NQMB and I often joke that the universe is out to get me. Sometimes, if I look at my life in a particular way I seem to have phenomenally bad luck. Of course, I don’t really, I simply often make choices that aren’t the most popular, and those non-popular choices make my life look like an erratic mess of fail.
In 2006 I decided to go to university. I don’t remember the ‘click’ moment that propelled that decision, it was more a culmination of mini-events. I’d been share-housing with uni students for awhile whilst I was completing a Shiatsu course and when I finished the Shiatsu course I never wanted to touch another human being again. I felt a bit inferior around the middle class students I was hanging out with and I’d been (and still am) in, a series of dead end jobs. I’d worked in a roadhouse, as a waiter, a factory-hand and general all-round dregmaster. I wasn’t thinking of a career so much as just wanting to do something fulfilling.
I went to a 6 week adult education course at a night-school that was fucking hours away on the bus, to learn how to; use a library, write an essay, take lecture notes, summarise readings and give presentations. Although I backed out of the presentation component (an adumbration of my studies) the rest of the course gave me confidence to enrol. I took the STAT test; an exam for people seeking alternative pathways into uni. I studied for it, passed, and gained entrance to university. I went to an internet cafe and enrolled online (which was possibly the most difficult part!). I bought myself a laptop (that I’m still using now) and an internet connection.
Recently I read S.E Smith’s Blog post What Does ‘Middle Class’ Even Mean? and it got me thinking about a few things. When I was little I always thought of my family as ‘rich’. I knew that we had money and we had more than other people had. My dad left school when he was in year 8 (maybe earlier) and worked with his father as a brickie’s labourer. When he was older he had a milk run and eventually he and his older brother started a business that was quite successful. That business has since spectacularly folded but growing up ‘the factory’ was my dad’s life. My dad went to work everyday from 6am to 6pm and worked his guts out. Even though he was the owner, he did a lot of the physical work. I never really appreciated that until now. I guess because I’d always grown up ‘with money’ I didn’t appreciate how hard you have to work to get it. I wasn’t forced to go out and get a job in my teens, I made enough pocket money helping with housework, and although I’ve resented my family for not forcing me to go out and get a job (I’m an introvert who finds social situations daunting and need to be pushed). I appreciate that it may be because my dad spent his childhood working, and wanted my life to be different. In my 20s when I was hanging out with young, self-aware middle class friends and became aware of ‘class’ I considered myself middle class and joined in jokes about having ‘Middle Class Guilt Syndrome’. I remember one friend, after meeting my mum and seeing the car that mum drove, saying to me “I’m shocked, I thought you were fibro and weatherboard”.
I’ve always been a bit confused about ‘class’. Slowly I’ve come to think of my background as having been Middle Class Money with a Working Class Mindset. On the blog post that I linked to earlier, S.E. Smith outlines a few factors to be taken into account in regards to class that clarified a few things for me. These factors include; Income, Entitlement, A Safety Net, Connections, Social Capital and Economic Comfort. Although the few jobs that I’ve had were predominantly working class; Factories, roadhouse and hospitality, I now work at a mediocre White Collar admin job that pays me enough to live and although over half my wage goes to rent, I can still afford to buy food and save a little, as long as no emergency arises and as long as I don’t splurge on luxuries.
I’ve already explained my family’s ‘Middle Class Money’ but I want to touch briefly on some of what I call the ‘Working Class Mindset’  aspects. My family had enough money for me to go to uni when I left high school If I wanted to go. I would have been supported in the sense that I was fed and had a roof over my head. It’s the if I wanted to go that is relevant. There is one cousin and one uncle out of both sides of my large extended family who have completed a degree. The rest of us are brickies, nurses, garbos, salesmen, SAHM’s (a middle-class privilege, sure), cleaners, admin assts, chefs, surfers, gardeners and one ambo. I had absolutely no interest in a career or even a life path. My family were pretty fucked up around the time that I should have been receiving guidance and no-one noticed that I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Which suited me perfectly at the time – why go to school when you can go for a surf?
