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Trying to Fight My Way Out of Middle-Class Confusion

I'm thirty one and have been doing RC for almost nine months. I have worked for the past eight years as a labourer and also as a child-care assistant for the last eighteen months. I grew up in Brisbane in a middle-class university academic environment. My mother's father was a school 'headmaster,' and my father's father was partner in a printing business until he became terminally-ill leaving my father to scratch his way through school and medical school with the help of his two sisters who went to work to raise the money. My mother and some other "less successful" relatives became school teachers or married them. Besides my father's working-class relatives (who I never saw much of) all the rest, including my four siblings, have become university academics or professionals of one sort or another. I spent ten years after leaving private school in and out of various universities trying to live up to the expectation that I would do the same. In the three years since I realised that those aspirations were not my own and gave them up, I have had no contact with my family and have found it very difficult to read or write anything for any length of time. I have a lot of discharging still to do around my intellectual oppression!

It has become very important to me in RC to find venues and counsellors with whom I can feel safe and good about being (raised) middle-class. As a left-wing university activist I spent so many years feeling bad about my heritage, pretending to be a working-class revolutionary, that I am very sensitive now to how this makes me feel. As much as I am aware of my need to work with counsellors who will challenge my middle-class patterns, I have found that even the slightest hint of intolerance around this material on the part of even experienced working-class Co-Counsellors makes me feel judged and sends me numb. For me, feeling good about being middle-class is the first step toward feeling proud about being working-class.

There are many things now that I can appreciate about my class background. I am glad to have had the access to education and musical creativity which I had, and the encouragement this gave me to think and express myself critically and deeply. Because middle-class intellectuals have traditionally been the portion of society responsible for the production of new ideas (as well as the recycling of old ones), we have developed a respect for individuality and independent thought which has sometimes allowed us the freedom to move in directions away from oppressive ideologies. I like it that virtually all liberation movements everywhere have been led by middle-class intellectuals.

The other side of being left alone in my head a lot as a child is that I, like many of my class, am rather serious and find it really hard to have fun and just hang out. My stiffness and fear of people who can do this is usually interpreted as aloofness or arrogance and evidence that I'm not interested in making friends. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are just the ways I was taught to cope with growing up without much closeness.

Doing working-class work and being around working-class adults and young people coming from a background like mine brings up lots of uncomfortable feelings for me -- lots of hopelessness about feeling undervalued and being underpaid and about feeling that there is no room or respect for my capacity to think. It also brings up a strange and confusing feeling of being better than/worse than the people around me. A chronic theme in my emotional life for as long as I can remember has been an urgent desire for financial security and an upwardly mobile career path. This looks from my end a lot like a ladder out of the 'endless drudgery' of working-class work, although I have only to talk to my middle-class friends and relatives to be reminded that this is an illusion which prevents me from enjoying what I have in the present by putting everything I do on a time-scale with unhealthy and unattainable priorities.

All this has been thrown into stark relief lately by an opportunity which has come my way for me to study to become a primary school teacher within the Montessori (private) school system. Part of me breathes a huge sigh of relief at what looks like a ticket back to comfortable respectability. Another part of me does not want to go back there -- the pretentiousness, the isolation, the pressure to perform which I have successfully kept at bay for some time now with the help of my working-class friends.

Whatever I decide, it has been important for me to remember that the goal of my re-emergence is to fully reclaim my humanness, and that this process is ultimately independent of the work that I choose to do in the wide world. To say that the working-class is 'the only class with a future' doesn't mean that middle-class work is any more or less oppressive or useful than working-class work. Any future liberated working class will necessarily include what is now thought of as middle-class work. It's the patterns that have no future, and there'll be plenty of those wherever I go.

I have found that it's only when I can start to feel good about myself and my background that I can be of use to and take pleasure in the people around me, whatever their own backgrounds happen to be.

Mark Powell
Petersham, New South Wales, Australia

Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00