"Oh, there's one down here," my friend said. "It's not completely finished, but you can use it."
Finally, I thought to myself, something I understand: a crappy, unfinished basement bathroom. I was expecting a tiny toilet in a cramped corner closet, all hastily thrown together on a weekend. What I walked into was a nicely tiled, well-appointed room that was bigger than my childhood bedroom. I'm still not sure what was unfinished about it. Maybe some trim was missing?
I went home that night and called my mom.
"Why did you not tell me we were poor?!"
"How did you not KNOW?"
I started thinking about all of this because of this quiz about class in America and everyone's response to it. (I got a 50.) Where I'm from is not the same as where I'm at, and I'm simultaneously proud and frustrated by that. What I know for sure is the farther removed I am from my childhood, the more I appreciate it.
I'm from a very small town in rural Ohio, a township actually, a crossroads with a church and a grange hall and a cemetery. I graduated with 87 kids, most of whom I had known since kindergarten. My parents, when they married, lived in rented houses in the county seat, which has a population of about 20,000. When I was 5, we moved to a trailer that they bought and put on my grandparents' property, about 12 miles north of town. My aunt and uncle also had a trailer on the property. My great grandma lived across the street and another uncle and aunt lived just a few miles away.
My dad and grandpa were truck drivers and their big semis sat in the dust and gravel of the U-shaped driveway. The garage attached to my grandparents house was as big as a barn, bigger than the story-and-a-half house where Grandma and Grandpa had raised five kids. My mom worked at a factory, inspecting circuit boards, and that's where my parents met. My mom had been married before and had us girls, but Dad was Dad from the time I was 4 and my sister still was in diapers. (My biological father is something best left undiscussed.) My grandma worked at a factory sewing life vests. One of the first "jobs" I ever had was stamping the tags she had to sew into the things she made. She paid my sister and me a few pennies per slip.
Our babysitter was a family friend. Her husband was a mechanic who owned his own garage. We used to play in the store room and to this day, between him and my truck-driving dad and grandpa, I find the smell of oil and gas oddly soothing. She raised show dogs. Another one of my early jobs was being a runner at dog shows.
We didn't farm, but we always had big gardens and canned green beans and froze corn, which usually came from farming neighbors in exchange for the work my dad and grandpa did on their tractors. My great grandma, Little Grandma (she was under 5 feet tall), got government cheese and peanut butter and Grandma always said that stuff, the peanut butter that came in the big, white-labeled can, made the best peanut butter cookies and buckeyes at Christmas.
For the most part, everyone I went to school with was the same. I remember being a little envious of kids whose families didn't live in trailers or kids whose moms came on every field trip. There were one or two kids whose families were noticeably better off -- they had Nikes or real Trapper Keepers, and their parents owned their own business or worked for one of the bigger factories in the region -- but most of us were the same. Our parents were mechanics, truck drivers, factory workers, teachers, farmers or secretaries. We were almost all white. One girl, a friend of mine, was Korean and adopted -- and was teased a lot about it. In my sister's grade, there was a black boy who went to a different school in the county and he was known as the Black Kid from X School District.
If anything, I figured my family was better off than others. Mom and Dad always had at least one new car. We didn't get presents randomly, but I don't ever remember being disappointed on Christmas morning. I always had clean clothes. We always had plenty to eat. My parents spoke disdainfully of people who went on welfare. We camped in the summer and rode four-wheelers. My grandpa O -- Mom's dad -- bought us new winter coats every year or two. My dad and uncles built a deck on the trailer, and Dad also built a special desk for me -- it was a little cupboard that a desk folded out of -- because I loved to write. I was in 4-H. When we got old enough to stay home alone, I spent the summer reading and doing laundry, hanging it out on the clothes line to dry, and eating tomato sandwiches. We didn't get allowances; the work we did was just part of being in the family.
My dad and uncle drank Bud Light and just about everyone smoked. Mom finally quit when I was in high school; Dad didn't give up his Camels until I was in college. We watched Roseanne and Cheers and, if Dad had the remote, Dukes of Hazzard and MASH reruns.
When I was 14, my grandparents sold the house at the Copsey Compound to my parents and moved into our trailer. We basically swapped houses, and that's how things are still, though Grandma and Grandpa did get a new trailer a couple years ago. My sister and I shared the upstairs, which was two connected rooms. We turned one into a kind of sitting room for us and I had a real desk, a refinished vanity table from my mom's childhood bedroom set. She grew up in town -- definitely middle class, when you could do that with a father who worked at General Motors and a stay-at-home mom. That's how I defined class then: coming from in town or country.
I got a job at a grocery store at 16, where I made friends with and started dating a boy from my class who I had ignored as being too country and not smart enough. To be fair, he had made fun of me for being a bookworm. He was exactly what I needed then. He left the store to work on a farm, milking cows and pulling dead chickens out of the "free range" barn. (Chickens will peck each other to death, fyi.) He was sweet and would pick me up for a date covered in cow shit (he'd shower before we'd go out for real) and kept me from being an even bigger twit than I was. I wanted to go to college. I had big plans about leaving my little hick town.
I decided at 14 to become a journalist because I wanted to write and realized a novelist wasn't going to pay the bills. Also because I had a teacher who told me I could. My school district was small, but had many, many teachers who were willing to spend extra time on a kid who wanted the attention. I was very lucky. I went to Ohio University because it was in-state and I got a scholarship -- and luckily it had a good journalism program. For all my big talk, I begged my mom to let me come home after my first week I was so homesick. The best thing she ever did was refuse to let me. I stayed at OU and flourished -- and then graduated early because a) all my friends had graduated, b) I was sick of college, of being an adult, but not and c) I was running out of money.
I got a job within a month of graduating, but oh my god. I've never been so full of self-loathing as that month at home without a job.
A couple of my cousins had started college and my uncle had gone back to school to get his nursing degrees. Mom was working on an associate's degree when I went to school. But I think I was the first person in my family to earn a traditional four-year degree going to a college away from home. I'm still paying off student loans, as are my parents.
Sorry if your eyes are glazed over, but this -- all of this -- is why I once nearly threw a very good friend out of my house when she declared ignorant voters with high school educations were the problem with America. (To be fair to us both: Lots of alcohol was involved.)
My dad works road construction now. Mom still works in a factory. My sister is a hair stylist and my brother-in-law owns his own construction business. Whenever I bitch about my job, I feel guilty thinking about my dad working 12+-hour days in 100-degree heat, grinding asphalt.
I worry about how to keep my boys from growing up in a privileged bubble. I want them to know where their food comes from and how to hammer in a nail properly, how to do laundry and cook their own meals. I want them to have jobs that make their muscles hurt as much as I want them to have jobs that stretch their brains. I worry I'm depriving them of a childhood around their cousins, exploring the back field and getting dirty, as much as I'm proud they have a broader view of the world now, in preschool, than I did in college.
Where are you from? Where are your kids going to be from?