In graduate school we had to read The Metropolis by Georg Simmel. When we got to our theory class the professor asked the class “Can someone tell me what this reading was about?”
A classmate raised her hand and said quite smugly, “I think he’s saying that people from small towns are incredibly ignorant.”
I looked at my classmate and said, “I’m from a small town. Do you find me ignorant?”
She said nothing, but gave me a look that indicated my origins were not to her liking.
I grew up in Sullivan, Wisconsin – population 412. Most of my childhood feels like something from a beautifully written sitcom. My father was a very hard-working construction worker, and my mother had many fascinating jobs; ranging from an administrative assistant in the medical field to a clerk at Boston Store (Boston Store meant I got lots of fun clothing, so that was my favorite).
When I think of the advantages I have had in my life, I think of obvious things. My skin is white. I was born into a middle-class family. I’m able bodied, and I’m American. Perhaps the single greatest advantage I had, was two parents who would do anything for me.
As loving and hard-working as they are, my parents grew up in a time where attending college was not necessary. When I applied to college, my mother came with me to every meeting or session my high school offered for help. Then, I would come home and start filling out applications, grants, and scholarships. After I got accepted to college, I remember signing loan documents. To this day, I still cannot tell you what I signed. There’s a 50/50 shot I’m indebted to some Saudi prince. By the time I started writing papers in college, I was not sure where to go to for help. Between Oxford commas and split infinitives – I felt short on support.
Graduate school was the hardest two years of my life. I picked a bad thesis adviser. But without anyone behind me who had ever attended graduate school – how was I to know what was bad? Who should I have asked, “So, is it okay that my adviser emailed me to tell me she doesn’t have any time to help me?” I failed my thesis defense twice, and had a mental break down my last year. To this day, I believe my situation was more about my blue-collar background. I came in with an iron will and a sharp tongue. I left with my will completely broken. Trudging through it all, I was the first in my family to graduate with a Master’s degree.
In my professional life, the greatest thing I struggle with is not intelligence or skill. My greatest struggles are navigating through a white-collar system with a blue-collar background. I tend to say exactly what I’m thinking, because that is how I was raised. Thankfully, my last boss taught me tact. Instead of telling Vice Presidents “No, you’re wrong,” the better reply is “We can look into that.”
I seem to altogether lack a sense of subtlety that is bred into the children of white-collar workers. In any room I can read the five people whose parents were doctors or engineers. They lay back in their chairs with a socialized confidence it took me years to learn. Frankly, I feel jealous. I catch myself thinking things like “Do you know what it took for me to learn how to do this? Do you know what it took?”
Blue collar culture is beautiful to me in its layers and complexities. When I see construction workers I feel at ease, and immediately start a conversation. I ask about the kids, and then make a joke about any person that’s acting like an asshole. We’re immediately friends. When I see laborers, I feel at peace.
Yet, there is one thing I carry with me. My trump card that no one can take away, and that it takes a blue collar raising to learn. If I teach Carly one thing – it will be this.
In blue collar land, no one is better than me. I do not care what car you drive, what phone you use, or what shoes you wear. I care about whether you are a decent human being.
The president is not better than me, nor is the vice president, nor is the director. The only thing that separates us is a title, some made up financial class, and a suit. I have found that because I do not believe anyone is somehow superior to me, I lack fear that I feel like I’m supposed to have. Sometimes that lack of fear has gotten me in trouble, but at other times my candid nature has helped turn heads.
To me, every person I work with has the same level of importance. Everyone is deserving of kindness, time, and dignity. I’m from a small town. I am the salt of the earth. And underneath my white collar, is a blue one that I wear with pride.