When I work with first generation college students, the word that I hear more than any other is “shame”. This shame can mean that they don’t talk about their backgrounds, or sometimes, even think about their backgrounds much as they move with determination through the education system. That shame can mean that they don’t advocate for themselves, that they don’t speak up when faculty or peers stereotype people like them, that they except failure as evidence that they didn’t really belong in college in the first place rather than as a relatively routine setback that most students face. It means also that they’re often not coming to a deep understanding of how class works in schooling and how we might do things differently.
We talk in class about how we came to understand that we should feel shame about childhoods beyond our control, even as we now are people who overcome considerable odds — that we’re in fact complicated case studies of the “American Dream” of belief in opportunity for all, but rather than pride, we feel shame. We talk about how we’ve come to understand that we risk derision, not admiration if we do talk about how we grew up.
And it can be very hard for everyone to identify how they came to understand that even as they near college graduation, they still sometimes doubt that they belong. We so talk about Bourdieu and socialization and habitus and I tell stories of times even now that I avert my eyes around people obviously more wealthy than me.
And still, its’s clear that understanding the shame is as much emotional as intellectual, and facing the emotional is a much more complex process than even grappling with Bourdieu.
One of my favorite teacher bloggers, John Spencer, writes eloquently about how he’s realized how he had shamed kids in his classrooms, often over matters related to their social class backgrounds. He also offers solid alternatives to common school practices that convey so strongly that kids with less money deserve to feel ashamed.
I want to see more honest and brave writing exactly like this, where it’s not just poor and working class college students trying to understand how social class played out in their schools, but where we instead look at the many many interactions in the daily life of hallways and classrooms that make it obvious how students wind up in my college classes, eyes averted, tentative, reluctant to tell their stories.