Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"Class" Part 2.

I grew up in an upscale, predominantly white-bread New Jersey suburb of Manhattan. As bedroom communities go, it was not the Ritziest in the area, but it was probably in about a seven-way tie for third Ritziest. It was a Colonial town, and even boasted a few artifacts, including one of those white churches with mammoth steeple, and a duck pond to reflect it in. There were plenty of shops, and no industry in town, which made it marginally prettier than some other nearby towns. Large, tree-lined streets, large Victorian houses, zoning to keep them from going duplex... you get the picture. It also boasted one of the best school systems in the area, two or three Country Clubs, proximity to several more golf courses, and a couple of real mansion-lined neighborhoods. I’m not talking McMansion here either, these places had grounds, greenhouses, the works. I did not grow up in one of those neighborhoods, but one of them was a scant 3-minute bike ride from my house, so I went to school with those kids.

My neighborhood consisted of only a couple of blocks, connected to a main road at one of the corners, kind of like the letter K, where the upright is the main drag, and the two side streets form half of a square block. In some strange way, it was reminiscent of a backwater on a river, and the people that lived there were “backwater people”. The town had a slice of every ethnic and economic background, although it was weighted a bit heavily toward the higher income brackets. We were not the poorest, they lived on either side of the railroad line, often in rented housing. We were the support staff and the retirees. We were the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers. My neighborhood boasted two police officers, a plumber, a painter/carpenter, another carpenter whose wife worked at the cafeteria at Roosevelt Junior High School, a beautician, a landlord, a steamfitter... you get the picture. One guy owned a heating oil distributorship and another worked for Exxon as a research chemist. These were the more well-off members of my little community. The long-time residents of the neighborhood were of German, Polish, and Italian extraction. The food was great.

As I said, I went to school with the rich and, well, rich. The famous people in town tended more toward the arts, and were much more approachable. They were also adults. The teachers never played favorites that I could see, the wealthy parents were distantly polite, but the kids... Spoiled doesn’t cover it. Some were spoiled, some weren’t. This was the real world, not some TV stereotype. Most of them, with only two exceptions I remember, made it quite plain that we didn’t belong. We were not in their league, we were not on the fast track, and they were. I did not resent this at the time. Frankly, I didn’t think about it much, I had other problems to think about while growing up. I remember that I didn’t get it. I would not accept that these kids were better than I was simply because of the accomplishments of their parents. This caused some additional friction since I would not play along with their sense of entitlement. I think some of them even concluded that I was too retarded to understand the difference in our respective social standings.

Years later I did resent them, and it took me more years to stop. They were a product of their environment. Their parents went to the same clubs, ran in the same, somewhat exclusive, social circles. Their parents had friends that would make sure the kids didn’t start their careers in dead-end jobs. Their older brothers and sisters went to the best colleges, and so did their girlfriends and boyfriends. They were taught at an early age to be suspicious of people that were not as well off as they were, people that would only be friendly because they wanted something. They hung out with people just like they were, and were taught to be the clique that they became. They were as much a victim of prejudice as the people they shunned. They also had their share of complete failures. Money only makes some aspects of living and growing up easier, there are many things in this world that money can’t fix. Some of them too, I’m sure, were snubbed by the next group up the social ladder. You know, the ones that went to private schools in Switzerland, lived all over the world, had stables, fleets of cars, planes, and servants to operate them. You get the picture.


At 3:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in a blue-collar French Catholic neighborhood, one of the few WASP type kids around, and I got handed the same sort of shit. It doesn't matter what your class (perceived or otherwise)may be, it's all about fitting in. In my case, I was ostracized for being non-Catholic and a hell of a lot smarter than my classmates. Shit is shit, no matter where you go.


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