“Poor students would be welcome at the best institutions of higher learning if they were willing to surrender memory, to forget the past and claim the assimilated present as the only worthwhile and meaningful reality” —bell hooks (36-37, Where We Stand: Class Matters).
I may have left you all with quite a romantic image of my childhood. One in which I nobly channeled the insecurity and dysfunction of my life into a determined quest for knowledge. This is the narrative we know of poor people who “make it out.” It is the neatly structured escape narrative we, as denizens of a society built on the teleology of the self-made man, all secretly, or not so secretly, expect. And yet, here, I must challenge us all to face the jagged edges. Despite my childhood yearnings for education, despite my straight A’s and walls full of awards marking various accomplishments, there is only so much desire can do in the face of unrelenting poverty and tumult. Ultimately, the stories of poor or working-class people cannot always be as uplifting and triumphant-against-the-odds as Hollywood would have us think. The truth is, when social and familial situations escalated during my teen years, I coped in the way I had seen modeled for me my entire life: I ran. I dropped out of high school at 15 and found myself homeless only months later. For about a year, I stayed with a series of extended family, friends, boyfriends, and sometimes, complete strangers. When those situations failed, I slept in gardening sheds and under bridges. During this time, my love of language quickly obsoleted itself. What use were words when action was the order of the day? It’s funny how quickly the essential parts of us may atrophy when denied the blood pumped from our passionate hearts. Without my books, without school, without a home and family to nourish me, I became emotionally desiccated. I learned to live as the most rudimentary of reactionary organisms. I responded to light, to hunger, and to cold, but I did not stop to analyze, to delight in sensations, to marvel.
I was entirely untethered for a year. During that year I felt as if I had become a different, much more dispassionate person. I had taken a graveyard job at the local cannery and the wet working conditions, combined with my precarious living situations, resulted in me contracting pneumonia. For the first time in months, I called my mother for help. I barely remember what happened in the coming days because I was feverish and delirious, but I know she took me to the hospital for medication, brought me home, nestled me back in my old bed, and took care of me by bringing out some of my beloved paperbacks and feeding me chicken noodle soup. As sick as I was, there was a part of me, the part of me that was still obviously a child unprepared for the bleakness of her forced adulthood, that wanted to stay sick forever. Yet, I recovered, and the turbulent arguments between my mother and I were quick to resume. Therefore, at 16, I began to study for my GED, obtained my first nearly full-time job at a fast food restaurant, and got my mom to co-sign on an apartment for me to live by myself.
For the first six months in that apartment I slept each night in the living room, curled like a parenthesis on my tiny love seat, with all the lights and television on. I was terrified at how alone and soundless my apartment felt. I even longed for my little sister to come and invade my privacy, as she had done her entire life, because I felt too young to have so much private space in the world. At a time when most of my friends still lived with their parents, went to prom, and learned to drive, I took on a second full-time job and taught myself how to grocery shop. I felt caught in a netherworld in which I had to be an adult in order to survive, but wanted so badly to feel taken care of and nurtured. Out of necessity, I bracketed my dreams and need for others to care for me. I worked 12-16 hour days and quickly realized the inevitable cycle of poverty and exhaustion that I had entered. I became complacent, not because I was lazy, but because when your life is devoid of joy, pleasure, and leisure, you are forced to become an automaton just to make it. Perhaps the most inextricable lesson I took away from this time period was a sense that my daily bravado must become my identity—that to survive meant I had to be endlessly tough and unreliant on others. As you may imagine, it has taken me years to pull myself out of this suspended state of mere existence and survival.
Recently, as I’ve explored my femme trajectory, I’ve noticed that I’ve concurrently begun to excavate my self-buried class history. What my femme desire and class trespassing share is a sense of coming out and coming to terms. To identify as femme is often to set yourself up for a continual state of elaboration in order to avoid being simplified. Similarly, disclosing that I have been, and remain, without a financial safety net, opens my life’s story up for all sorts of interpretations, many of which are beyond my control. The interpretation I most dread is the one that elicits pity or a swelling sense that I am some sort of highly capable avatar for the poor and downtrodden. To be specific, telling the narrative of my escape (I hesitate over even this word choice) from a below working-class family has long since struck me as problematic. I worry about engaging what gay and lesbian historian, Allan Bérubé, calls the “‘rhetoric of hardship'” (178, My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History). The difficulty in the rhetoric of hardship is that a narrative may persuade only by virtue of its ability to tug at the heartstrings of the reader. As such, the meaning and import may be evacuated in favor of sheer appeals to the pathos of the audience. I fear this dynamic in the telling of my own story. Specifically, I worry it may become at once emblematic of the impoverished or working-class experience—in a definitive way I do not seek to assert—but also a possible vehicle for others to indulge their middle or upper-class guilt.
