Tag Archives: graduate school

Ivy Wrapped Around My Throat; or, Yale Culture Is Not My Culture

(This is the continuation of Raised Rural parts one, two, and three. And sort of my own Hillbilly Elegy.)

With degrees in hand, my husband and I moved from Chicago to New Haven, Connecticut, where I started looking for a job and he started a Ph.D. program at Yale.

In Chicago, people had been relaxed and happy to talk and connect. I found this to be true among the Midwestern students at my graduate school, undergraduate co-workers who would crack jokes at my retail job at a huge clothing store on the Magnificent Mile, strangers at the bus stop. My husband would meet up with University of Chicago graduate students – and professors would occasionally hold after-class discussions – at neighborhood bars, where non-drinkers would socialize over a water or soda. The U of C graduate students, and the recent graduates I encountered as well, seemed like normal people despite being educated at one of the best universities in the world. They were from all different backgrounds – immigrant families of modest means, wealthy families in Europe, regular lower-middle class Northeasterners, and with only one or two exceptions, the “cultural elites” with politicians, Nobel prize winners, and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies in their families, didn’t wear their status openly. We talked about beer, outrageous anecdotes about professors and colorful relatives, pizza, terrible movies. We wore t-shirts and traded British comedy DVDs and tried, unsuccessfully, to create solutions for Israel and Palestine after a few drinks.

One block from our second apartment in Chicago, there was a much-loved chicken joint, bank, laundromat, liquor store, haircut place specializing in children’s cuts, independent grocery store with low priced produce, and chain pharmacy in the busiest shopping center in Hyde Park where students and non-university affiliates would do their business. In New Haven, the shopping area between our apartment and Yale’s campus featured the Gourmet Heaven corner store (known for high-priced groceries and illegal wage practices that eventually led to its shutdown), an Apple store, Origins beauty supplies, and clothing stores catering to the prep aesthetic: J. Crew, North Face, Gant, several boutiques. There was often a friendly middle-aged African American lady who sat on the corner all day selling flowers, who I have heard students refer to as “homeless.” In my first week, I saw a slim, naturally blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white-smiled, unblemished and perfectly tanned young adult wearing a blazer with boat shoes and rolled-up pants walking with a small group of other young men outside one of Yale’s architecturally-imposing residence halls. He was one of those men who is so impossibly handsome you feel not attraction, but an involuntary urge to punch them. He reminded me of a Ken doll parody I had seen in a commercial once, with a pastel-colored sweater draped perfectly across his shoulders. He practically dripped with privilege, his self-aware clashing fashion choice and genetics and smile saying “fuck you, I can have anything I want.” I had seen my first true WASP in its natural habitat. It would not be the last time.

Later I would learn the difference between “old money” and “new money.” If U of C represented the culture of new money, then Yale represented old money.

The drinking culture that typifies the Midwest – and might contribute to their casual affability – is simply not present in New Haven. While in Chicago I could buy liquor at the grocery chains, or pick up something at the corner store until they closed at midnight, but until recently Connecticut’s restrictive state laws prohibited alcohol sales on Sundays, most holidays, and after 9pm, with no ability to buy a 6-pack from a bar as you could under Pennsylvania’s laws. Many students at Yale didn’t drink, and there were few meetups at bars, so we couldn’t employ our usual strategy for making inroads into social groups. (I say “we” because I mainly leeched off my husband’s social life). I supplemented the scant social calendar with being conspicuously sunny to store clerks. Retail work and living among friendly Midwesterners in the previous couple years had made me an expert at being sunny around strangers. And many New England clerks, it turned out, were just as polite and happy to have little conversations as I was, despite the area’s reputation for chilliness.

When we did socialize at house parties, conversations were strained. My husband –  whose sharp wit, loud laugh, and unapologetic Philly-style swagger characterize his interactions with his friends and family (he’s singing Pixies songs to himself at this moment) – donned button-down shirts and leather shoes and tamped down his personality, bowing his head when we met gathered at the homes of faculty members. At informal parties at students’ apartments, conversation topics with a fair amount of back-and-forth were difficult for me to unearth. Students defaulted to talking about their research at Yale, or their professors, or other work-related gossip. I was neither researching at Yale, not working at Yale, nor even working full-time in my chosen career. I took the public bus to a retail job three towns away near the mall, later adding a temporary job in Stamford and then 19 hours a week at the local public library into my work rotation. My job search was completely alien to their experiences, and my despair made some of them visibly uncomfortable, not to mention affecting my own mood when I had to recount my economic setbacks multiple times in a single evening. Significant others, who were my usual go-to conversation partners when I accompanied my husband to his social events, were frequently graduate students themselves, so I didn’t have the common ground of the normal world to share with them. I became an expert at the blank, half-aware look of partners when they’re debating whether they should try to join the conversation they don’t understand, or risk moral judgment when people notice how many times they retreat to the low pressure and high carbohydrates of the snack table.

