As a child I attended one of the last true parish schools in my corner of Massachusetts, which, I did not know at the time, was fighting a quixotic last stand against the upward spiraling of education costs which swamped the possibility of private education for working class and poor students. Because of those costs Catholic education around here is nowadays mostly reserved for either the well-off, for homeschoolers, or for tiny niche market schools run by people who don’t mind being dirt poor.
It was a blue collar school in Clinton, Massachusetts, a blue collar town. Some of the kids were from the parish with unpronounceable Polish names whose parents sent them to the school out of ethnic loyalty. Others kids were of the local Irish aristocracy, a class determined more by who knew whom back in Co. Mayo than by income; by that standard I was a nobody (and got treated as such), my parents having come to New England from Philadelphia and we lived in the next town over in rural Lancaster, which may as well have been the moon.
I remember one of the Irish aristocrats – son of the fire chief – getting in an argument with another boy. Your dad is a loser said the little aristocrat. It sounded like a horrible insult, but I didn’t get it: the other boy’s dad was a nice guy. But he was not from Clinton, was not Irish, and did not have much money. I guess that made him a loser.
Looking back I now realize I probably came from one of the wealthiest families at the school. It did not occur to me then. My best friend from those days might have come from one of the poorest. I knew my house was bigger, that was about it. My dad and his dad had exactly the same tastes and pastimes: fishing, carpentry, and watching football, and they got on well. They both worked long hours, except my dad made several times what his dad did, at least back then. His has moved up in the world since.
Despite the differences in education and income levels (the latter, were my father still alive, would have been almost wiped out by now), both men were essentially middle class in habits and attitudes. Both were the sons of laborers. Both worked hard and counted their money. Both married young and stuck with their wives. Both kept alcohol from taking over their lives.
The same, more or less, might have been said for almost every dad of every kid at Our Lady of Jasna Gora elementary school. If you had a big house or a small one, or were an Irish aristocrat or a Polish kid or a nobody from out of town, you were pretty much middle class.
There was one kid in my grade who, looking back, was decidedly not middle class. He was a sweet boy, but dumb as rocks and had a perpetually runny nose. Unlike the other kids I never teased him, and that made me one of his best friends. I always turned down invitations over to his house because two stories he had told had stuck my ten-year-old mind as strange. It sounded like a house I did not want to visit.
The first story came when a group of us were comparing notes, as little boys do, about dirty pictures we had seen. This was in the days before internet so it came down to whose dad or brother had a secret stash of tittie magazines. I was quite innocent in the area (I guess my brothers were better at hiding theirs) and had nothing to add to the conversation, but my runny-nosed friend said, “My mom has a Chip ‘n Dale poster in her bedroom.” I thought he meant the Disney characters.
“No dummy, the strippers.” After a while I grasped that his mom had a poster of naked men in her bedroom. It did not strike me as motherly behavior.
On another occasion he told a story of how the previous night his father had been over the house (apparently a rare event) and smacked him for yelling at his sister. The man had hit the boy so hard that he went skidding across the kitchen floor. He told the story not with any anger or regret, but rather impressed by how strong his dad was. I had been slapped by my mother plenty of times, but those blows didn’t hurt, nor were they meant to. The thought of being hit that hard by a grown man was utterly foreign to me. I could see the obvious disproportion (injustice wasn’t the right word, I was ten and didn’t think in those terms) between him yelling at his sister and being hit like that, but he was blind to it.
Nowadays thinking of it I feel sick, but then I didn’t feel anything. I just knew it was a house I did not want to visit. I had a clear mental image of it as being dirty and poorly lit. The house, in my mind, would not be dirty because my friend was poor, I didn’t really have a grasp on that, but because my friend was dirty. Children are hard like that.
His attendance at the school must have been a charity case, his family wasn’t even Catholic. I sometimes wonder what became of him. Between his native dumbness and chaotic home environment I can’t imagine things turning out well. Aside from my best friend I lost touch with all those kids, but after moving back to Clinton I heard stories. I think most did OK for themselves, but drugs, divorce, illegitimacy and the resulting poverty are still common themes. As children those kids were given all the examples of middle class stability they needed; as teenagers they decided on other paths.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what makes for middle class membership. It isn’t income or possessions. I know plenty of people who are poorer than I who own luxuries I don’t dare buy because I can’t afford them. I can’t afford them because I have plans for the future and a horror of debt. Being middle class is part luck – my runny-nosed friend didn’t have much of a chance – but it is mostly a matter of having middle class habits and making middle class choices.