Working Class at An Elite University: My Thoughts

 

The truth:

While I’ve phrased this as the truth, it is my experience and perhaps only that. Or maybe thousands of other people feel the same and aren’t able to share it. Writing here feels a little like screeching into the void right now, but hopefully this message will speak to someone.

It isn’t intended to be counter-elitist, or reverse classist, it’s just how I found my second year at university. Sometimes I feel like I’m floundering, standing in the midst of people with all of the experiences and confidence that Daddy’s (or Mummy’s, or Aunty’s, or Grandpa’s, ad nauseum) can grant.

Instead, I’m only at this university because of a bursary. It’s the only reason I can afford to be here, especially since my disability means I can’t work and study at the same time. I’m sure you’ll have heard of spoons theory, and that means I have limited energy for the things that matter to me. My room can be a little messy, but the choice between exhausting myself trying to succeed at university, or being happy with the effect of my lowest efforts is a difficult one.

I’m writing this in January, so perhaps things have changed, but if not, then this is still the case. A limited amount of energy will grant me a 60 average. Right now I’m at 68.5 and that figure is meaningless. Because it’s either a 2:1 or a First, right? A dichotomy between good and excellent, between doing ok and the pinnacle of undergrad achievement.

So I have a choice to make, at this moment, as to how much effort I put into my degree. I’m sitting in a house that I’ve had to call out Pest Control to see if it is causing the insect bites on my legs that because of my connective tissue disorder are currently developing a purple tinge and are on their way to being some pretty sexy bite scars. Not in a vampire way. More of a fleas or bedbugs way but y’know,  I can at least try and dress it up a little.

I’m sitting in a house that costs only a little less per room than my home back home for the entire house; with the knowledge that money breeds money and if only I had the ability to hold in my hands enough money to be able to say that a degree is not what I need.

But I don’t have that. Nor do I have perfect health. Or an ‘Evening Guv’nor’ Received Pronunciation accent. Or the ability to say any more than ‘un peu’ (and that’s always gonna be a lie. I don’t speak a little French, I don’t want only a little chocolate – I want it all, etc) in French or to be able to read Latin.

I’ll tell you a secret, all three readers of this blog. Sometimes I look at the Middle English of the poems for one of my modules and it gives me a yearning deep inside for home. The words in Middle English are so close to Geordie that it hurts, right down to the dialect spellings.

But that’s a story for another time, right. Because the important thing here is this:

I don’t belong here. It’s not my home, it’s an oasis of Sussex brought into the North. Sometimes I wonder what life will be like after uni and I fear the choices I’ll have to make when I leave Durham.

Will I decide to travel to London to exhaust myself trying to find a job in a field I want that won’t totally exhaust me? Or will I stay in the North East wondering what I could have had or what I could have been if I’d been brave enough to leave.

I look at Wilfred Owen poem that my sister is studying for her GCSE and cast my mind back to Dulce Et Decorum Est. Because the Old Lie isn’t that it is good and right to die for your country, no, it’s that social mobility exists.

Social mobility is a lie, because inside your heart you are always trapped between the people that you left behind and those you are surrounded by. It is possible to feel wholly and utterly alone in a room of people.

The only thing I have is my words and my family and the friends I’ve made here – I don’t have the certainty that my time here in Durham will have been well spent.

I’ve learnt a few things though. The grammar lessons that state schools never taught me, the ability to moderate my accent just enough to squeak by and the fact that sometimes the most wonderful people are those most different from yourself.

It hurts though. When something goes wrong and you just want to let lose and sometimes I speak with such a strong Geordie accent or so fast that it sounds like another language and I luxuriate in the sound and feel of the words on my tongue; the ability to lose myself in home as I hear it in my voice.

The rest of the time Durham leeches it away, as is needed to feel I fit in, but then I wonder. How many of the people here grew up in council houses spending car rides listening to music that told of running away, of escaping, and the desperation to run from a school that was known as Cardboard City and the teacher who hid in cupboards as teaching was too painful.

Or the other school where a friend’s brother carried a knife and drug deals happened by the train tracks and lessons were disrupted so that a teacher could stop someone who had climbed the fence to escape the horrible horrible trappings of the pretence that we all have the same chances in life.

People argue for the quality of state education, say that it is a gift or that it is good or righteous or whatever else. No, the fact of the matter is: it is not. I know people who can barely read or write, who live in another world to the majority here. Who cannot express themselves, because they were let down by the state system.

What is a gift, despite being wholly flawed and damaged, is the NHS. The NHS has saved my life and I will always be grateful to them for that.

I’m getting away from myself here, allowing this to fall into the dubious length rants that some people post without thinking. I’m typing without thinking, my touch typing skills coming into play.

Thirty years ago I would have made a wonderful secretary. But now I see my mother, her joints crippled with arthritis, her spine and fingers crooked, and see that is not my path. My health is not the best and I need to be careful with my joints. I don’t think I’m brave enough to live the way she has had to these last years.

So I will study, and I will write, and I’ll hope that at least one of them pays off in the end.

Thinking of writing a working class fairytale, because how often do those things come true.

Yours.

E.

 

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