It wasn’t the preschool tuition twice my annual salary or the second house that sat unused but for summer weekends. It wasn’t even the ATM receipt casually left on a kitchen counter showing an account balance I still can’t imagine 25 years later. No, the moment I truly became aware of class was the night my employer called to tell me about something funny.
“It just happened,” said Lynette*, still laughing at what she explained was the funniest thing. “So, we’re talking about college and celebrating Sara getting into Stanford, you know, and we ask Nick where he wants to go. You won’t believe what he said.”
Lynette was the type of doctor you don’t want to need, married to a successful buyer and seller of other people’s ideas. Sara – a bit player if not for the memory her good fortune seared in my mind – was the eldest daughter of another affluent couple. And Nick? He was one of two brothers I took care of for several years when I was a nanny. He has no fault in this story because his motivations were always pure. Also, he was four.
On the day of Sara’s acceptance, I had taken Nick for a visit to my college campus. While I’d been with the family for more than a year by then, my status as a part time college student was relatively new and he was curious to see the place I was excited about. The campus itself had a modest footprint, just a few small buildings surrounding the main facility, which housed classrooms, administrative offices, a bookstore, and the cafeteria. And it was this latter location – specifically, its small collection of arcade games – that had piqued Nick’s newfound interest in higher education.
“‘When I grow up I want to go to MassBay Community College!’ he yelled at the top of his lungs. Can you imagine?” said Lynette. “I had to tell you. We all just started laughing.”
I was 15 when I first left school and, after some false starts, district changes, and a rejected offer of private school my family couldn’t really afford, made my high school dropout status official the following year. Upon realizing they lacked the physical ability to put me in a vehicle and get me to school, my parents begrudgingly went along. Now the parent of a teenager myself, I can imagine how tired they must have been after a year of school refusal. We were all tired. I forgave them long ago for telling me I’d be a loser. I didn’t think I’d amount to much either.
Over the next 10 years I’d get my GED, start and quit various college classes, make a lot of bad decisions, work countless minimum wage jobs, and eventually move to Boston to work as a nanny, pretending to be a traditional high school graduate because I thought it sounded better than the truth and encouraged less questions.
I worked for couples with managed inheritances and advanced degrees. And got myself a room in an apartment. I worked for families whose young children already knew the difference between flying commercial and private. And got myself a used car. I worked for fathers who were embarrassed by millions because their new friend had billions. And got myself a summer off to backpack in Europe. I worked for mothers who’d have me cook extra meals only to bring them to a sick friend and take the credit. And I got myself enrolled in school, assigned books written by some of the very people I’d met at work.
“That is funny,” I said. “Thanks for telling me. See you all tomorrow.”
By this point I’d spent several years working as a professional in highly personal environments I thought I understood. I was paid to take care of wealthy people’s children and do things around their homes they couldn’t or didn’t want to do. I was paid to fit into a world I wasn’t part of and a family I wasn’t a member of. I was paid to keep secrets afforded by this backstage pass, privy to their gossip, arguments, business deals, and porn habits. When needed, I was even paid to be invisible. I understood that I was watching these lives through an aspirational lens, but until that call I was completely unaware they were looking back at mine, the realities of which providing either comic relief or a cautionary tale.
I can’t remember if I laughed or not. I’d like to imagine I didn’t, but since I have the unfortunate habit of nervous laughter it’s probable. What I do remember is how her laughter made me feel at age 26 and the power her words had in making me feel less than, of making my accomplishments seem small and insignificant. Laughing out loud with her friends at my personal achievements, so ridiculous only a preschooler would wish for them.
And she remained blissfully unaware of what she’d done.
Maybe it’s human nature that we’re constantly measuring ourselves against others. Consciously or not, we contort ourselves into boxes to know where we belong or how we are valued: upper class, middle class, lower class. Once categorized we then ascribe certain characteristics to these labels, using them to elevate ourselves or denigrate others, even if we aren’t aware we’re doing it. Like Lynette did when she laughed at the thought of her child attending community college. Or like I did when I hid the fact I had a GED.
When I did get into one of those colleges that are celebrated and whose name proudly adorned my body, my car, and those of my parents, Lynette called to ask if I’d take her boys on a tour. Despite the bucolic campus with its lake, wooded paths, belled towers, and state of the art facilities, they left unimpressed. In fairness, they already went to a really nice private school.
*All names have been changed to protect identities.