After two years, I decided to adopt a scorched earth approach. I started skipping over the usual exchanges of “and what do you research?” or “oh, I love that cookbook you have,” not allowing time for their polite inquiries about my Yale affiliation and my reply of “no, I’m not at Yale” and the awkward pause that always followed, as if I’d yanked away their roadmap of follow-up questions. Instead, I headed straight into Louis C.K.-style self-deprecating jokes and references to episodes of Archer, simultaneously trying to inject the levity I craved and also rejecting the pressure I felt to pantomime refined manners. Yale manners. I was not Yale, and I was no longer going to let them assume I was Yale, or pretend that I wanted to belong to Yale. One time, I declared that I was happy I wasn’t accepted into the academic graduate program I had once dreamed of, that I would have wasted money and would have been completely unhappy. It only took a few seconds for the peripheral conversations to die and a complete silence to descend across the room.

My husband later told me that it’s because I had vocalized the exact anxieties that every single person in the room felt.

While we had friends in Chicago with socioeconomic backgrounds similar to ours, they seemed nonexistent at Yale, and we frequently encountered assumptions that Yale students were financially well-off. The grad students in the humanities received a stipend barely above MIT’s living wage, and students that didn’t find a roommate to help defray the high rental costs almost certainly have to supplement their student income with savings from past careers or help from relatives. Many of them had relatives with funds to spare, whose parents would be happy to help them out, as their own parents might have helped them. As I mentioned in a previous post, a faculty member once asked somebody if he had working-class friends, and lamented the difficulties he had expanding his social circle beyond his own class. Our own social circle at Yale included the children of faculty at world-class universities and Manhattan doctors and diplomats, former lawyers and scientists, and people with graduate degrees in hand who were switching careers, who got Bachelor’s degrees from the best universities in the world, whose families have second homes in different countries, who grew up bilingual or even trilingual, who think nothing of getting on a plane to travel across the ocean, and sometimes travel abroad just to see family and loved ones for a week or to take a break. Once I got to know them, I learned that they worried about their finances and debated if getting a Ph.D. from Yale was the right choice for them, or if they should go back to their first careers or take a different track entirely. I thought it remarkable that those who had been given a chance to earn a degree from Yale – beyond the wildest dreams of anyone from my hometown – could be second-guessing themselves.

This is a completely different world that I inhabit nowadays. Most people I know from my own college experiences and my jobs have lived in the same region, or even the same town, for all their lives. I am the anomaly among them, the one who has lived in three states and two major cities, the one who has vacationed abroad in a place that wasn’t resort-heavy or Western Europe. Five years ago, I was amazed that I would even get to touch the buildings of Yale. Now I’m constantly frustrated when I try to organize parties during holidays that fall on academic breaks, and I find that friends are doing research abroad or have moved to another country while they write their dissertations. I don’t have that life myself, but it’s completely normal to know people that do. I walk my dog in neighborhoods where famous literary critics live, and I attend church services with people who have edited versions of the Bible. My husband works with intellectuals who have been published in nationally-circulated newspapers and are visible, outspoken critics of Trump.

I find myself stuck in between these two worlds: close to what some would call the “elite,” but not quite part of it, but also no longer working-class rural Pennsylvanian. Middle class in income and profession, but without the characteristic middle-class drive to increase my material and financial wealth and attention to status markers. When I return to rural Pennsylvania I see people glancing at the out-of-state front license plate on my hybrid car. Even when I’m wearing my sweatpants at the grocery store, I look different. My sweatpants are better quality and more athletic-looking than the pairs from Walmart and Kmart. Dresses, boots, and cardigans from the internet are the staples of my professional wardrobe, not black pants and blouses from Kohl’s. I’m muscular, and it shows in the slope of my shoulders. Though I’m slightly overweight, I weigh noticeably less than many other Pennsylvania Dutch women, and we don’t choose the same entrees when we go out to restaurants. I wear thick-rimmed glasses. I don’t speak like anyone who grew up there, and my smiles and eye contact are often met with grunts. I walk my dog on a leash instead of letting her walk out the door.  But I’m not like the women I see in New Haven either, not elegant, not slim, not descended from Puritans or an ethnicity that stands out in rural communities but has achieved the normalcy of whiteness in cities, with no tradition of boarding schools or generations of education in my family. You can see my rural origins in my face and in the shape of my waist. In the torn-up, mismatched outfits I wear to the gym, the big canister of Chock Full O’Nuts in the kitchen, and the coarse, vaguely sexual curses that come out of my mouth when I’m angry at the copier at work.

