I remember well a conversation (among many) that I had my second year in college. I remember it so well I can remember who sat where in our deluxe suite in Munger Hall at Wellesley College. I was sitting in my roommate’s chair, at her desk against the wall near the door. My friends and I had a lot of arguments our first year and a half in college, but they were the good kind of argument, the kind that makes you stretch your mind and your beliefs. This day we were, as we often were, arguing about class and privilege.
I had a hell of a time adjusting to college, for a number of reasons. But by my second year, my primary problem was guilt. I had no real sense of why I belonged in such an idyllic place full of amazing women and brilliant faculty. I’d earned straight A’s in high school and done exceptionally well on my college entrance exams, but as I would learn, I felt like many other young women in elite schools that someone somewhere would discover I was really a fraud. I was also a teenager, naïve, and sure that I knew how the world should work. I was angry that day because a professor in one of my courses had asked us to raise our hands if we felt more privileged than most people in the country (I’d like to point out that this professor turned out to be the only undergrad professor I ever actively disliked, and yet he still had a lot to offer students.)
I and a student who grew up poor somewhere along the Orange line but who’d gotten a scholarship to a prep school were the only ones who raised their hands. The professor (who was kind of a jerk, as I said) ignored us and proceeded to ask the students who didn’t raise their hands why they hadn’t, and then lambasted us all for our self-righteousness. Students of course defended themselves with claims about hard work, debt, parental and self-deprivation, social justice goals, and so on.
The particular friends I was talking to that day agreed with me that we were privileged, but not that we were the “most” privileged. I felt so angry. I didn’t lack for self-righteousness myself, so I paraded out stories from my hometown that I had no right to exploit, and no true understanding about. But like I said, I was a teenager too. The absolutely brilliant friend, one of the smartest girls and now women I’ve ever known, who had two kids before we graduated high school, and couldn’t afford college (at that time, she’s freaking amazing and educated now fifteen years later!). The guy friends who went into the military—a class of kids who were often insulted in my new milieu. The violence in my hometown, which was at the time immersed in some kind of gang war (that appears to not be over yet) and obviously detrimental to the development of any but the most amazing of kids.
I realized that many of the amazing students at elite schools weren’t the most amazing in the world, but were smart enough and lucky enough to have opportunities. Such as myself probably; although, I admit at the time and on my good days I did think I was among the smartest. I might have grown up in a “blue collar” city and my parents’ salaries were way below the mean and mode at Wellesley, but my so-called educational successes are hardly a statistical rarity. I work hard, but my parents both have MA’s and were teachers. My track is hardly surprising.
I left Wellesley for a semester after that conversation and others. I’d reached a point of profound cognitive dissonance. So I went back to my hometown, interned with Head Start over the winter semester and with Hull House’s pilot welfare reform programs over the summer. But then I went back to Wellesley, already sick of and beaten down by the world of under-privilege I thought I wanted to understand and fix. I just wanted to escape.
But I had a new idea and justification for it! I could become an academic, and come to understand the processes that had produced the world that so upset and frustrated me. An historian would be especially perfect. I know, I know, if you knew me at Wellesley or read my grad school application, you’ve read/heard a lot of this. But it’s actually been awhile since I articulated these thoughts, or worked through them as an adult and PhD.
I’m at another crossroads in life, having accomplished my PhD. I’m upset by a new batch of complaining in the world. Following the recent elections and also coming at a time where my own field I thought could save the world (history and academia more generally), seems to be in crisis, I’m confused. I wonder whether the kinds of conversations I see going on around me are productive. I’m wondering what my own role should be. I see resentment expressed by colleagues around the country, emotions I know have justification, but I want to cast them off from myself because I spent enough time in the past few years feeling luckless and sad.
I am an adjunct professor, a position I willingly accepted, with eyes wide open, to keep my family together and healthy. So even in this role, I am in a privileged position because my pay isn’t what my family relies upon and I have a lot of intellectual and personal freedom. That freedom gives me a bit of security that adjuncts without a partner, or with a similarly poorly paid one, don’t have. It also means that I can do a lot for the larger community, with my time, education, and hopefully optimistic and strong work ethic.
So what to do with it? Is my role a random one I happened upon that I’ll escape from soon, and begin to forget? Or is there something better I can do with it, for myself and others?