Saturday, November 18, 2017
Opinion

My lesson in how the other half lives

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In the late 1970s, I went to Kingswood Oxford School and later Loomis Chaffee School. A member of the exclusive prep school club of Connecticut, mine was an insulated life of wealth and privilege. To me, the rules were clear: Chase those who are ahead, outrun those who are behind and ignore everyone outside my world because they're irrelevant.

My cozy life was forever altered in the fall of my sophomore year at Loomis. My mother left her family and our swanky home in Hartford's West End to marry into poverty in rural upstate New York. Upper-class people weren't supposed to cross the class divide, much less marry over the line, but she did.

I didn't even want to visit her. I was afraid of my 10 new step-siblings — certain that one of them would steal my Sony Walkman — and I was ashamed that the man I'd known as the hired help, the caretaker of our summer home, was now my stepfather. He was unpolished, couldn't read or write and called my mother "Judas" instead of "Judith" because he'd dropped out of school before learning how to enunciate "th" at the end of a word.

I was studying Friedrich Nietzsche, reading J.D. Salinger and conjugating verbs in Latin and, suddenly, I was related to a man who couldn't say "tooth."

I had no road map to navigate this divide. How do you tell your student adviser, your English teacher or the dean of girls — the people who are nurturing you for the highest level of achievement — that you are now tethered to the very circumstance everyone is climbing to avoid?

I feared their pity and their scorn. I told no one.

Soon, however, I missed my mother more than I feared the class divide. So, as my classmates headed off to Outward Bound and the Hamptons for summer vacation, I threw clothes in a duffel and went to the dilapidated farmhouse where Mom and my stepfamily lived. We had a single bathroom, no central heat, exposed insulation, plastic on the windows and a wringer washing machine on the front porch. It was the first of seven summers and many school vacations that I would spend living a life my classmates couldn't imagine.

Rather than hold myself apart from my stepfamily, I got close. I ate government-issued meat, slept on a mattress on the floor and worked in their makeshift sawmill — a tin shanty built around a planing saw. Sometimes I salvaged food from dumpsters, ecstatic when I scored an unopened box of pecan rolls.

Within weeks, the fear of not having enough enveloped me. Hopelessness sank in and settled in the muscles of my back and neck, in my shoulders and jaw. It was relentless, even though I knew I would be going back to school. Would we have enough? And if we didn't, who would help us?

My world view shifted. At Loomis, my worst fear had been not getting into an Ivy League school, but at my mother's house I discovered the fear of running out of food. At Loomis, I had been ashamed because I didn't own the latest Kelly green striped Oxford shirt, but, at my mother's house, I was the only one with a down winter coat.

I experienced grueling labor: driving tractors, bailing hay and milking cows. I saw my stepbrother, weary and speckled with tar after a 14-hour day laying blacktop on the interstate. My stepsister raced, without sleep, from her factory graveyard shift to her day shift at a nursing home. I recognized the heart, soul and sacrifice that made it possible for me to buy milk in the grocery store, or drive on a paved road - things I'd long taken for granted. Now, behind every product and every service was a face, a person.

Back at school I saw so much more. I could see the man who mowed the lawn on the quad, the woman who cleaned the windows in the library, the people who served our food in the dining hall. The sense that I was fundamentally different from them fell away. The feeling that I needed to protect myself from them fell away. If this kind of enriching connection to people from all walks of life had been cultivated at school, I might have been less ashamed of the life my mother chose.

Today, wealth disparity is being described as "the civil rights struggle of our time," and all students — particularly those enrolled in private school where youths from low-income families are woefully underrepresented and easily marginalized — must be given a broader perspective. I would start by talking about money and status and shame and pride and all the ways in which "having" and "not having" shape our identities and how we show ourselves in the world and perceive others.

Thankfully, I arrived at that understanding on my own as an adult, but I might not have if my mother hadn't first defied the norm.

Annie B. Seyler lives in Vermont. She's writing a memoir, Crossing to Invisible, about going back and forth between privilege and poverty within her family. She wrote this column for the Hartford Courant.

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