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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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But it’s really not my home

I just finished The Third Plate by Dan Barber, and though I’d like to be able to reflect on that, what’s on my mind right now (aside from the possibility that white supremacist Steve Bannon is the most influential voice in American politics at the moment) is the introduction and the first chapter or so that I audiobooked of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It sparked a conversation with my husband about where we grew up, what we inherited in our culture, why we left and what changed in us, and why our relatives who stayed behind feel the way they do and thus voted for who they voted for.

To be certain, the Appalachian Scots-Irish are not my people, and the violence and instability that Vance talks about so far do not ring true with my experience of the rural East. The heavily Pennsylvania Dutch town where I grew up, though, does absolutely have that sort of clannish-ness. And the same deep drug problems. But I never saw it as a positive thing. I never felt like I really belonged to the Pennsylvania Dutch, and I wasn’t taught to believe that I belonged to them, either. My parents may have actively rejected the culture, even. They didn’t inherit the consonant-heavy accent that all four of my grandparents had, and they didn’t socialize with anyone in town. I would hear vitriolic stories of old Pennsylvania Dutchmen with limited vocabularies or unintelligible accents, and I was told how the townspeople rejected changes, even those that would improve the overall quality of their lives, such as a turnpike exit or a festival celebrating local history. (Of course, I was also not shown how to support these changes myself, or how to enact them.) I was taught that my town was a cesspool that needed to be evacuated.

Or was I?

In an awkward, strained conversation I had with my father, who’d moved out near Lancaster soon after the divorce, my nearly-complete English major came up. He asked me, “Are you going to teach the ignorant Dutch kids?” There was irony in his question, overtly hinting at his belief that the area was completely and utterly hopeless in its lack of intellectual ability. I bared some verbal fangs when I said no, I was planning to get a master’s degree, maybe even a Ph.D., and do lofty academia, simultaneously rejecting the idea that I would ever come back to my hometown, and that I would only amount to a teacher after being told I was smarter than everyone else in town, including some of the teachers.

But his question presupposed, without irony, that I wasn’t going to move far away. Despite his condemnation of the Pennsylvania Dutch, he’d assumed I’d stay in the Lehigh Valley. And as I write this, I realize that I myself was dismayed several years before when I’d learned he moved a 90 minute drive away from my brother and I.

Similarly, when I talk to my grandmother on the phone, she asks when I’m coming home. My brother, who never aspired to have the type of desk job to which a college education channels the constructively-minded, takes in a handsome pay as a steamfitter. He constantly references backroads I’d long forgotten, colloquial names of landmarks that I’d never learned, and people I’ve never met whose families have lived in the area for generations. I tried for years to convince him to downsize his belongings and get an apartment, but he and his wife bought an historic farmhouse made in the same vein as our childhood home, dark-wooded and with plenty of space for their belongings and potential future children.

Our social circles were different, though, and they helped to reinforce these ideas in us. His friends throughout school mostly stayed local, working in trades, security, retail, and other fields that don’t require a college education, or just a degree from the community college. His singular way of speaking is undoubtedly reinforced by the time he spends around older tradesmen on the construction sites. Lots of them, after all, are Pennsylvania Dutch and share the same familiarity with the area.

My social circle, on the other hand, tended to have more outsiders, or at least people who wanted out. Here, a friend who went to a Catholic elementary school who never batted an eye at driving 45 minutes in search of entertainment. There, musically-talented kids with Italian and Syrian surnames. The boyfriend-turned-husband descended from working-class Philly area Irish Catholics – he embraced and even embellished his outsider status. Most of them went to private or prestigious colleges, moved to completely different regions of the country, or both. When I go back to my hometown, I can visit my family, or I can get together with the one friend who fell in love with Philadelphia but who intentionally moved back in order to bring local, sustainable agriculture to the area. Or I can drive to Philadelphia to see my college friends.

Anyway, back to J.D. Vance and the frustrations of rural working-class. My own mother seems thrilled that, at 30 years old, I have surpassed the expectations she had for herself when she was my age. But she never bought into my hometown’s culture, and I think many people did, and it was a rude awakening when their children grew up, moved away, and changed their culture and values. Of course we were going to change and elevate our expectations. We rent little apartments in cities instead of buying houses in the country far away from our jobs. After the rash of foreclosures, we see mortgages as burdens, not assets. We spend our money at new Korean restaurants instead of on soggy wings from the local hotel restaurant. We take spinning classes in chain gyms with shiny facilities instead of local warehouses that were converted to independent fitness studios designed for practicality instead of aesthetics. We buy our cleaning supplies from Amazon instead of driving to the Walmart two towns away. We bring microbrews and lavender mead to family picnics. We run on the new rails-to-trails cutting through town, training for races when we go back home. We question why a discussion about a coworker includes information on their race or religion or orientation when it doesn’t seem relevant to the story, and we use newer, different terms for race, religion, or orientation when it is relevant, and we don’t think those jokes are funny anymore. If our parents wanted us to succeed, didn’t they realize that this was the cost?

And for those that stayed, some are doing well with their degrees from the local state college and their jobs in the schools or at rehabilitation centers. They’ll probably stay in town where the cost of home ownership is low, and they’ll keep commuting to their jobs. But lots of kids from our high school are slowly dying from heroin addiction. If our parents aren’t losing us one way, they’re often losing us another way.

I don’t know why or how the opioid epidemic hit my hometown so badly, but I know it was there long before we started talking about it on a national level and calling it a crisis. In high school, it was no secret that the kids who perpetually hung around on Main Street or in front of the corner store were addicts, or were well on their way to addiction. For those of us that left, it was often a catalyst – we didn’t want to see it every time we drove through town or stopped for a gallon of milk. Like the crumbling sidewalk or the storefronts with dusty “for rent” signs in their windows, they were a blight. And maybe some of us, deep down, were afraid we might be staring into our own futures. So we ran as far away as we possibly could.

Our parents told us we were on a sinking ship, and they handed us a life preserver in the form of education and the promise of good jobs, and they told us to swim for safety. And now they alone remain, witness to the sidewalks and signs and addiction and loss and decay, or to the unfamiliar faces who are now serving drinks at the newly-renamed corner bars or opening yoga studios that will shut their doors in a few months when they can’t rally enough community support. If our parents are to be upset about the deterioration of small towns like my hometown, so be it, but they should also examine how they contributed to its downward acceleration when they failed in their words and actions to give us a reason to stay.