You don’t need me to tell you that being poor is a burden. Specifically on your financially stable friends, who once so comfortable in the cocoon of their own relative comfort soon find that bringing up the subject of money around you is more grief (or guilt?) than they can bear. I mean, I’m pretty sure that nobody I regularly spend time with wants to voluntarily unleash my heathen fury on the subject of money unless they’re a relentless masochist.
But this column isn’t about money. This column is about how if you come from a background without money, the cultural sphere of university – especially one in the Russell Group – is one you have to navigate blind. It’s about how, even if you manage to gain entry to the hallowed halls of the QMUL library, if you’re anything like me you have to fight a thousand battles to feel like you belong there.
During my time at university, I’ve met people who are children of diplomats, CEOs, even television personalities, yet I get the continuous feeling that it’s me that’s the odd one out. What other area of life would you find more of them than me? Don’t answer that. If you can mention one, I’ll probably think you’re a wanker.
It’s hard not to resent the opportunities that other people have been given that you haven’t – even though I know I resent the structural inequality, not the people – when you have never had a tutor, when you’re the only one of your friends who hasn’t had the benefit of at least one parent completing a university education. Anyone who knows me knows I’m fiercely proud of those things but they also know how hard it is to understand the dissonance between the culture of your home life and the culture of your chosen life. Also, not having someone to proofread my dissertation did cause a week of panic.
Apparently, according to objective criteria – of which I believe there are very few – I’m middle class now solely on the basis of going to university. I hate this idea. I know that in the fact of my economic but more importantly cultural upbringing, I will never be middle class. I don’t have the natural understanding of the professional world that seems to come so easily if you’ve spent your formative years being dragged to dinner parties. And it’s not something I’d change for the world.
It means that I have gained the ability to culturally code-switch, to be able to speak the language of my upbringing and my current circumstances. It means that I understand how the real world works – the real world being the one where the child of the CEO would be the one who’s out of place. However; the assumption that ‘high’ culture is the preserve of the middle classes needs to be destroyed. I spent my childhood in as many art galleries and listening to as much avant garde 80s shit as the rest of you.
Destroy the idea that certain culture is high culture. Destroy the notion that football and pop music are the opium of the masses and that the intellectual classes should have exclusive access to museums and theatre. A financial grant is one step on the road to ensuring equal access for working class students, but now there needs to be action to make sure none of us feel like strangers once we’re in.