothers (because that’s truly successful)), but us, and the ways we operate, the unmarkedness of whiteness and upper-middle-class-ness wouldn’t have so shaped our year. That is, given that the only real critical analysis happened in history (I adored my history teacher), we never really turned any of that self-awareness and critical engagement on ourselves, and so those who benefited were never really aware of that, and who were excluded had few if any ways to think it. (Cue perfect opening for crappy pop-psych ‘it’s the ‘tude that matters, so think positive!’ covering-up of privilege and disadvantage).
In lots of ways my angsting over whether or not to attend the reunion is shaped by my awareness of these concerns: the tick-list, I don’t doubt, will be class-based and hegemonic: 1) married, 2) kids, 3) house, 4) well-respected, well-paying permanent job, and maybe 5) education (though given the anti-intellectualist distrust of conservatives, anything beyond a bachelors, which most of my class probably have, is likely not to fly). If I did pass on 5), though, it’ll only be as a confirmation of my high-school ‘square’ness, and I’m not happy about that given that part of the reason I wound up in Cultural Studies was that I love the unpacking of stuff taken for granted, especially knowledge. Cultural Studies isn’t square! (Actually, I don’t entirely believe that, but it’s a damn sight less square than most of the rest of ‘knowledge’.) Besides, that confirmation’ll mean I don’t get to tell anyone that rather than sticking with a conservative ‘square’ place, I’m teaching undergrads about male ‘receptive anal eroticism’ (bless dat Catherine Waldby character!) or that my thesis looks at self-demand amputation (“I… you… what?!”), intersex corrective surgery (“heh,” splutter into wine glass) and other things they probably haven’t heard of… and really, going back into that space with all this thought about class and race and stuff, I wonder if I could leave feeling okay with not shocking or at least troubling (some of) them out of/with (some of) their comfortable, privileged ways… (though part of me worries this is just a vindictive, resentful leftover from being an adolescent… then again, does that make it bad? :-))