A Working-Class Hero Is Something To Be

By: Ray Gallagher

“A working class hero is something to be…”

Sing it, Mr. John Lennon.

We’re halfway through summer ’15. My best friend has already visited numerous East Coast cities and is currently hiking the Appalachian Trail before starting a volunteer program in Brooklyn in the fall. My other best friend has vacationed in Miami and London. My other friend is about to start pharmacy school.

I’ve spent the summer working. Two jobs. Again.

Bow down before the Queen of Unskilled Labor. Throughout high school and college, I worked at least one (sometimes two) jobs. I’ve done everything from retail to child/elder care; office assistant to research assistant to party assistant. How many people can include dressing up as a knock-off Dora the Explorer costume character on their résumé?

I graduated from college last May. I currently work as a residential counselor at a psychiatric community home for teenage girls with mental health issues. I also work as a clerk at the local liquor store that’s attached to a nightclub. (The two jobs have more in common than you’d think.) Even though I only graduated two months ago, I’m already as burnt out as the living room light bulb that we still haven’t replaced. An “easy” week for me is a six-day work week at well over 40 hours. Some weeks I’ve clocked closer to 60. I’ve worked double shifts and overnight shifts, and covered shifts for coworkers… all for barely above minimum wage. Everyone’s first job out of college is universally far from glamorous, but I never expected it to be this disheartening.

The worst part is that literally all my friends and acquaintances from college don’t seem to be having this problem.

I attended a small, private, liberal arts school in the Mid-Atlantic region. My friends are intelligent, driven, creative and big-hearted people. However, while everyone is sending me Snapchats of their awesome summer vacations, I’m working every night until midnight at two jobs I don’t even like.

And I am very, very jealous. (“Don’t put that in your article,” my mom warned me. “You’ll sound like a brat and your friends will get mad at you.”)

The biggest shock I experienced as a college freshman was how wealthy everyone at my school was. Very few people are, like, Kardashian­-rich, but the majority hails from the upper-middle class suburbs of New Jersey, New York and Long Island. Then you have the kids like me, who come from working-class backgrounds and attended college thanks to scholarships, work-study, financial aid packages and parental saving. I had an awesome four years at school, but sometimes it felt like being in a J. Crew photo shoot — except the photo shoot was set in a preppy version of hell.

Class is a weird thing at my school. While the student body excelled at discussing race, diversity and LGBTQIA+ issues, class was almost taboo. Isn’t that what we’re taught at a young age? You don’t talk about politics, religion or money, I can practically hear my mom hissing in my ear.

But let’s talk about it. My school recently replaced Washington University as the least socioeconomically diverse college in the nation, with only  receiving federal Pell Grants. As someone who worked in my school’s financial aid office, I can attest that the department works extremely hard to ensure that students are getting the appropriate amount of aid for their family’s economic situation. While it is worth noting that 78% of incoming freshmen receive some amount of financial aid, a significant portion of the $36 million budget constitutes institutional merit-based aid, as opposed to financial need-based aid.

The goal of devoting so much money to scholarships is to help raise the academic profile of the school. While scholarship recipients come from all different backgrounds, one could make the argument that this more often than not caters to students from well-to-do families. As one of my classmates was so quick to point out to me, “Everyone’s dad is a doctor or lawyer here.” Not my dad. He’s worked at the NJ Turnpike Authority for over 40 years and my mom worked as a secretary and receptionist before losing her job.

I remember hanging out with a kid who was bragging about his designer boxers (Brooks Brothers, in case you were wondering). I looked down at my own outfit. My dress was from Target and my boots from Payless. Congrats, bro; your underwear costs more than my outfit.

It makes me feel less jealous knowing that there’s actual research on this.  explored the importance of social class in emerging adulthood. Awareness of class differences typically occurred when students make social comparisons amongst themselves. The students in this study highlighted that social class affected their everyday experiences to a greater extent than other social identity markers. The study also highlighted that the narratives of working-class college students included a mixture of anger and pride, which is an emotional cocktail I can definitely relate to.

Many recent graduates are off to grad school in the fall, or plan to go back after a “gap year” of “funemployment.” My grades/résumé are just as good, but I’m not going, I scowl as I angrily stuff Solo cups into plastic sleeves behind the liquor store’s counter for $9 an hour. That’s just how it is. Some people are expected to go onward to professional school after college. But what about people who come from cultures with a different set of expectations? In my family, you work and save money, or don’t come crying when your credit card, student loan payments and car insurance are due. The idea of paying to go to school after, you know, paying to go to school is ridiculous to my parents.

But this is AMERICA, damnit, some might say. If you want something, work for it!

This is where anger toward the stereotype of the “lazy welfare queen” emerges, and that some people are content to leech off the system instead of just working harder. This is all based on the . In a capitalistic free-market economy like ours, there persists the idea that all things being equal, anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and achieve the American Dream. However, due to longstanding systems of inequality, discrimination and oppression, all things are NOT equal. Getting a higher-paying job or advancing one’s education is harder for some than it is for others based on social identity markers such as race, class, ethnicity, indigenous background, sexual orientation and gender.

But that’s not an excuse for me to stop trying. Now is not the time to throw up my hands and wallow. And it’s definitely not appropriate to get jealous of my friends, who worked incredibly hard in college doing class work, research, tutoring, summer nannying and sports. They’re not the ones responsible for our economy and society, and they don’t deserve my misplaced anger.

If celebrities like Jay Z, Eminem, Jim Carrey and Oprah can become wildly successful while growing up in the depths of poverty, imagine what I could do. Instead of getting bitter and twisted about what will ultimately be an amazing growing experience, I keep in mind the domains in which I am privileged. I’m a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied young person. Not many people can start out on such good footing. I’ve never known abject poverty. My family gave me a beautiful, fun and safe childhood, filled with small luxuries like varsity sports, getting braces and occasional vacations to places like Disney World and Vermont. We live in a modest house, but there’s nowhere else I’d rather live. My mom refused to succumb to my pre-adolescent whines for designer jeans, but I’ve never known the chill of going without a winter coat.

Most importantly, I have a college education. By incredible luck, I managed to secure a job in my chosen field right after graduation. I’m a naturally competitive person. Rather than letting my jealousy bubble into a toxic stew, I want to harness that energy for developing myself in the mental health field, improving my test scores and applying to full- or partially funded programs and fellowships for the next academic year.

So what if I can’t go on a tropical vacation? I live 15 minutes away from the beach, and my boyfriend is a 15-minute train ride from New York. While some people are drinking rosé from Manhattan rooftops, I’ll gladly view the city from a small backyard in North Jersey, sipping on home-made piña coladas on my day off.

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