To illustrate, I offer you the following anecdote: In my senior year of college, I received a highly coveted McNair fellowship for first generation, low-income college students who had demonstrated academic excellence and a desire for a PhD. I remember, at the time, I had a partner who responded to the news of my fellowship by saying, “I’m happy for you, but wouldn’t you like to know that you received something based solely on your merit and not the fact that you have this really sad childhood story?” I wish I could say that I was strong enough in my accomplishments to have rebuked her her obvious middle-class bile, but instead, I took her words to heart. She had articulated my darkest fear: that people’s desire to assuage their class guilt would result in me becoming some sort of redemptive symbol for the pluck of the poor. I wanted to be appreciated for my talents, not rewarded and pitied for my hardships. That moment marked my resolution to keep my story to myself, as a way of testing that the things that came my way were earned and not dispensed out of some tokenizing guilt.
Put simply, these are my own experiences and I have no agenda to reinscribe a hierarchy of the noble poor at one level and the villainous people with money on yet another, higher level. Further, I do not need others to feel guilty, because it recreates, although subtly, the idea that I, and other poor people, remain below or less than, and somehow need pitied for our experiences. At root, this is what bothered me, although I had no vernacular for it at the time, about the knowing tone of the social workers in my childhood. Their measured language implied they had studied poverty and were coerced to intellectualize, and reduce to a statistical average, the plight of the poor. This dynamic created a lacuna, albeit one that I’m sure many of them well-meaningly sought to close through their advocacy, between my family on one end of the power structure and themselves on the other. It was as if we had been reduced, by the structure of State services we were dependent on, to merely a profile whose story could be tidily placed within a textbook.
And so it is that bringing my experiences to such a public and often disconnected forum as the Internet has been a challenge. I have kept these stories inside of me for a lifetime. Some of my dearest friends will know of these things for the first time when they read my blog. I have long since been reluctant to share my hardship narrative because of my aforementioned fears of being tokenized. I’ve also internalized a lot of the class repression that occurred when I finally began to work on my Bachelors at the age of 25. Although I had spent a lifetime lovingly engaging with language, I had no idea, until I began college at a four-year institution, how base my reading materials were considered. I had never heard of the literary Canon; and I balked at the idea that some dwellers of an ivory tower had created an arbitrary list of reputable works worthy of advanced study. But, I kept this rebellion to myself, and tried my hardest to keep up with the students around me. It is only now that I can see that the Canon is hugely symbolic for the class structure that dictates what sorts of stories are valid and deserving of an audience. It says to students that your personal narrative is worthless unless spoken in the smooth tongue of a mastered language. It further speaks to the idea that the stories of the poor are best told by rich, white men. And underneath all of these messages is the imperative that if you are poor and privileged enough to speak the language of the middle-class, you should exploit and sap your story for every bit of its gut-wrenching tales of woe. There is no room for empowerment nor claims to happiness in this line of thinking.
As a friend of mine pointed out to me recently, talking about class has become somewhat passé in the queer community. As more and more of my friends begin to buy houses, start small businesses, adopt children, it becomes abundantly clear to me that we may feel we have surpassed this issue. I have begun to feel as if class is something younger activists, with their sometimes false sense of poverty and almost fashionable entitlement to Foodstamps, may talk more openly about—even if they are abstracting and romanticising the experiences of the poor. It’s as if we are supposed to outgrow talking about class with unabashed honesty and inquiry. When someone in my friend circle does begin to talk about their lack of money, everyone around them almost visibly seizes inward, as if that person’s poverty is an affront to their own iPhones, hybrid cars, and daily dining out budget. I know that I have personally tamped down on my class discussions in such a way that sometimes I forget that not only did I spring from an infernally impoverished family, but as someone who has chosen to adjunct and write independently, I remain situated in a contingent and precarious earning bracket. I think it is necessary that we pick at this wound. We should not sit on our class histories in a way that seeks to pretend we have arrived fully formed at the contemporary moment. Where we were raised, how secure our futures, our ability to go to college with or without a debt that will loom for years to come, these things are important. They are indicative of our levels of anxiety, our personalities, the risks we choose or cannot choose to take. Class is important. To paraphrase hooks, class still matters.
In conclusion, I have worked in my lifetime. I have put myself on hold for many, many years because I was racked with anxiety about things like a 401k and health benefits, and these are valid concerns to have in a culture that makes it abundantly clear it won’t have your back in old age and sickness. I have tried to succeed in the way Hollywood true grit films have taught me I should. But I have ultimately come to a place in which I choose the instability of an artist’s life. I choose to spend my mornings writing, my days and nights shuttling from one teaching gig to another, so that I may feel passion in my days. I wake now and write. Do you realize how unbelievable that seems? I wake in the morning and surround myself with the words I love, and now I try to take those words and arrange them in a way in which I can create meaning for myself and others. But I know, and would be remiss not to recognize, that I can make this choice because my body is healthy and I have no family to support. If my teen years taught me anything, it’s that life can change at a moment’s notice, knocking even the most linear of plans off course. But right now, in this moment: I have this love of language, I have this fight, but most of all, I desire with every aching and pulsing limb. I want to touch and be touched; I want to nurture and be nurtured; I want to be appreciated for my hard-won femininity; I want to be a powerful role model for the next generation of women in my family; I want to greet each day with a hunger that I spend my hours feeding. I am losing my fear of wanting and even gaining an ability to need. I want so many things, and this time around, I won’t deny myself the absolute joy and excitement of the pursuit.