Classism in school

The other day I had the pleasure of volunteering in the kidlet’s class for a field trip and I must say it was an eye opening experience for me on how class divides us in seemingly innocent ways. I went to college in my mid-late 20’s and my undergraduate degree is in African-American studies yet by the time I got my BA, I became obsessed with looking at class. In fact while I think racism is still a huge issue in our culture, it’s the unspoken issue of class that I feel divides us more than anything.

A big thanks to the free flowing credit of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s many of the material markers that divided us fell away. After all you can (though with the lingering Great Recession I truly believe the class markers and rules are being redesigned as I type this) hardly tell who is struggling by the car they drive or the gadgets they carry. I suspect many of the families that I serve have far larger television sets that I own, and I know several have better cell phones than I have.

Yet a visit to a kindergarten class made me ponder the subtleties of class and the impact they can have on your kid’s experience in school and the perceptions and assumptions the teachers make based off class or perceptions of class.

In almost 19 years of parenting, I must admit it’s only been in the last 1-2 years that I have been in a place where volunteering has been possible. See, I was 19 when my son was born and due to the need to work sometimes 2-3 jobs to keep food on the table, there simply was not enough hours in the day to volunteer and I suspect as part of my working class roots it probably never dawned on me to ask and I most certainly was never asked to volunteer in any classroom he was ever involved in. Yet I am a class straddler, a term that has gained popularity due to Alfred Lubrano’s book Limbo. I was born to a solidly working class family, at the time of my birth; neither of my parents had touched foot in a college classroom. My father eventually went onto seminary in his late 30’s and early 40’s but as for straight forward college; it wasn’t in the cards for my folks.

Over the years I have by virtue of education, income and profession moved at least on paper away from my working class roots. Make no mistake though the influences of my childhood and upbringing are still beneath the surface and as a result I struggle and straddle the class line. I am most comfortable talking with the families I serve rather than the money folks who keep us open. Yet I am good at my job and generally able to straddle that line between connecting with a single Mama who has no idea how she will make ends meet (I’ve lived it) yet at the same time I make the other folks feel good and convince them to support my cause because I have learned to speak their language. But I can’t lie, there are days I feel like an imposter…like who is the grown up lady who uses big egghead words and has mastered the mask. Thankfully I am married to a straddler as well so when I come home it’s my safe space.

Yet the other day in my daughter’s class I felt like an imposter. I arrived at the designated time to accompany the class on the field trip and immediately noticed the other Moms. Two of whom I know in passing since we attend the same church. I was immediately struck with how cozy the other Mamas were with the teacher; in fact the other Mamas had brought cups of Starbucks coffee and even had one for the teacher. Nope, no coffee for this Mama and that’s cool but I did feel as if I had entered a clique and it was a tad disconcerting. It appeared the kids knew at least a couple of the other Mamas since as my daughter later informed me; Mrs. M regularly helps out in the class. I immediately sized up the situation and figured I would focus on the kids, many of whom were openly staring at me, after all it’s not too often they see a fully brown person and it was cool. So as we were walking to our destination a couple of the kids told me they were sad that their parents couldn’t come on the trip because they were working. One little boy was almost on the brink of tears that his Mommy was not there, I gently explained that it was okay and that not all parents can come but that his Mommy’s work was important too.

I admit that exchange with the kids is what prompted this post, for starters after making a little bit of chit-chat with the Mamas, I realized that they were stay at home Mamas which means they have the flexibility and time to be involved in the classroom. Yet for many parents that is not an option, especially if they are employed at companies where there is less autonomy over their work schedule. In the months since the kidlet has started school I have observed that the parents who often stand around making chit chat after the bell has rang often are either self-employed, don’t work, or have flexible positions like my own. The parents you see rushing who never stop to chat are the same ones you often see in work uniforms or have the weary look of folks who work at places that will not cut them slack if they are late for work.

During the field trip I had a chance to make small talk with the kidlet’s teacher who was curious about a project we were doing at home that my daughter had mentioned to her. I explained the project and she was so excited about that it that she was wondering if there was a way she could incorporate it into the classroom. That exchange made me think about the ways class lends itself to building social capital.  The daughter of a waitress and a mill worker most likely don’t have the time or ability to take an hour off from work to volunteer and engage with the teacher and create that connection and while no one will ever say it, not building those connections in my opinion can be harmful.  While I don’t have the level of involvement in my daughter’s class that I would like to have due to my own work (yet as I work with the less fortunate and everyone knows this I feel this is given a pass compared to if I couldn’t make meetings because I was the shift supervisor at the local fast food place) I am involved enough that I have noticed that the so-called trouble makers all seem to hail from the lower class.

Schools want parents to be involved in their children’s education yet we cling to ways that are quite classist and don’t allow for connections to be made. Our school recently had an event and I realized that while attendance was decent, the timing of the event definitely was at a time where folks with less flexibility in their schedules were not able to attend. I know teaching is hard work and I can imagine that by five at night teachers want to go home, yet making events at 5:30 in the middle of the week pretty much assures in my opinion that only certainly folks will attend. For an event designed to get parents actively involved in their kid’s schooling maybe such extra enrichment activities should start later or be held on the weekend.

I realize this is a rambling post, but I can’t help but thinking that working class folks and their kids are penalized in school of all places because working class folks often work at jobs that don’t allow them to be involved directly at their kid’s school via volunteering. Even email as the preferred method of staying in touch with parents is not a guarantee for folks who are financially vulnerable. I know that on the contact list for my kid’s class of 19 students, I saw at least 5 folks who had no email addresses listed. I know that at my center out of over 200 registered participants less than 25% have email addresses. This may not seem like a big deal but if you have a young middle class teacher who prefers emailing parents, lack of an email address matters.

I know I have a few educators among my readership; I would love your input.