When people ask how I got to Connecticut and I’m not meeting them at a Yale function or somewhere in New Haven, I almost always say my husband is getting a graduate degree, and only volunteer the words “Ph.D.” and “Yale” and “Iranian history” if my conversation partner leads us in that direction. Whether they’re from rural Pennsylvania or from the relatively affluent town where I lead storytimes, I recognize the power behind those words and how they can stop the flow of conversations the way my lack of Yale affiliation did within Yale circles. I’m afraid those words can lead to undeserved admiration for my non-accomplishment of marrying somebody who chose to do academia, or even worse, those words can mistakenly lead people to think I’m better than them. I’m not better than them. I am not Yale. I am not even New England. But I am also not rural Pennsylvania, and I never fully was. I don’t know if I’m fully anything.

 

BONUS RANT ABOUT YALE AS AN INSTITUTION

At an institutional level, it seems that Yale reinforces the notion that Yale is for those with financial means. Yale provided health insurance to my husband, but insurance was not available to me at all until my and I were officially married, despite the fact that we lived in the same household (which is the language used by many insurance policies including those offered by the Affordable Care Act). Yale also did not offer employment support for graduate spouses or partners, which I had hoped to find, given the amount of money the university was investing in my husband. It was assumed that graduate students with families that moved to New Haven with them had the means to support themselves. Later, when my husband had fellowship funds denied to him due to a technicality in the disbursement – a fellowship that he needed for academic progress during the summer – a clerk at one of the Yale offices asked him if he had a family member that could pay the $2500 difference. My husband, an independent adult, a graduate student who had not lived at home for years, was deeply offended. He and I both came from families where teens eagerly looked for work when they reached legal working age, not where adults in their twenties asked our parents for thousands of dollars.

Yale’s campus buildings and history are designed to awe, and they seem to carry on traditions I had only read about in World War II-era literature about all-boys English boarding schools, or in children’s books about wizards. There are historical sites on campus dating back to the American Revolution, and the headstones in the nearby cemetery bear names that are found in dozens of history books. Undergraduate students live in residential colleges with a faculty member who lives on-site with their family and acts as a mentor to the undergraduates, instead of an undergraduate resident assistant who is getting a tuition break for their service. Each college has their own dining hall and social facilities, instead of sharing them with everyone on campus as I’d encountered at most college campuses I’d toured or attended, and I saw gorgeous wood-paneled study rooms through the windows of residences when I would pass by. Students take classes, practice for orchestra recitals, and get books from tall, Gothic-style stone buildings. Their Payne Whitney Gym holds the Squash Hall of Fame, a sport I hadn’t known existed until a friend at La Salle mentioned that he played it at his family’s country club. Sometimes, Yale alumni and professors host dinners at Mory’s, who tout themselves as “A Yale Tradition c. 1849,” on their website. There is apparently a membership fee to pay, and membership is approved by a Board of Governors. I have never been in, but rumor has it there is a dress code. In my mind, Mory’s represent the pomp and elitism of Yale culture, and I am still somewhat amazed that nobody rolls their eyes when the name comes up in conversation.

As a kid, I heard a fair amount of conspiracies, especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. I heard about how the Skull and Bones secret society was controlling the world, and how George W. Bush joined the society when he was a student at Yale. From the vantage point in rural Pennsylvania, where I hadn’t even heard of the World Trade Center until the attacks toppled them and New Haven was just as foreign a location as Manhattan, it was easy for people to give credence to the conspiracies. But living mere blocks from the Skull and Bones tomb, the Wolf’s Head tomb, and other secret societies, I quickly learned an alternative narrative: they’re a drinking club for the kids of rich folk. The late-night screaming, sounds of breaking bottles, and packs of bare-chested boys roaming in freezing temperatures were more commonplace in New Haven than in my residences at La Salle. Our apartment was near a residence hall and next to a fraternity house, and there was almost always rotting garbage on the sidewalks in front of their building. Once, a burned-up couch appeared in the middle of the sidewalk and stayed there for weeks. At first, I couldn’t believe that the same kids who took classes at an Ivy League university in gorgeous buildings would simply dump their trash on the sidewalk and expect somebody else to clean up after them. Then I had to believe it.

