Learning about Class in Private School?

Like parents everywhere, we wanted to give our teenage daughter advantages we never had. High on our list was to provide her a much clearer class-consciousness than what we got as kids.

Class issues are so fundamental to understanding how things work, or don’t, in our personal lives and in our world. So it’s a ripoff, we decided, to grow up in a class fog, with little clear information about the nature and effects of class stratification. This was nothing we’d want to pass down to her.

It took Liora going to a private school for 15 months for the subject of class to come into high relief in our family. The story’s short version is this: 30 kids per classroom doesn’t work, smart girls do dumb down, and bullying wrecks people’s spirits. We were in a class position to buy her a ticket out. Ten years of tuition would not have been possible, but 15 months was.

All three of us were shocked and thrilled by how much unrushed attention and focus each student received at the new school.  Students each got to design their own learning. The teacher-student ratio, 1:12. The painful and obvious question surfaced for all of us right away. Why don’t all kids get this?

There’s nothing like being confronted with the stunning gap between one reality and another.  The engaged students around her, and the hours of adult attention Liora was now getting, stood in sharp contrast to being among too high a percentage of kids who were coasting, understimulated, acting out and numbing out.

Leaving the old school, we felt a queasy mix of relief, guilt and good luck. The new school was so nourishing it didn’t feel like “school.” After many discussions at home about unfairness, and about the wonder of being personally cultivated, Liora decided, for her new school’s six-month independent study unit, to study class and class stratification in depth.

Liora and I got to talking. I read aloud to her excerpts from old handouts from Felice Yeskel’s workshops I’d attended in the 1980s. We pondered the fact that it’s rare for people to talk about class directly, but that people (including us as a family), governments, schools and corporations communicate indirectly about it all the time. It’s a confusing combination of total silence and a constant din.

A part of my unaware privilege growing up middle class is actually all children’s birthright: my feeling entitled to be generally supported. And in most ways I was. But I didn’t expect to be personally cultivated, and in most ways I wasn’t.  Maybe young music prodigies got developed and mentored, but not ‘regular’ kids.  For the most part, my public school education conditioned me to fit in and respond more than to stand out and challenge. I was taught to be grateful for my advantages. Most people around me assumed I was bright and capable, itself an incalculable advantage.

But at the same time, my class-conditioned gratitude blinded me to the strengths of people from other class backgrounds whether wealthier or more working-class than me, and did little to encourage me to develop close relationships with them. In this way, I was impoverished. To this day, most of our friends are middle or upper-middle class. I expect this will shift over time, since we increasingly see this as limiting us rather than “normal.” We have sought out more contexts where we’re more likely to get closer to poor people, working class people and very wealthy people. We don’t want to settle for ourselves or our daughter intersecting with other people without having a clue about either their class strengths – specific intelligences and skills they’ve developed – or the huge class-related injuries and traps they face.

 

Yes, it’s ironic to study about class and classism at a small private school. It’s strange to envy your own kid’s experience. But neither thing should surprise us. When you’re hit personally with the fact of obvious gaps in resources, at any site or on any scale, there’s a moment where you can get either radicalized or slightly numb. Parents have a huge role in tipping the scales by helping kids think, and helping them name the elephant in the living room.

 

Wherever you find yourself studying about class and classism, it’s a blow against the virtually complete absence of any class awareness, class history or vocabulary in our society and our school curricula. In other words, that class fog I was talking about.

 

If I could make some conclusions based on this short but deep experience, they would be these:

 

One. Sustained personal attention is the core ingredient, and it’s expensive.  It’s the difference that makes the biggest difference — between developing a student who “performs” well and a student who is transformed and transformative.

Two. We live in an overly-privatized, nuclear-family-obsessed society.  If our society goads us to constantly focus on “me and mine,” how do I think bigger not just for my daughter, but for other people’s kids? This is my next chapter.  At least I know I don’t have to figure this out by myself.

Three.  There’s a journey to be made through our own personal mix of resentments, fears, outrage and hopelessness about the effects of classism on our and everyone’s lives. Regardless of where we find ourselves class-wise, or what it is we want more of, something about the process is going to feel baffling, exhausting or impossible. The reason to wade in, and wade through, is to extract as much back-up and cultivation for ourselves and other people as we possibly can. Personally, my scale of expectations has been blown wide open. Being “well fed” has nourished our family. It’s also nourished an angry, focused heartbreak in me.

Dropping Liora off at the new school on the first day, I identified with the sober adult salmon. You swim your head off, you make it upstream, lay your eggs and conk out. Parental love, plus select, intoxicating dominant-culture messages about “making it,” compel many of us to go an exhausting distance to procure the goods for our family.  And a certain, suspiciously middle-class brand of confusion would maintain that our conking out is the end of the story.

But it’s not! It’s the beginning.
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Debbie Zucker is a psychotherapist and film student. She can be reached at dzucker3@gmail.com

1 Response

  1. rose

    I have noticed that for all middle people including status inconsistant (e.g. billionaire from an endangered culture, taxi driver with PhD), self-made and socially mobile individuals, and social climbers, it is extremely difficult – even the status consistant working/poor classes have an easier time – to get in-depth publications/materials on their own pre-modern (pre-1870, pre-Carnegie) history. There is a seriers of books called “Rich and Poor in Ancient _____” and it only dealt with status consistant old money and generational working/poor classes. It hardly touched on the people in the middle. Pratically the only way for middle class people to get at their own ancient history is to take the survey class called “the Middle Classes to Andrew Carnegie” (Carnegie marked the beginning of modern history for middle class people).

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