The Immigrant Class: Part 4

This is going to be a short post, because I’m so very tired. I’ve been working all day, and I’ve spent the last two hours typing a thousand words of “England under the White Witch,” the story I drafted on the bus from New York to Boston. But I thought I would talk a bit more about social class, because I do have more to say.

I think I’ve seen a fairly broad range of the social classes this country has to offer. I haven’t seen the bottom or top of the range intimately, but I have at least seen it: the truly poor, whether the urban homeless or the rural poor living in run-down houses, and the ridiculously wealthy. I’ve met a billionaire: Jan Stenbeck, a Swedish media mogul who was mentioned in that crime novel — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He died several years ago, but while I was working as a corporate lawyer, he was a client of one of the firms I worked for. The firm flew me down to New York regularly to meet with the heads of his companies. We were doing some sort of corporate restructuring, I remember. But most of the people I’ve known and spent my time with belong in what we like to think of as the middle class, although in America the middle class goes all the way from teacher’s aids to law firm partners. You can be earning $20,000 a year or $200,000 a year. And the bottom and top of that class are as alien to each other as they are to other classes, I sometimes think.

I still remember going to the University of Virginia, my freshman year (although it’s called first year, there), and realizing that I was in a completely different social world. I had gone to high school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., among children whose parents belonged to the broad middle of the middle class. Some of them were government employees who could not afford to live in the city. Some were people who serviced the new suburban economy: construction workers, librarians, restaurant managers. The suburbs had been built up in the last twenty or so years, and there were still fields with horses in them, or actually being farmed. My high school was surrounded by fields. This was a culture shock for me: I had grown up in Budapest, Brussels, and the area around the National Institutes of Health, all of which were more dense, urban, cultured. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself in these new suburbs.

One way social class differences are enforced even during the teenage years is by tracking in the high schools. I was on the advanced academic track, in the gifted program. But there were kids who left in the middle of the day for vocational training. This was the American high school as depicted in so many movies from the 1980s, where football players, cheerleaders, and prom are all important. Where students don’t necessarily go on to college. I, of course, was expected to go to college and then graduate school. But it was a strange atmosphere to be in, where students had such different expectations. My graduating class was not particularly small, several hundred students, but there were only about thirty of us tracked at our level, all taking the same sequence of honors courses. In a sense, we formed a small school within the school. Need I add that we were of course the nerds of the school? The top of the class was drawn from our ranks.

Going to UVA meant encountering a very different social class: kids who had gone to private schools, who recognized each other’s private schools, whose families often knew each other. This was the top of the “middle class” and bottom of the “upper class,” which the broad middle middle class doesn’t truly know or understand. These were the kids who, when they graduated, had internships waiting for them at Sotheby’s or in congressional offices. I think it will take an entirely different blog post to talk about the social structure of UVA, but it involved certain clubs and secret societies — partly because UVA emulated and believed itself equal to the northern Ivies. I saw this social structure from the fringes because I dated some boys from it — my college boyfriend, whom I dated for two years, had gone to Groton, as had his father before him, and he understood that structure while despising it heartily. But he could not escape it either, and walked around campus in the same uniform of untucked button-down oxfords, khakis, and what we called boat shoes — Sperry top-siders. When something more formal was required, he threw a jacket over the oxford shirt. I don’t think he ever tucked it in.

Although I’m so tired, this has been surprisingly easy to write. I think it’s because when you’re outside a social structure, it’s easier to see inside it, to note its small details. Because it was all in the small details. And to understand the nuances that determine how people are placed, and drive how they behave.  More on this to come.

My image for to day is the UVA Rotunda, from the 1870s:

There’s one thing I should be more specific about. I went to such a variety of schools that it’s not quite fair to talk about one high school as being mine. I started school in Brussels; then went to a private Catholic school in Pennsylvania; then a small public school, and then a larger public school, in Maryland; and then H.B. Woodlawn in Virginia, which is one of the best purblic schools in the country (and can best be described as hippie alternative); then a suburban middle school when my mother decided that we needed to be in surburbs (in part because I had been followed and almost attacked by a man while walking home from the bus stop); then a large and rather frightening high school in California; then the high school I described above. The longest I went to any one school was three and a half years. After that, I went to college — which was a relief. But more on that another time.

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5 Responses to The Immigrant Class: Part 4

  1. “UVA emulated and believed itself equal to the northern Ivies”. It was probably, then, more Ivy than the Ivies. Always seemed to me that groups who want to emulate other groups push the particularly noticeable characteristics of those groups further than the original group might ever. It’s so interesting how different social groups choose to emulate each other, or set their identity counter to each other, and why . . .

    • Yes, that’s absolutely true. When I actually went to Harvard, I realized that UVA, which sometimes called itself the Harvard of the south, was nothing like Harvard. And that it was emulating the wrong aspects of Harvard, as well. The secret societies rather than, say, the research funding . . .

  2. I had no idea you went to UVA, Dora. I actually got accepted there, and was quite excited about it, but when my parents took me up to the campus to visit, I was immediately turned off by the projected sense of superiority and arrogance from both the faculty and students. Most likely because of what you mention: I grew up very firmly in the middle of the middle class, and the idea that privilege belongs only to the wealthy turned my stomach.

    • I’m sorry you decided not to go, Jason, because there are a lot of wonderful things about UVA, but I do get what you mean. Hearing “Mr. Jefferson’s university” one too many times just makes me roll my eyes . . .

      • Yeah, it was probably unfair of me to make such a snap judgment at the time, but in my heart of hearts, NC State was always my number one choice. I don’t regret going there one bit, especially since it allowed me to meet and befriend John Kessel.

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