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Raised Rural: Part 3

I established what it was like growing up rural, white, lower-middle class / working class, and conservative as a result. Here I’ll try to lay out how that changed. I imagine it’s going to be just as navel-gazing as the other posts.

While at La Salle, I felt like an outsider. Most other students were urban or suburban, well-off, and Catholic, a denomination that I had grown up knowing very little about, and certainly nothing positive. I was rural, overweight at a time when Pink was blowing up as a brand, and making some of my own clothing out of necessity since I couldn’t afford trendy brands or shop at many regular stores, and I was years past the point of asking my mom for money that I knew she didn’t have, while living among a sea of slim girls with credit cards whose balances were paid by their parents. I didn’t have the money for regular Starbucks runs, impractical Ugg boots, or Apple products, and I didn’t want to identify with that group of people anyway.

In classes, I explored American and British literature and took religion courses, and I learned a little Russian and improved my Spanish. I performed in the jazz and pep bands, and I sang in choir and was an officer at one point until some other students and I pushed our choir director, an older man whose day job was teaching at an all-boys Catholic school, to perform not just for nuns in a nursing home an hour away but to bring our music to children in the local public schools, and the ensuing arguments got so nasty I had to leave choir. I tutored kids in Camden and south Philly once a week, until constant motion sickness from the long van rides forced me to stop. I got work-study in the university archives and every other weekend, I went back home to work a few hours at Kmart. During the summer, I would go back to the Lehigh Valley and take jobs with temp agencies, doing data entry for a beer distributor one summer, then warehouse work alongside women and men mostly in their thirties and forties, and a few stints in factories making boxes or assembling lotion containers. My husband and I both worked in the same warehouse one summer, and we heard over and over that we needed to finish our degrees so we wouldn’t have to come back and work there permanently.

I chafed against the very vocal far left students, who came off to me as smug, shallow caricatures, taking great pains to conform to a stereotype of ultra-liberal college student and who seemed condescending towards those whose political opinions differed from theirs and who had no desire for open discussion. It was easy to poke fun at the socially awkward, intense anarchist, and the artsy atheist vegan who listened to British punk and who wanted everyone to know she was an artsy atheist vegan who was into British punk. I wrote an article criticizing the slant of the college newspaper and bemoaning the lack of balanced viewpoints. I considered myself a moderate, socially fairly liberal but economically conservative and concerned about national security and government spending much more than social issues, a position shared by several college friends who also came from modest backgrounds and went back to work during school breaks. When we openly criticized Obama’s foreign policy during the 2008 election and took his cheer of “yes we can” as a hollow message lacking any substance, I remember a liberal Democrat friend remarking something like “well, they hate Democrats.” The language of this remark placed us into a box, created an artificial binary where one didn’t exist, and shut down any sort of discussions we could have had. My moderate friends and I supported McCain, the moderate Republican, therefore in my Democrat friend’s eyes we were against Democrats, despite our Independent status on our voter registrations.

In truth, this creation of binaries, this idea that I encountered from many Democrats that they were somehow superior, and the automatic assumption by many of my Democrat peers that I shared their viewpoints and political affiliation (and the consequent underlying assumption that if I were Republican, I had differing viewpoints that were also inferior), played a large role in why I stayed away from the left as long as I did.

 


 

This broke down when I moved to Chicago with my now-husband and I truly became an adult.

Graduating in 2009 with more debt than we’d expected and with a terrible economy, we both went directly into graduate school. He fled turmoil in his family, and I followed him. We weren’t insulated by a college campus as we were in Philly, but actually living among real people now, first in Kenwood and then Hyde Park, both on the south side. Our neighbors were mostly working-class Black folk.

Our apartment was robbed within a week of us moving in, and our landlord, a tall Irish man who never seemed to make much eye contact with me and reserved it for my husband, assumed it was a mentally ill tenant on a floor above us and he tried to enter his apartment to look for our items and take my husband along with him, who refused to help. Over the next several months, though, we would have to confront our landlord’s practices for the racism that it was. We overheard him treat the Black tenants – who were trying to raise families – dismissively and listen to us, the two stupid college students who would be gone in a short time. We befriended the spunky, talkative 12-year-old girl upstairs, who was one of the only people our new dog tolerated, and we heard about how the landlord treated her and her mother. We grew so uncomfortable with this favoritism and his general terrible practices as a landlord that we moved when our lease was up, despite the reasonable monthly cost.

