The athletic director and the lacrosse coach who I talked to in the I-am-never-going-there-again bar told me that some of the students in their expensive private school acted entitled, but most were good kids and that no parent had unduly tried to influence them. I had asked about this both because of the recent scandals involving fake athletic credentials and college admissions and because I was told that a professional at a squash club had been berated by a parent when the pro had moved a kid to a lower place in the club’s squash hierarchy. The parent, apparently, was worried that the demotion would harm the chances of the beloved and special child going to some selective school.
But, still, I thought to myself, even if my two new companions did not feel any overt pressures from the school’s parents, many of them most certainly are status conscious. Without consciously registering why—perhaps if I were a good psychologist, sociologist, or novelist, I would have the reasons–the two struck me with an aura of lower middle classdom that they had not completely transcended. It certainly was not their clothing because their dress fitted in well into a Brooklyn neighborhood bar where just about anything goes. I don’t think it was accents or speech patterns because nothing had stood out to me. It was partly from some of their comments. When one stressed that she was from northern Connecticut, she was indicating that she did not want to be associated with what many see as the rich part of the state. Somehow the comment that my old Harris tweed jacket made good wedding apparel said something to me. But it was something more than just a few comments. It was no doubt congeries of factors hitting me subconsciously that led me to the feeling of their social status.
It made me feel a kinship with them because I, too, come from the lower middle class, or at least on a good day, maybe right after the father’s payday, my childhood family made it all the way up there. I don’t think, however, that I now give the immediate impression that this is my origin. I wondered why and found that I was not sure of an answer.
I did consciously change some of my mannerisms because of experiences at my expensive college. I found that my ties were not the right width and that it was acceptable to wear a blue Oxford button-down with a frayed collar and that some of my pronunciations seemed funny to others—e.g., the-ate-er. Some of my lessons caused me a bit more discomfort than others. For example, in my first year at college, I spent the night at the home of a very rich girl. Her grandfather had invented something essential for airplanes that had made a lot of money, and the house where I was staying was the grandest I had ever been in. I had hardly ever slept overnight in anyone else’s house before, and not surprisingly I had not slept well in this one. The next morning when I wandered out bleary eyed, the mother pointed down a hall and told me to go to the breakfast nook and have something to eat. Maybe I had heard of a breakfast nook, but I had never before seen, much less eaten in one. No one else was there. I sat down on the bench seating. On the table was a box of cornflakes, one of my least favorite cereals, and a pitcher (certainly not a carton) of milk. I thought that I could get those dry, tasteless flakes palatable if I made them extra, extra sweet. The only other item on the table was a tiny, tiny bowl of a white substance with an even tinier spoon. It seemed odd that the sugar was in such miniscule container, but there it was. I scooped well into the double digits of the sugar onto my Kellogg’s. I was about to start eating when the mother returned and said, “I am so sorry. I forgot to put the sugar out.” Thinking as fast as I could, I put a spoonful of cornflakes into my mouth, chewed, swallowed, and said, “No problem. I don’t put sugar on my cereal.” It may have been the saltiest food I ever ate.
But even if I came off as working class in a way that might have held me back when I was nineteen, I think I have shed that cloak. (My parents, however, as an adult reminded me in countless little ways of my less than upper-class origins. For example, I told my parents that I would be visiting them and that I would arrive in time for dinner. Hey, when do you eat dinner? I had forgotten that for them that that was the noon meal. I showed up five hours after they had the table set and the food prepared, which was, how shall I put it, a little dry by that point. Another example: The father was visiting us in Brooklyn. Our parlor floor has ceilings twelve feet high with plaster moldings and plaster rosettes that date to the 1870s. The father almost immediately after his arrival started explaining to me how I could lower to ceilings to a more sensible eight feet, a change that would save me much in heating costs.) On the other hand, those interesting, pleasant women in that no-name-to-me bar still had a lower-middle-class aura. I realize that that made me feel superior to them, and I did not like that feeling. I have been lucky in many ways. I was born into a time where social mobility in this country was real. Today, a child born into the bottom half of society has much less chance of moving out of that status than in almost any other developed country and much less chance than when I was born. (You can look it up.) We still have a Horatio Alger myth, but it is a myth. The rich have insulated themselves and their families by invasion from the “unworthy.”
(concluded December 9)