I seem to have been struggling with myself lately. Nothing serious, it isn’t one of those ‘OMG do we need to call someone?’ posts. It is one of those first world, well paid, white male problems, this one. Been working through stuff, processing I suppose. Could it be my age? Might it be my age. It is my age. The end you realise is closer than the beginning and there this a slowly growing acknowledgement, one that forces itself upon you even if you don’t want to see it, that unless you do something different then this is what it is.
And it isn’t really as you’d imagined.
One of the things I’m processing is something wanders around and worries at me from time to time. A mix of feeling overlooked (yeah, there’s some narcissism mixed in with a muddled up pre-oedipal thing about believing if you’re good at something then reward inevitably follows) and, well, used up. The simple version of my back story is that dad got to the end of primary school and then had to join the family trade (carpentry, in the bush). Mum finished first term of her first year of high school, then started work in a shop (today we’d say ‘retail’) before becoming a mother at 18. As best I can tell I’m the only member of my family, on either the maternal or paternal side, to have ever finished high school, let alone received a doctorate. My background is rural blue collar, through and through. Growing up, for instance, gathered around the TV set of an evening, dinner parties in my world were things that only happened on The Brady Bunch. (Hence my surprise – and sad young sense of superiority over ‘home’ – when invited to one when I came to Melbourne for university.)
The upshot of this is that I’m socially pretty clumsy (compounded by qualities of concentration, finicky focus, and discomfort in some social situations that form part of the autism spectrum, for instance in any social crowd I can be particularly hopeless), and while raised with good manners and taught to be polite, all the groups of my socialisation where close friends and immediate family. I had no real experience of a structured sociality outside of that. (This also sometimes gives me licence to blurt out what others won’t.)
Anyways, at Melbourne University I moved into a residential college and was ill prepared for entry into the argot of the upper middle class. I was attracted to charismatic, insecure and bullying personalities, and they seemed to enjoy my company. I was smart, after all, and eager to learn and please and leave my rural blue collar past for this Brady Bunch new world. Until a very good friend explained to me one day that these new friends (with divorced parents, of professional families, private schools) liked having me around when they wanted some blue collar colour, a bit of proletarian authenticity. For anything more proper, a dinner party with other friends, meeting family, perhaps parties from school, I was never invited. (Not that I would have invited myself, I was insecure and desperate to prove that I was part of this world by ostentatious displays of cleverness.)
More recently I find myself invited to contribute to a few small things. I’m good at ideas, associative connections, sort of high level meta and conceptual over views of stuff. I’m a spark, an initiator, not a finisher. So I might help think through ways to run workshops or activities, a publishing project or symposium to really make things happen. It is nice to be asked to be involved, to be recognised. Except then the model gets used over there, somewhere else, and now it attracts money and what seems to be reputation. Even prestige. These other things seem to be much the same sort of thing that I was invited to help develop, but I’m not on the dance card. This is a pattern that feels the same as before. I worry that this is unreasonable, that it’s up to me to make things happen like the other people do. Yet I also feel that I’m still the blue collar colour. I have a lot that you could use, but I won’t be invited to the real party.
This, I think, is what it means to come from the working class and to find yourself in an institution that, regardless of how it likes to imagine itself, is thoroughly and utterly determined by the episteme, social flows and manners (in that comedy of manners sense) of the upper middle class. It’s not their education, but their comfort around authority, with people and power that appears as a right, this ease that I just do not have. I’m all at sea, with no principles of navigation or horizon. The only people who ever ate with us were family, the only people in our home immediate neighbours, former neighbours from other homes, and family. My father would even refuse the offer of a cup of tea if we were working at someone’s home, in an Upstairs Downstairs (or in its tarted up modern version Downton Abbey) division of employee and employer, tradesman and professional. The people around me that thrive, that know the ropes as it were, are those comfortable with the professor, the chancellor, the visiting star – and everyone else. They come from families where it was ordinary to have a doctor, lawyer, PhD, surgeon, academic, politician as a family friend, a visitor, a dinner guest. Me, I’ve been acculturated to something else, and it seems to be almost a part of my DNA.
Else I’m just a bloody minded misanthrope, so what should I expect?