My encounter with the two women in a bar who had a lower class led me to think about another young woman I met in a bar. She was tending bar, and her surname, she told me, was Dumas with the “s” pronounced, and I always addressed her by that last name. Without consciously thinking about the topic, if you had asked me after I first met her, “Was she from the lower middle class?”, I would have said definitely not. But I could not have said what it was about her that would have led me to that opinion. I was not surprised, then, to learn eventually that her father was a doctor in South Carolina, where she grew up, her older brother was a partner in a prestigious law firm, and her younger brother was attending a top-tier law school. When I found out that she was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, I said, “Oh, you are one of those fucking smart women.” She paused, smiled, and replied, “Yes, I am one of those fucking smart women.”
She may have been smart, but she did tell me that she had not read much since leaving Penn. I gave her my autographed copy of The Black Count: Glory, Evolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss, the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of the author Alexandre Dumas. I told her that she ought to learn more about her ancestors. (She was as white as the snow that does not fall in Charleston, and I am not sure that she got the racial joke in the gift.) She stopped working in the bar shortly after I gave her the book, and I never found out what she thought of it or whether she even read the biography.
Dumas was different from other bartenders and servers in the biergarten not only because she was an Ivy League graduate. Almost everyone who works there has some sort of other career that they are pursuing—actor, videographer, music editor, writer, podcast comedian, lead singer in a covers band, Ph.D candidate, psychologist, saving to buy their own bar, tour guide—but she mentioned no aspirations. This also made her different from the athletic director whom I met in the offended-me bar.
Kris had mentioned that she had a master’s degree, but I did not get in what or from where, but when Maggie mentioned the book I had put down in front of the way-too-expensive Scotch, Kris said that she would like to read more books but that she did not have the time. Most people who claim to want to read and say they don’t have the time are really saying they prefer watching TV or listening to podcasts or searching for online videos or playing videogames in their leisure time rather than reading. They make the perfectly acceptable choice to do something other than crack a book.
Kris, however, went on to say that in addition to her two jobs as athletic director and soccer coach that she was studying for a Ph.D. I admit that I did not know the field—educational leadership—and I did not know the school–the University of New England. She was pursuing her degree online. When she got home at night, she turned to studying for that Ph.D. I asked if this was hard, and she spit out, “Oh, yes. It is a lot different and easier going to classes with lots of other people than it is sitting by yourself in front of a computer.” But she was determined to get the degree. She was determined to learn more; she was determined to become even better.
But the deck is stacked against her in ways that it was not for me. In this land of opportunity, increasingly opportunity is available only if you are born into it. In a better country, the strivers like Kris would make it to the head of the class. I hope she does.