Anyone who thinks America isn’t riven by class divisions isn’t paying attention. The recent reaming of General Motors is exhibit number one. What better way is there to disabuse our working class of their middle class pretentions and send them back to the impoverishment that is their God-ordained lot? Meanwhile, the banks, which are hotbeds of upper middle class privilege, get a pass.
I grew up in an upper middle class suburb in Michigan during the late forties and early fifties when the state was a fiefdom of the Big Three automakers. We were blessed and privileged children who were rushed to the doctor at the slightest fever, whose parents were passionate members of the PTA, who attended Sunday school every week and who received our first Bibles when we were eight.
We were children whose lives were plotted out for them at the moment of birth. School, high school and then college (preferably a Big Ten school), engagement in our senior years and then we would pledge our troth to one of the Big Three, or enter one of the professions. Girls became librarians, teachers or nurses because those were the only fields open to them. They allowed enough flexibility so a woman could leave the workforce; raise her 2.5 children and return.
The good life was a house in the burbs and a station wagon. To belong was to wear the right clothing, think the right thoughts and live the right life.
In high school, we were centers of the universe, properly outfitted in our olive crewneck sweaters worn over our plaid button-down shirts with our legs sheathed in chinos with the belt in the back and our feet shod with penny loafers. The Princeton and the crew cut were the regulation haircuts.
Class dictated our social life. Twice I made the error of falling for girls outside my class. In seventh grade there was Judy Smith. Her father ran the municipal garage in the town where my father was mayor. We were doomed from the start. She was a slight girl with a vivacious face who wore plain cotton dresses and kept her hair in a perpetual pony tail.
I fell in love with her, one day, between classes when we passed each other in the hall and she slipped a piece of candy into my hand.
There was to be a school dance the following week and as I was screwing up my eleven-year-old courage to ask her,my father informed me that I was to ask a neighborhood girl of the proper pedigree. Being an obedient son, I complied.
Judy moved to Lansing and started attending Patingale Junior High School. I never saw her again.
In my junior year, I met Beverly Richardson who sat next to me in typing class. She had three strikes against her from the get-go. Not only was she working class, but she was a foster child to boot. A dog had gotten hold of her as a child and left several scars on her face.
One day as I was trying to master the typewriter, I became confused over something and she reached over, smiled, and moved my hand to the right key. Such acts of kindness didn’t come from middle-class who protected their virtue by holding themselves aloof until the second or third date (Not that they ever lost their virtue; they simply smiled more).
I asked her out to the consternation of my friends and family. Her father met me at the door with a shotgun and announced I was to marry his daughter. We all broke down in laughter. They were a lively and fun family, something I knew little of. Several times, during the evening, she looked at me silently, waiting for a kiss. In my prudishness I equated a kiss with a long-term commitment. The voices of friends and family rang in my ears. There was no kiss and we never went out again.
By my senior year, I despised all that my class stood for. But, in the fifties, there was no place to rebel. So instead of packing myself off to the nearest Big Ten school, I joined the Marines for a five year hitch.
One of life’s bitter ironies is that once you reject a lifestyle, you immediately want it back. The separation was long and painful, and it was never complete. I live in the burbs; have one child and two grandchildren and two cars. But the pain and the separation have been worth it. I have emerged from my long journey through the darkness with a unique point of view.
I may not have broken entirely free of my class, but I broke free of the American myth and am all the better for it.