I think people are influenced by what those around them do rather than what they say. I’m thinking of NQMB’s daughter ‘Little Bear’. I’ve known her since she was 12ish. I went to her year 7 graduation and I’ve just been to her high-school graduation. The entire time that I’ve known her, her one ambition has been to go to uni. Little Bear has just been granted guaranteed entry to study law; she worked so fucking hard for it and I’m so proud of her. All the adults around her (her mum, her dad, her step-mum, myself and one of her grandmas) all went to uni as mature age students to study. She’s seen all of us sitting around studying, talking about studying, talking about politics and talking about uni – as a normal part of life. Contrast this with a recent exchange between my mum and I; I’m moaning to my mum about my shitfuck of a job and she responds “you’ve got the whole world open to you, you can do anything you want, you could go and work in the mines”.
Recently, a couple of co-workers and I walked past a bunch of people who were sitting on the steps of a building, smoking, yelling and being generally rambunctious. One of my co-workers commented that her husband had expressed disbelief that people on television shows like Dr Phil were real and she’d replied that all he needed to do was to walk through the area (where we were walking) to know that there are people like that. I shrugged and replied that they were ‘just poor’ but what I meant was ‘those people don’t have the same ambitions as you, they’re possibly not even aware that the things you strive for exist and even if they are aware they might think those ambitions are rooted, and even if they did have ‘socially acceptable’ ambitions, it’s fucking difficult to know how to make the first step in that direction, you fucking ignorant snob’. You have to make a decision about what you want, and to do that, you have to first recognise, and aspire to, goals that are (potentially) outside your own cultural milieu, you have to know your options and how to access those options, and that’s just the beginning. I don’t have children, I could make time to get to that fucking faraway school. I met people who had been to uni who thought of it as a normal thing to do. I had a partner who found information materials for me who was patient, helpful and supportive when I became frustrated, frightened and anxious. I began to see uni as a place that I could go and maybe fit in and that is an aspect of the privilege, I think, of having had enough Middle Class Money to have internalised enough Middle Class values and norms, that I was able to ‘pass’.
I’ve been studying part-time since 2007. Originally I was an internal student. I always say that I was working part-time and studying part-time but in reality I was working full-time; it’s just that I worked 10 hour days on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with a couple of shorter days during the week. I’d do less hours during semester and then pump it during the holidays. I was working in a cafe, so busy times often coincided with uni breaks. I loved going up to uni. It was so relaxed. I liked cruising about in jeans and thongs. I liked walking up pathways, lined with Gums and Banksia, I loved listening to lectures IRL (online is MUCH harder). I loved not being at work but still working hard. Eventually though, the cafe got sold and I started at the N.E.A (the job that I have now), which is a full-time 9-5er. And so, I became an external student.
The thing is that, I could see this as the universe being out to get me, as NQMB and I often joke, or I could see it as part of a bigger picture. This is simply a common-sense (in a capitalist world) cost-cutting exercise, by the university based on what’s making money for them. The interesting part for me, I guess, is the way which people (such as the co-worker I mentioned above) seem to have accepted the notion that if you work hard enough you can achieve anything and the implication of that is that those who haven’t achieved anything haven’t worked hard enough for it. At the same time that the possibility of (upward) social mobility is actually declining, the belief in the possibility (of upward social mobility) is increasing. Being utterly ignorant of the multiplicity of factors that enable or negate people’s options must be a kind of bliss, I think. If I, with all of my privilege, regardless of the fluctuations and shifts in my own social, cultural and economic class, struggle to cope, how the hell do others manage?
I don’t mean to imply that working class people are ‘stupid’ or have ‘lower’ aspirations. I’m trying to identify a dynamic that occurred within my family; I think it was a part of the dynamic that my family hadn’t had the connections that exposed them to a wider range of possibilities combined with a distrust of academia and any kind of people whom they saw as not being ‘real’.