Posted by Danny Pforte
This is a personal narrative that I gave the social class Intersections Panel, which was held a few weeks ago in Davis auditorium. For those who ask for "evidence" to support the claims I make in my articles, forums such as these have given me the opportunity to provide it. SGA sponsored discussions are other outlets through which students can express their discomfort regarding negative experiences pertaining to their race, sexual orientation and class. I hope my story can be a stepping stone for others toward gaining a new perspective.
I grew up in Cambridge, MA, a place that has had a big impact on my perception of class-related issues. It is one of the few places I have been where the haves and the have-nots live in close proximity, but I never really talked about class as a child. If I could not have the video game or toy that my friend had, it was just because my father didn't let me. I did not question why — I may have whined — but I didn't think of it in regards to class. I was just left empty-handed and envious of my friends.
This silence surrounding class-related issues in my family made them embarrassing. Although my father's job paid decently, my mother's behavior eventually placed my family in a tough situation. She has never held a steady job for very long, and she has obsessive-compulsive behaviors, such as constant hand washing, as well as delusional ideas, thoughts and dreams. For example: during my early adolescence, she was rarely around the house, and spent most of her time with people whom I didn't know. How she met them is beyond me. One day, I woke up to a pissed off father. He screamed that my mother had blown our small savings and, accumulated a credit card debt of $250,000 dollars.
I can only guess that my mother's actions were caused by her suppression of traumatic experiences from her past. But as complex as her situation might be, my dad had married her, and we had to deal with the aftermath. The idea of moving out of our small old apartment became a distant dream. When a window broke, it stayed broken. When our toilet clogged, my dad would suggest that we wash it out with a bucket of water. We had mice every winter and yellow jackets every summer. Needless to say, my home's deteriorating condition caused stress.
We didn't know if we could put up with it anymore, but moving out was not an option. Our stress led to arguments, which often led to blame. My father blamed my mother for our situation, and sometimes he would blame himself for marrying her. But nobody blamed the cannibalistic credit card companies that had taken advantage of my mother. And we never sought the reasons for my mother's worsening mental state. We pushed these large issues to the side because they were just too much to handle at the time, and still are today. We had to focus on surviving from one day to the next.
I am going to fast-forward now to my experience at Skidmore. When I arrived, I had no idea what to expect: I did not visit beforehand, and I did not even know where it was located on a map. Four semesters later, I realized that, as in Cambridge, many people here have that same strong individualistic mentality around which I grew up. But the environment is one that I was not used to. For one thing, Skidmore feels just like a suburb, which is very different from my childhood home. I also hadn't interacted with wealthy people before coming to Skidmore, at least not knowingly, and here, it's unavoidable. But this isn't to say that anybody came up to me and said, "Hey, look at me, I am wealthy and rich." No, class distinctions were hidden from me once again, as they were at home.
I came to my conclusions about the identity of the typical Skidmore student from assumptions that were made about me. It has been assumed that I am "upper middle class." I have been criticized for not having a well decorated room and for the clothes that I wear. "You can't be that poor," some say to me. At times my friends at dinner will talk about all the opportunities they have had, such as jobs during high school and research they've conducted. Sometimes, the conversations get nasty. It will seem as though they think that those of us who haven't had such opportunities are just "lazy bums," or "incapable." Many of my closest friends couldn't make it to college — I guess they were bums.
And then there are the conversations about traveling overseas and around the country, or going on ski adventures at a winter resort, to which my friends assume I can relate. And then there's the criticism of the dining hall food, which also relates to class. I would have loved such a selection as a kid; all I ever ate for dinner was either ramen noodles or Chef Boyardee. In cases such as these, I just sit there quiet and bored.
But it's not only students who make these assumptions; it is the institution as well. My favorite example is the study abroad office. Call me crazy, but why should I use it just because it is there? The farthest I've ever traveled is three-four hours north of Cambridge. I think that the study abroad program is unreasonably unaffordable. And besides that, having that opportunity available to me is new, scary and uncomfortable.
These assumptions have made it difficult for me to share the experiences that make me who I am with most people at this school. I had a tough time adjusting here as a result, as the feeling I get from these assumptions is that I am different and that I don't belong.
So you are probably wondering why and how I am here. It is funny because I believe that my class experience led me to grow up without high expectations of a college education. This is where my different identities come into play. My class experience limited my access to SAT prep classes and even the desire to participate in extra curricular and AP courses. But my part white identity, as well as being a male, both led others to have high expectations of me. As a result, I was motivated to succeed in school.
Looking back, I now realize that no one has told me that I could not do well in school. In fact, most of my teachers have told me the opposite. I remember being scolded by my seventh grade social studies teacher for throwing a paper ball. She asked me what I was doing, and told me that I was "not like those knuckleheads" in our class whom she expected to behave as I had. Unfortunately, most of those knuckleheads were black.
Lastly, I am here at Skidmore because my class struggles did not worsen. A certain point of my life was difficult, but its hardships could be overcome. I don't consider myself mobile, because I don't believe in mobility among social classes at this point in time. I consider myself lucky and privileged, because I know my peers back home went through similar and even worse experiences than me and ended up in dead end jobs, in prison, or dead. And I know that their struggles, as well as those of the 100 million struggling individuals in this country, are silenced as mine were while they chase the lie — I mean dream. Harriet Tubman once said, "I freed a thousand slaves, I could have freed more, If only they knew they were slaves." Let's get free.