During the two years we lived in Kenwood and Hyde Park, I made small talk with men and women who were waiting at the same bus stop or who wanted to greet our dog or who waited on me in stores or who wanted to tell me they were extras in the Blues Brothers.

We got dirty looks when we climbed aboard packed buses, full bags hanging from us from a grocery shopping trip, two white kids taking up aisle space among tired women who appeared to be on their way home from work.

We loaded up a gigantic suitcase every two weeks with our dirty laundry and wheeled it eight blocks to the laundromat and watched People’s Court while women folded white t-shirts.

We came across a man laying on the sidewalk, soaked to the bone and unmoving, and I reached out and shook him to wake him from what we guessed was an overdose, and after he rose, bewildered, the ambulance we called refused to come out and make sure he was okay, because he was able to walk.

I was spat upon by a disturbed, angry man who also spat upon an older white lady working in the laundromat – I knew it was ridiculous when the enraged woman said she wanted him to be charged with a “hate crime,” and I stood in court next to her and the white student who witnessed it and the white cop who wrote up the incident, while the white judge talked to the man as if he were a child and made him apologize to the laundromat lady, and outside the courtroom the cop told us the man would be back out in the streets in a matter of months because the jails were overcrowded and it was warm outside.

We saw how the neighborhoods became dusty and litter-strewn and boarded up immediately south of the University of Chicago, package stores the only thing open for blocks and blocks.

We heard how the college kids raved about Harold’s, the chicken joint in Hyde Park at 53rd and Kimbark, but were too afraid to venture out beyond the bubble of the university, though we knew you could get vastly superior chicken at Golden Fish and Chicken at 45th and Cottage Grove, near our first apartment.

We were approached one cold night close to Thanksgiving by a man who asked us if we could get him something in the supermarket, and we bought him sandwich supplies to feed himself and his family for a couple days.

We were asked by a suspicious bus driver one night, after a long day downtown, if we knew where we were going and we replied “home,” though the driver didn’t seem to believe us.

We took a bus transfer on our way to a nice dinner and found ourselves waiting on a trash-strewn intersection, deserted except for several men and women, high and stumbling around as if they were the walking dead.

We saw the devastation from the earthquake in Haiti and learned that an immigrant we knew, a former coworker of my husband, lost his entire family in Port-au-Prince.

I waited 40 minutes for a late bus one day before I decided to walk to my green line stop on 47th, and as I got closer to the station, I saw dozens of people standing utterly silent on the sidewalk as a woman screamed, full of grief, in a vacant lot across the street, a news camera trained impassively on her, and I later found a news article containing a photo of a bloodstained White Sox hat lying on the macadam.

When I finally found a job at a research library, my boss told me that the workplace barely ever closed for bad weather, because it only closed when the schools closed, and the schools stayed open because they were the only place that many kids in the city would get a meal for the day.

I waited for a train one day and heard two young men threatening each other across the platforms, and an older gentleman quietly turned to me and said, “excuse me, do you think there’s a lot of hate in this world?”

I overheard a woman with scarred, scabbed, picked-over skin and a clear, angelic voice talk to somebody only she could see.

I read about how a girl who had sung at Obama’s 2009 inauguration and who lived in our first neighborhood had been shot and killed on a nearby playground.

I stood as one of the only white folk at the Easter Vigil at the church in which my husband was being received, and without any hesitation, the parishioners grasped my hand during the Lord’s Prayer and shook it, smiling, during the Sharing of the Peace.

I was told to kill with kindness at my retail job on the Magnificent Mile.

I was told that the old lady who made an extended fuss and exasperated my patience was probably lonely and looking for somebody to talk to.

I felt guilty that, in the middle of summer, I could only point the Muslim woman and her daughters to the clearance floor and hope they could find something modestly cut from the early spring leftovers.

I realized that no matter how little money I had, there were always those in much worse shape than I.

I saw men and women relieve themselves on State Street, a boy throw up on himself at 8 am on a Saturday morning, and a man with pink stubs where his fingers should be.

I touched eugenics journals from 1930s Germany, and washing my hands didn’t remove the deep feeling of unease I had or the image of the swastikas on the cover, and I cried when I stumbled upon an article from an 1880’s medical journal where a doctor wrote luridly and in great, gratuitous, tabloid-like detail about a severely deformed infant girl.

 

 

 

This is how I became an adult.