I realized recently that I grew up on the poor side of town. I did not grow up poor, mind you. I grew up with lots of love, a wonderful family and in a safe neighborhood in a small town. But I always thought of our lifestyle as “middle class.”
My family always had enough to eat, we never went without any basic necessities, clothing, health care or even luxuries like television and eventually a microwave. My sis and I shared a bedroom until I moved to the basement in high school so I could wake up earlier to run in the early pre-dawn hours.
But social class and income class are not the same thing. Both my parents had college degrees. Mom chose to stay home and raise her daughters until we were in middle and high school, when she went back to work part-time, as a substitute teacher. I just assumed that meant we were middle class.
My Dad was a teacher and a leader in the local community. All of the parents of the students he taught in the bilingual program treated him as a respected professional in our small town. Of course, some administrators and teachers were not as respectful. He had his share of good principals and a few racist.
Recently my mother-in-law called herself “working class.” I was shocked. She has a master’s degree and she and her husband bought and sold homes together a few times during their history. So I always considered her middle class. But she considered herself working class. Probably it was more about her upbringing (to her) than any type of income category.
In contrast, my parents never bought a home. Not quite enough income from a teacher’s salary. We had the advantage of summers at Grandma’s house in Bemidji. So we did not go without space to enjoy ourselves in the summer, on a lake in Minnesota, no less. It was a long drive from Southern Wisconsin, but we had the picnic lunches that my Mom made, and there were rest areas for potty breaks. It was a blessing for us. We read books all, swam in the lake nearly every day, and there was plenty of introvert re-charge time.
By income standards, we probably would have been considered working class, or perhaps slightly less. In comparison to families with two working parents, mine were certainly not as well-off financially. But I always had what I needed. I always had a couple of new school outfits to start the year. There were a lot of farm kids in my school, so all of us had pretty similar income, or so I imagined.
I relied heavily on need-based financial aid for a private college, but being 2nd in my class in high school, I qualified for it. I won’t say I didn’t work hard for that. It may have helped that my name belied my half-Mexican origin. But I was born in Wisconsin, not Juarez. Therein, by the grace of god, lies the difference.
Why was I born here? Because my Mom fell in love with her guitar teacher when she studied in Mexico. And he fell in love with a Minnesotan woman, despite her mother serving as a chaperone on most of their dates. Why did I have the opportunities I have today? Because my family worked hard, and made sacrifices for me, so I could grow up healthy and happy.
I started thinking about people who use racism and class-ism to divide people. Take ahem… our Harasser-in-Chief. No matter how much money he makes, or pretends to make, he will always have NO class.
You know why? Because class, true class, is about how you treat people. It is about your character.
My father always treated the cooks and the janitors in his school as respectfully as he treated the other teachers. I learned to treat people as equals, not as superior or inferior due to their education or social status. I am really proud that both my Mom and Dad taught me that the measure of a good person is in how kindly you treat others.
To be a classy person is to realize that it is not about what you have, or what you do. There is honor in ALL work, and there is compassion for those who may not have work right now. There is a belief that ALL people are worthy of human dignity, no matter their skin color, creed, religion, or national origin. America was founded on these principles, that all people were created equal, which is why I am still proud to call this home.