I was presenting at a panel at the Media and Civil Rights Symposium at the University of South Carolina. I noticed that one of my fellow panelists was from a small college in my home county. I quickly ran up to him and shared that I was from a small town near the college he taught at. At the end of our conversation about history and Central Pennsylvania, he looked at me and said, “it’s good to see a local kid actually do something.” While he certainly meant it as a compliment, my first thought was “fuck you.” This comment sowed the seeds of the bitter chip I was developing on my shoulder.
In college, the micro-aggressions weren’t so noticeable. They came out when anyone familiar with my Central Pennsylvania hometown responded with an “ugh” upon meeting me. When friends of mine would shame people for smoking cigarettes or drinking soda, I would internalize this disapproval. I quickly learned not to say “cuss” or talk about my love of NASCAR racing. I spent my time trying to find my place in Philadelphia and crush my origins under books and my love of history. My senior year of college I took a small interdisciplinary research seminar, the kind of class that sticks with you for years afterwards. I was in the midst of applying to graduate schools, when my professor tried to explain some unknowable, intangible quality of graduate students and academia that wasn’t and couldn’t be taught at my working-class public university. At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about.
That fall, I entered a M.A. program at an SEC school. Even at a large public university in the deep south, most of the graduate students came from high-ranking public schools and liberal arts colleges. I didn’t. Most of my peers had parents who were professors or lawyers or professionals. I was raised by a medical scheduler, a mechanic, and a farrier. My grandparents lived in a house trailer in the woods of Edenton, North Carolina, for much of my childhood. There were no concrete or tangible disadvantages to having a working-class background, or for being from towns that elicited an “ew” from anyone in the know. But I very clearly lacked something, something that united my colleagues and resulted in a confidence of place and belonging that I would never have. My differences — in public education and cultural knowledge — couldn’t be undone, but I could learn how to hide them. In my personal life, I wore them like a badge of honor — but I also wanted to get an academic job someday.
I bought The Professor Is In by Karen Kelsky, a terrifying book full of blunt (and much needed advice) about navigating the academic job market. While the author gives outspoken advice about the struggles of the job market, particularly for women, she also implicitly argues for the importance of hiding one’s class. She wrote about clothing and makeup and speaking patterns in women. Around the time I read this book, I realized that I, for a lack of a better term, code “white trash.” I have bad teeth, frequently say “ya’ll” and “how come,” and have a habit of running around South Philadelphia in a Dale Earnhardt Jr. t-shirt. It is one thing to have your hometown judged by your peers, but it is quite another to realize that qualities you possess, habits born of a lifetime that you don’t even realize you have, make you read as unqualified or unfit for your chosen profession.
But you can’t go home either, as they say. The more formal education I acquired, the larger the gap between my family and I became. My parents are incredibly proud of me and have never been anything other than supportive. But everyone from cousins to former employers have insinuated that I am arrogant because I left my small town for the city and enrolled in a Ph.D program. Why couldn’t I get a real job in the Harley Factory? What could you even do with a history Ph.D anyway? And most common of all, was I ever coming home? Slowly I realized the answer to that question had to be no.
Coming home still feels like a relief, a break from a life of pretending. But very gradually, my life has become very different from that of my family and old friends. We no longer watch the same TV or drink the same beer or read the same books. It takes a good week to get acclimated to the Folgers coffee my mom still buys. And many of my friends have no frame of reference for my chosen career, having never gone to college or even finished high school themselves. And sometimes my liberal and quasi-socialist opinions run up against those of the people in my hometown. How can I contest their sometimes racist, homophobic, or anti-intellectual opinions without confirming their stereotypes about who I have become, an elitist snob from the city?
The result is an in-betweenness, a lack of belonging. I will never fully belong in the world of academia, and frankly I don’t want to. But I also no longer fully belong at home. And I can’t complain (nor do I want to). I am incredibly lucky. I graduated from a high school where many students never see a community college or a technical school, much less a Ph.D program in the humanities. I am the dream, the local kid who did good. But nobody tells you what it’s like, the incredible loneliness that accompanies that kind of class jumping that many people dream of.
So, I continue to pull out that well-worn Dale Earnhardt t-shirt. I wrote the majority of my M.A. thesis while listening to Tim McGraw, and am in fact listening to him as I write this essay. And Barnes and Noble still seems to me like an intellectual mecca, “the city on the hill.” After all, Flannery O’Connor once wrote “when in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.”