I ran into a blog post, “The Coding of ‘White Trash’ in Academia” on The Establishment (originally published in Auntie Bellum Magazine)—I think a friend must have shared it on Facebook—that really resonated with me. I tweeted out a link, and because I have Twitter and Facebook linked, I also shared it with Facebook friends. One of my friends, Scott O’Neil, who is a doctoral candidate in Renaissance Drama and Literature at the University of Rochester, commented on my post with a link to his first blog post.
What Holly Genovese and Scott O’Neil describe in these two posts is something I have wrestled with myself. I think a lot of women have dealt with “imposter syndrome,” as it has been noted to be especially prevalent in high-achieving women. I can remember being in my honors 9th grade English class and feeling like I was quite literally the dumbest person in the room. I understand now that I wasn’t, but I think it was one of the first times I felt like I didn’t belong somewhere in school. I loved school. I always knew I would be a teacher one day. School was a place I felt safe. Teachers liked me. I won awards for everything from citizenship to academics. I was good at school. Until that honors English class. I should back up and say that my achievement in that class was fine. I just didn’t feel as smart as the other students. I understand now that what I was feeling for the first time was that sense of being an outsider in a place where I had previously thought I belonged. They might not have meant to (or maybe they did), but the other students in my classes sometimes contributed to that feeling.
When I took the SAT, I checked the box to receive mail from colleges, and a few colleges jumped out at me through their thick brochures full of possibilities I had never considered. However, I discovered that cost was a factor, and I would need to settle on a school in my home state so that I wouldn’t have to pay out-of-state tuition. I had started an application to Emerson College in Boston, but I abandoned in despair, realizing it was pointless to finish it and polish that piece of writing they had requested. I didn’t know what to do, and time was running out. I wound up applying to a community college so I could spend a year figuring it out. I knew I wanted to go away to school if I could. My parents hadn’t gone to college, and college counseling at my large public high school was non-existent. I settled on UGA when their College of Education came recruiting at my community college. I was lucky because UGA happens to have a great education school, and their secondary education programs have particularly been singled out for praise.
When it came time to settle on a master’s program, I was equally confused. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time, and I also couldn’t quit work as my family depended on my income. And for years, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to study. English? Library Science? When technology integration became an important issue, I knew I had found my calling, and I found a program at Virginia Tech. I had to take more classes than my advisor recommended because I couldn’t afford to go to school without student loans, and in order to qualify for loans, I needed to attend at least half time.
I always went to public school, and my college years have been spent at large, public universities. In that respect, I am not a lot different from Holly Genovese or Scott O’Neil, who described what he termed “an undercurrent of class-based assumption at top universities.” There is this notion that certain people don’t really belong, and many assumptions are made about students—graduate students in particular, I think—at these schools. Namely, that they went to elite colleges and had private school education. While such assumptions are certainly made at the college level, I would argue they are also made in the independent school world where I work.
On a few occasions, I have noticed a sort of surprise on the part of colleagues, students, and parents upon the awkward realization that I am a product of public schools and public universities and teaching at a private school. On one occasion, a student of mine told a group of students with whom we were working in Israel that she went to our school because the local public schools were not good. Actually, this statement was not true—the public schools in our North Fulton County, Georgia home were quite good—and she either didn’t know or had forgotten that my own children went to those schools. I felt shamed by my own student.
I would argue that this notion of feeling too “low class” to belong is similar to feelings of loneliness that women in fields dominated by men or that people of color in places dominated by white people feel. However, bundled up inside of it in many cases is the fact that many working class students are white and in some cases also male, so there is a dose of privilege that makes it easier to mask those feelings of inadequacy and also makes it easier to achieve and to “hide” one’s background. Scott describes assumptions that people make about him based on the fact that he is a white man studying at the University of Rochester. People have made assumptions of me as a white woman teaching at a private prep school, too. These assumptions contribute to the feeling of being an imposter, that I don’t belong. I have begun working on fighting these feelings, but if you read anything about imposter syndrome, let’s just say I’m a textbook example.
You know, it’s funny that in America, we say that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. But we know it’s not exactly true. Our literature reflects it. Just about every high school student reads The Great Gatsby, for instance, and learns that money and race can’t make James Gatz a member of high society. Not really. We used to celebrate Horatio Alger stories and encourage kids to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and work hard. In some ways, it is true that we can work hard and achieve great things, but it can be hard to feel like we deserve to be where we are, and there are ways that society reminds us of where we come from, too. Our backgrounds can be a stumbling block in that we, like other marginalized groups, don’t start out the race in the same place as those privileged folks with private school educations.
I do an activity adapted from Paul Kivel called “Examining Class and Race” when I teach The Great Gatsby. I assign students a character from the novel and ask them to move from the line based on what they know of the character. I choose questions that would work for the characters in the novel. Students are surprised to see that Gatsby is far behind Daisy and Tom and is even behind Nick in terms of his “starting place.” Of course, Myrtle and George are near the back. It displays an interesting visual with regards to class and how class helps some characters and holds others back.
Is this where some of the heartland anger against “liberal elites on the coasts” comes from? Maybe. I am not a sociologist, but it makes some sense to me. I know I felt it all over again upon reading a comment on a post shared by one of my colleagues on Facebook. One of my students, Kaz Grala, just won the NASCAR Truck Series at Daytona. My colleagues and I were all sharing the news on social media. I noticed that someone commented on a colleague’s post in what I believe he felt was a joking way that it must be hard for Kaz to communicate with the NASCAR audience on their level given his educational background. In fact, Kaz and I have discussed this type of code-switching, and I have watched him in interviews. He has it figured out. But man, that remark, not even directed at me—though it felt like it was because I come from that part of the country—really stung. Let’s face it. NASCAR is really popular among people with my background. People like me. And the insinuation that people like me, people with my background, are dumb wasn’t even implied. It was stated outright. No one challenged it, either. It wasn’t my Facebook page, so I left it alone, too.
In many ways I feel like I am straddling two worlds. All anyone who doubted me might need to do to would be to record me talking with my family, particularly my grandmother, who was born to two teenagers in Oklahoma in the middle of the Dust Bowl. She only went to school through the eighth grade and married young herself. I don’t think it’s coincidence that nothing made her prouder than my academic achievements. I was the first person her family to graduate from college. My grandfather went, but he didn’t graduate. Same with my father, though both my parents went to college and graduated after I did. I am only member of our family with a graduate school degree. And is it any wonder I sometimes struggle with feeling like an imposter? One thing I am learning, however, is that I do have a place at the table, even if I sometimes can’t figure out which fork to use.