Today in diversity session, we discussed the idea of socio-economic class and how it affected our learning experiences and how we see it impact our students’ learning experiences. I really enjoyed the discussion, and I think my friend Julie best summed up our thoughts when she said, “I guess the thing we have to remember is that all kids have problems.” Poor kids, rich kids, and kids in the middle. Everybody’s got a burden, irrespective of their socio-economic status.
Our discussion got me thinking about the ways that I may be hurting my students more than I’m helping them when I talk to them about socio-economic status. I currently teach at the school that I went to as a student, and as a result I am lucky to have a strong understanding of the student culture. Unfortunately, my years away had made me forget what tonight’s discussion reminded me.
The prompts were these:
1) What was your socio economic class growing up?
2) When did you become aware of other people’s socio economic class?
3) Are you self-conscious of a difference between your socio-economic class and that of your students?
As I was writing, I started to remember some of the guilt and pressures that I felt growing up in a wealthy community. Well-intentioned teachers and parents, trying to help us develop perspective for those who were not as well-off as we were, would say things like, “you’re so privileged. People don’t have half of what you have.” Or, ” Y’all are spoiled and you don’t even know it.” Or “there are people in the world who would kill for the opportunities y’all have, and you take them for granted.”
Here is the thing: of course, these teachers were right. Of course, they were trying as hard as they could to help us grow.
But truly, how could most of us know better? Any interaction with people from other socio-economic classes was usually from an observational standpoint, incredibly shallow interactions, or a too-brief time period. Intellectually, we knew that we were privileged, but this knowledge did not get internalized in a way that could help us live better.
As a result of the accusations of privilege, I did not learn perspective. Instead, I felt guilty for having more than I “deserved.” I felt uncomfortable because I knew I didn’t deserve my privilege, and therefore I was taking advantage of something. I felt more uncomfortable because I knew I couldn’t change my status, and thus I was thrust into the role of a bad person who is taking advantage of something but won’t change her ways. Then, I felt even more uncomfortable because I knew that I was being judged and found lacking for something that I couldn’t control. I felt hopelessly stuck because the “poor little rich girl” doesn’t deserve to be dissatisfied.
A poor kid succeeds, and she’s the underdog, the hero, the one who worked hard to make it to the top and deserves her position there. The rich kid succeeds and she’s the one who’s been given her success, whose daddy must have payed his little girl’s way to the top. There’s enormous pressure to escape the expectation others have (or you think they have) of you of being a spoiled, snobby, entitled, shop-a-holic who couldn’t have possibly earned one single thing on her own. No matter what you achieve, someone’s going to peg your success as solely (or mostly) due to your class privilege.
So you work really hard. You try to be perfect. And sometimes this leads to eating disorders. And sometimes this leads to depression. And sometimes this leads to rebellion.
Luckily, I had great parents and siblings and experiences which helped me find perspective in other ways, though I’m sure it was slow going.
Ultimately, I wonder if a better way of helping well-off students who need perspective would be to provide them opportunities in which they might find some on their own. Give them a class project where they must work to solve a social problem involving class inequalities. Make sure that in this project they actually work with people of other socio-economic classes for an extended period of time so that their concept of class is not just intellectualized but internalized by building relationships.
And remember, wealthy kids need help too, even if they don’t “deserve” it.