It might not be immediately obvious to people in this blog, but growing up my family lived fairly close to the bone. We were never outright destitute except for a couple of years and that was for weird reasons. But we never had a lot of money.
Now most of this was probably because mom was socking away every spare cent, in fear of being destitute. BUT we were close enough to the bone (and to be fair when I was very young there was no money to sock away) that in summer the shoes I’d outgrown during the winter got cut down at front and back and used as sandals. If there was some money or someone gave me sandals, they were bought very large and worn as little as possible to preserve them for the next year. Later on, I mostly lived in flip-flops during summer, because they were really, really cheap.
And most of the time I was growing up, I wore a lot of my brother’s cut-down and refashioned clothes, which since he was almost ten years older and built like my boys, mostly meant I lived in a lot of brown pants and largish sweaters. I also wore dresses mom fashioned from remnants and left overs but since those tended to be rather fashion-forward for the village and also since I was the terror of new clothes (something I paid for with younger son) this didn’t happen often, except for pictures.
This has a point. I’m not complaining. I was never really hungry, except for two years, and we made do. A lot of my toys were empty containers and detergent prizes (like cereal prizes but given away by things like Tide) but mostly I amused myself making up stories bout what I did have. Not saying I didn’t nearly die of envy when all my friends had the fad toy of the moment and I didn’t — I wrote me getting one of those into a story, once — but it was a metaphorical “die” which didn’t mean much.
However, as I advanced in schooling, I became aware that my family’s economics were… well, much tighter than most people’s.
There is a reason for this, and keep in mind what I’m describing is at least 30 years out of date. I don’t know what goes on in Portuguese education now.
Thirty years ago, Portuguese education was free through college and mandatory through ninth grade (I was amused, shortly after moving to the US, to see some religious organization asking for money for Portuguese children, so that they could have schools to attend — which the organization was supposed to build. — I’m not going to say the schools were that great, but through about 4th grade not only ws it fine, but there were schools those kids were ALREADY supposed to be attending.)
I can hear the “oohs” from the audience though possibly not this audience, which has the values of TANSTAAFL engraved on the inside of their eyelids.
The school was free… if you could get it. And yet for each level you went up in studying, you hit another strata of society, much more so than in the US now or at any time.
EVERYONE was supposed to be in elementary, and because even parents without education saw the value of learning to read and write, most kids attended this. At least most boys. Some families saw no value in it for their daughters. However, the wave of “removals” started in 3rd grade. Your kid had mastered the basics, and you went to a doctor and got them certified as educable mentally retarded, which took care of the poorest of the poor, who viewed kids as cash cows to help the family survive. Most of those kids ended up in the textile factories, which were allowed to hire them since they’d been certified as mentally incapable to do more. (Note their school records weren’t even looked at.)
After fourth grade came “preparatory school” for two years. About half of my class went to this. Unless you were really low middle class, you’d send your kids to it.
But at the end of it there was another flurry of removals with the same certificate that they couldn’t do more. This took a lot of the poorer middle class.
There was a reason for this. By seventh grade you started on physics and pre-calc, and teaching ranged from the rare brilliant teacher to a lot of dross. Which meant in seventh grade a lot of people started failing unless their parents hired tutors for them.
A lot of middle-middle class people and high-middle class people could afford that. A lot or our close family did it, but our nuclear family could not. However, my mom, for various reasons, was determined to show that we were just as good as anyone els,e so “removal” was never even considered for either of us, and we were told we would have the highest grades or else. Sometimes doing this required finding old books that explained what our teacher didn’t, or simply hitting your head against the wall till you managed it. Both of us had very creditable grades and went to magnet High schools in the city.
Perhaps because it was a magnet high school, I found I was seriously outclassed in terms of clothes, food, and general consumer goods. That was fine, as I settled on being a rebel and weird. (What do you mean that couldn’t have been hard?) That was fine because it fits the Portuguese myth of genius and just impressed my classmates.
And going to the magnet school instead of the high school the village kids attended and which was staffed lower down the teacher vine — so without tutoring you just COULDN’T get it. I know. My best friend went there — when they instituted a brand new and designed to weed out students test in 9th grade. It failed, either by outright failing or by not making as good a grade as they should, about 3/4 of the class where I attended. It failed almost everyone at the school the village was assigned to.
The ones who didn’t “outright fail” were channeled into “professional training” mostly elementary school teaching, secretarial, book keeping, mechanics, etc.
The ones who stayed in were assumed to be university bound. By this time most of my classmates were not just richer than I but so much richer than I that I didn’t even get it. I was insulated from realizing it, because my closest friends were like me, battlers who came from lower economic/regional backgrounds, and who just wouldnt’ quit. Even then some of them were having tutoring. I used tutoring a lot as an excuse to avoid things like mandatory rallies and such. “Oh, sorry, I have tutoring.” But I never had it, except that in college I had tutoring in the sense I tutored others. During the very bad, no good, awful two years of our family life, my brother tutored and kept the mortgage paid and enough food on the table we didn’t outright starve.
