The Immigrant Class: Part 5

Several days ago, a woman whose daughter plays with Ophelia told me that she would be moving to Jordan for a year, with the children, while her husband stayed in the United States. He was from Jordan, she was from Australia, and they wanted the children to be familiar with his culture as well. I mention this because what I’ve been calling the immigrant class could also, perhaps more accurately, be called an international intellectual class. (Remember that I’m not talking about all immigrants, but specifically those who were highly educated in their own countries. They generally come to the United States for career opportunities, but want to maintain ties to their own cultures — unless they are fleeing repressive regimes, as I suppose we were.) The international immigrant class does things like that — their children are raised all over the world, in part so they will develop the habits and expectations that come from belonging to that class. Even my brother and I were sent to Europe regularly, although my family did not have much money while I was growing up. But being international — rather than provincial, which was one of the worst things my mother could call you — was a requirement.

But I was talking about going to the University of Virginia and encountering class differences there. And there were wide class differences, because it was a state school and therefore relatively inexpensive. Good students from small towns in southern Virginia would go there, as well as the sons and daughters of wealthy lawyers from Richmond. And of course, because it had an international reputations, there were also students from places like New York and Los Angeles. You know what class they belonged to — only the children of the wealthy went to a state school for which they would have to pay out-of-state tuition.

The university had its own upper class, made up of students who were in the University Guides, who were Resident Assistants, who were admitted to the Jefferson Society. Being editor of the school newspaper counted. Some of them eventually ended up residents of the Lawn. You could tell who those were because they proudly walked around the Lawn in their bathrobes in the morning. Their bathrooms were behind the Lawn rooms, so they had to walk outside to get to them. But, on the other hand, they were on Mr. Jefferson’s Lawn — and their rooms had fireplaces. (I know all this because I dated a Lawn resident. I dated a lot of people, in those days.)

In a way, it was funny — because it could be so pretentious. There was a whole other side of the university as well, the side that I think the professors saw, in which UVA was a major research university. But among the students, in these groups, the old traditions lived on. I’m sure they live on at other universities that pride themselves on being serious research institutions — after all, Princeton still has its secret societies.  (So, of course, does UVA, and belonging to one of them put you at the very highest social level.)

At the time, I was intimidated by it all. It was only later that I learned about a crucial class distinction between what I will call the provincial upper class and the actual American upper class. I met the provincial upper class while I was working for law firms in Richmond. I heard law firm partners talking at length about the country club, about their daughters’ debuts. And I realized that they were palely imitating what the actual American upper class, which did not live in places like Richmond, had done for the last century. The actual American upper class lives in places like New York and Boston — or lived, because those class hierarchies are in fact breaking apart. They are listed in actual society registers. And what I had gone to school with, at UVA, were the sons and daughters of the provincial upper class, which is important in places like Richmond, or Savannah, or Atlanta, and completely unimportant anywhere else. (If you meet members of that class, nod and smile, listen politely, and get away to somewhere more interesting as quickly as you can. The truth is that, in our international world, they no longer have much power, except at a purely local level. The people who are changing our world do not belong to country clubs.)

My image for the day is of the University of Virginia rotunda as it looks now:

The Rotunda itself, the physical structure, is not the cliché that you see in photographs. I used to walk around it at night, on dates with guys from the college or law school. It is a graceful building, with lovely old bricks. That was one of the reasons I went to UVA — to experience the sense of peace that only something old and graceful can provide.

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