A Lady with Class(es)

“…I learnt early and often that one doesn’t leave a place, class or culture and enter another, but rather holds the privilege and burden of many narratives simultaneously.”

from “Poor Teeth” by Sarah Smarsh

This is an excerpt from a profoundly insightful and thought-provoking essay that I read today. The subject itself grabbed my attention because it was about how, in America, our teeth are a marker of our social status. Having suffered at the hands of many mocking brats in my youth about my own not-so-perfectly aligned teeth, it got my attention. Smarsh discusses the chronic problem of lack of dental care for the nation’s poor and it’s ripple-effect health, social and emotional consequences. This essay is impressive in its scope– ranging from the personal trauma and inherent fear of growing up in a poor family with a history of “bad teeth” to Obama Care and classism in America.

Having felt the pangs of huge dental bills that I’ve had to pay mostly out of pocket and having friends that suffer through untreated and undiagnosed dental problems, I find this essay worth the read and worth sharing.

Robert Frost reminds us that “road leads on to road” and so it happened in my reading. I came across the quote mentioned above. It’d be too much for me to explain how she got from point A to B, but I was captured by that sentence. It struck me. It made perfect sense. It is exactly as I feel. Gosh darn it, writers of the world, I love you. I truly do.

When I started this blog not too long ago, I felt that it was important to share, particularly with women, that not everyone is having an easy breezy beautiful time at being easy breezy and beautiful. I wanted to articulate that some of us feel like we are constantly playing catch up. That others know what we don’t know or have long known what we are just learning. And that it can be frustrating and funny and awkward and, well let’s just say it, a test to our self-esteem.

On my About page, I explain that I grew up not knowing just how much I didn’t know. I didn’t attend the best schools, most of my experiences with culture came from PBS (my dad gave me that priceless gift) and I didn’t have strong role models for the particular things that I wanted to accomplish in life- for the life I imagined for myself. I am proud to say that I made the most with what I had.

I spend time catching up on books that I keep hearing were required reading in school, yet I never laid eyes on them during the course of my education. I keep discovering more and more things that women do routinely to enhance/beautify themselves (although my feminist self gags at the seemingly increasing variables that constitute “maintenance”) and I try to keep my “hood side” to a minimum. And finally, I try to learn as much as I can. It’s in my nature to want to learn; I’ve always been inquisitive, and if there’s nothing to read in my immediate surroundings, I’ll read the cereal box and receipts in my wallet.

But with all of my learning, I always end up in the inevitable conversation in which everyone is discussing experiences. And it is there that I feel what Smarsh describes: “…I learnt early and often that one doesn’t leave a place, class or culture and enter another, but rather holds the privilege and burden of many narratives simultaneously.” 

See, one cannot learn experiences. One must live them. And I am always surrounded by those who seem indistinguishable from me in education and intelligence, but who surpass me in experiences. You used to go skiing with your family every winter? I thought only very rich people did that (based on movies). You’ve been out on a boat plenty of times? Wow, I thought only rich people could do that. Where’d you learn the best way to eat crab legs? Oh, your dad taught you?

Those of us who have managed some, even small, upward mobility know very well the shifting, awkward feeling of waiting for everyone else to act so that we know how a certain thing is done. We know the feeling of trying to suppress the naive wide-eyedness of constantly being the only one in the group experiencing something for the first time. And if you’re lucky, you have a close friend or mate that knows your secret; and they whisper, “Have you ever done this before?” And you whisper back, “No.” And you hold on tight and share your first together.

Then there are the small (albeit superficial) things that go right over me. A friend of mine recently threw up her hands when she noticed that the metal on the outfit she had spent a great deal of time settling on was gold and her belly ring was silver. My question to her was “Do people even notice things like that?” “I notice,” was her adamant response.

It’s not that I’d now start caring about matching my belly ring to every bikini, but it did get me thinking about how many things I must have never been thinking about that others were? How often does my class marker flash to the population without my awareness? How often have I said or done something that revealed ‘I’m not as classy as you assumed I was.’

Look, living within the shifting plates of place, class and culture is not all bad. I have many excellent life experiences, skills and perspectives that have grown out of the struggles and “deficiencies” of my youth. I learned to sew because shopping for new clothes was not always a viable option. I learned to turn an old piece of furniture into something fresh and cool on a $5 budget. I learned the value of reading in helping me to better understand the world and culture. I can understand and relate to a wider group of people and they can relate to me. I am many people and one person.

I am equal parts amused and dismayed at my lack of cultured experiences.

But what is life but learning. My lack means more opportunities to learn and more opportunities to experience new things– as an adult who can, I feel, more fully appreciate it.

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