Mom chose the living room sofas for tutoring convenience. Ie they must not break easily, since kids will do stupid things. BUT neither my brother nor I were tutored, we simply used it as a money maker later in life, when things like film tickets or stamps to write to one’s boyfriend in the US became important.
By the time I hit college, I knew I was in a social sense “outclassed.” But you have to understand, not only did I still live in the village, where our family was relatively well off, or at least socially influential, but my mom had retired (heart condition and tight deadlines don’t mix, so the doctor made her retire) and acquired a new hobby: designing and making new clothes for me. I had so many clothes, of so many styles (particularly since dad managed a textile factory and there were always end-rolls and things that didn’t get picked up by the client for some reason) that in my little mini village circle I was considered a clothes horse AND incredibly well dressed. (It was all very eighties.)
In college I made new friends and for reasons that would be hard to explain, one of those groups were people not just wealthier than I but wealthier than most people in Portugal.
They knew I wasn’t up to their income, but to their credit, they didn’t care, and had a tendency to include me in stuff by having my restaurant bill show up mysteriously paid, or by inviting me to all paid vacations.
The first of these I went on, my mom spent weeks making my wardrobe and truly excelled even her excellent skills. I looked… uh… much, much richer than I was.
It wasn’t till we were at the beach house and comparing stuff we’d brought that I realized I’d brought rags and hand me downs.
No, no, no one had switched my clothes, and objectively there were well made, fo good materials and DESIGNED to my body, so they made me look good. But there was a problem. They had no LABELS.
My friends were oohing and aaahing over completely unremarkable t-shirts and jeans, because they had labels of international designers. They politely ignored my clothes, so as not to embarrass me.
I watched and after the dismay passed was mostly amused. I — and my close friends back in the village — thought my clothes were amazing, because they were unique, made me look good AND would last, even being washed against stone in a water tank. BUT our friends who were much richer took that stuff for granted (even when it wasn’t true and the clothes didn’t fit their body type) and concentrated instead on the labels that meant these clothes were very, very expensive and therefore exclusive, particularly in Portugal.
I realized that I’m watching something very similar to that clothes comparison session, for the last 10 years or so.
There are countries in the world where food is scarce, or at least expensive. There are countries in the world where women can get killed and mutilated for daring to learn to read; there are countries in the world where gay people get pitched off roofs.
Meanwhile anyone who matters in America — the opinion makers, the cognoscenti, — obsess about micro aggressions, over what what gender pronoun to use, over whether we should ONLY read minority authors. They beat their chests and apologize for the racist/sexist/homophobic sins of ancestors (or field ancestors) about whom they PLAINLY know nothing. They will descend on you like a pack of dingoes for using the word/thought/concept that isn’t IN this week. They lecture you on the lack of privilege of an NYU graduate who frankly tans a different TONE than I but about the same darkness. They demand “safe spaces” carefully stratified by skin color and preferred sexual partner, because people might STARE at them. STARE. How does that compare to being knifed in the street or raped when outside the protection of males, which is the reality for most women in the world?
Labels. Only the very rich obsess about labels. Go a little further down, where things are actually slightly less of a give-me, and people are quite happy with homemade clothes that are good. Or put in societal terms, people are happy to have clothes to cover themselves with, that are adequate for the weather.
Maybe there is a strata of American society that NEEDS this and doesn’t have it, but other than the outright homeless, I doubt it. I doubt it because for the last 30 years I’ve shopped for clothes at thrift stores, and my winter coats average about $15 which most of us can afford every few years. Because we have so much surplus, that we donate so many almost-new clothes that the stores can sell them CHEAP and still fund their cause. (Mostly I shop at ARC.)
Which means in global terms most of us are rich. And the people who command the heights of the media and the culture (mostly women and ivy league educated, btw) are really, really rich. So they’re obsessed with the labels, and never mind what the clothes — or society — are actually suited for or supposed to do.
They’re all fretting dowagers making sure the chairs in the Titanic are well arranged enough to give a hint of their social standing.
Because the thing is, there are real problems in the world, both in our structural economy and in the drums of war echoing around the globe which can very well engulf us while we’re changing “no blood for oil” because that’s such a COOL novel, that all the special kids are wearing.
It will change. In the Titanic, even dowagers scrambled for the lifeboats when the going got real.
I pray it will not change as hard or as fast as our divorce from reality is inviting. And I prepare in case it does. And I give the fretting dowagers, looking for labels on their social standing and importance, the smirk they deserve.
Reality always wins. And no one is rich enough to be insulated from it forever. And in the first stages of things getting unstable, the dowagers get louder and obsess more on the irrelevant, because it’s their way of telling themselves everything is fine.
Hold on to the sides of the boat. I have a feeling there’s choppy water ahead. Keep your cool and row.