I like my chips bright orange. I won’t turn down a lemon wedge with fish and chips but it seems criminal to not have chips so bright they could stop traffic. Home is seeing a man push a microwave in a pushchair as though it were a baby, it’s the familiar sound of the scrap iron men or smelling McDonald’s as I approach the Stafford Road roundabout (this won’t make sense unless you are from Wolverhampton). Wolverhampton is an elaborate patchwork, each patch reminding me of who I was and even more importantly: who I am. This feels a slightly longer continuation of an earlier post but we will roll with it- keeping it on brand.
Working-class and proud of it- I say “how are you?” not “how am ya?” but just because I lack the ‘yam yam’ accent doesn’t mean I’m not a true Wulfrunian. I feel frustrated by this quids in quids out attitude people have as though you’re not authentic unless you constantly show pride in where you’re from- for me this feels like a very working-class thing. I vividly remember visiting my Nan and Grandad during my first year of university and hearing my Grandad whisper in the lounge to my Nan “I think our Em has turned into a bit of a snob”. A snob because I had taken a liking to avocado on toast or perhaps because I was now a living breathing university student at a Russell group university- something which hasn’t phased me but that which was miles away from the steelwork ‘university of life’ ladder my Grandad and his generation had climbed rung by rung. I could have cried for him because through his stifled words regarding “how she has changed”, I saw a man that had all the curiosity and interest that should have afforded him a university education but that which was out of reach by virtue of his social and economic standing in mid-twentieth-century Britain. Though I am incredibly lucky to have had incredibly supportive educators and mentors I still in some ways suffer from imposter syndrome, for me opting to do a panic masters isn’t as simple as applying to the university of choice and waiting for confirmation. Some courses charge over £24k for a one-year course this simply isn’t an option for me and that kinda sucks. I lightheartedly envy people that can take time out to “find themselves” because they have enough financial support from their parents to sponsor their indecisiveness surrounding full-time employment.
Sometimes I see myself as a bit of an inbetweener, on one hand, I am massively defensive over my hometown, and on the other, I am dying to run away from my cul-de-sac as I did as a precocious child (one tiny Barbie suitcase stuffed with my DS, a blanket and my Littlest Pet Shop set). At school, I would always feel so self-conscious of telling people the neighbourhood I was from – as though I were delivering awful news. When the inevitable did happen and I revealed where I lived I would be greeted with a “no way! I didn’t think you’d live there”- beyond being confused I also questioned what exactly someone meant by not thinking I lived in the neighbourhood I was/am from. It’s as though we are raised into certain norms and values and have preconceived notions and signals that allow us to understand what we think people should or should not conform to. Just because I speak well and carry myself confidently doesn’t mean I can’t have grown up in an area that would according to national statistics have seen me get 6 GCSEs at grade C or lower (I read this on a poster during a physics summer school I took part in).
I’m tired of the explanations and the shame carrying around this discomfort that doesn’t seem to outgrow me as I get older and supposedly wiser. Time has helped heal my weird relationship with Wolverhampton but going to live in a city like Bristol seemed to bring it all out again like cleaning up broken glass only to step on the tiniest shard and realise you hadn’t been as thorough with the clean up as you thought. Bristol gave me the opportunity to stare privilege in the face, it’s not to say I hadn’t appreciated how wealthy some people were but rather I kind of assumed everyone walked slightly fast to their home at night or that the scrap iron man was just a regular feature in every area or that getting told by your Mom the amount of money you had to last the month was just the sort of raw ‘welcome to adulthood’ education everyone was fortunate enough to have. It seems though that wasn’t the case- the dirty Nike Air Forces or shabby designer sweatshirts might have been a convincing enough foil but in between the homemade hummus and quinoa salads the privilege and carefree nature many of my counterparts (that I love) had was a genuine lack of awareness towards how other people may live. I remember having a catch-up with a friend and her telling me that someone had commented on someone’s Liverpudlian accent, upon noticing and pointing out her regional twang they said “good for you” for having such a different accent in amongst the standard homogenous Southern voices. I guess I feel this somewhat in reverse since I don’t really have the accent I feel more fraudulent because then the focus is on whether I subconsciously made an effort to sound less West Midlandsy (definitely a word) to avoid feeling out of place. A friend from the same university and also from Wolves did ask me this and I genuinely had no response. I think not but it does raise greater questions around inclusion within university environments especially universities where there is a majority of students from particular areas of the UK that tend to be very affluent.
Working in a comprehensive school in a lower socio-economic area is making me even more painfully aware of the disparities and gaps that exist within the country. This was made so apparent when I told a student about my holiday to New York incredibly nonchalantly and he said “you went to New York that’s so sick” as though it was a city he could only imagine going to. Sometimes even I catch myself forgetting the opportunities and privileges I have had and am able to access. Another self-identifying working-class friend told me we were the lucky ones using the A-levels scandal to highlight how something as seemingly minor as a postcode and the academic history of a school could totally transform a bright kid’s chance to go to a good university. Being in a school at the moment is forcing me to question the way I approach myself and the life I have and had growing up.
I don’t ever think topics such as equality in education are about pointing the fingers at people or condemning those who have been afforded a better start in life. A lot of my friends have had completely different lifestyles to me and I respect and value them as much as the friends I went to school with. Transparency is important and for as long as we continue to make talking points out of those from less privileged backgrounds for things as seemingly simple as schooling or accents or hometowns we continue to perpetuate the divides that exist. Even if it seems as futile as someone commenting on the fact you “don’t seem working-class” a comment I received after getting into a heated class system conversation- it still highlights the issues we face with class and the stereotypes such systems produce. Though there is a greater opportunity for mobilisation, there is still a lot of work to do in terms of socialisation and tackling the unspoken codes that seem to be a given for some and learned or totally bypassed for others.