Earlier today, Hillary posted a quiz on twitter about privilege and living in bubbles (I scored a 33), and it sparked a lot of interesting discussion about personal backgrounds. I had what was, in my opinion, a privileged (and incredibly boring) up bringing, and I am always fascinated to hear about folks who had childhoods and family histories different from mine. So, even though I think it was boring, I’m writing about my childhood in the hopes that other people might do it too.
I grew up in suburban Atlanta, in a solidly upper middle class area. My dad worked as a physicist in industry (optical fiber and the internet and other physicsy things), and my mom stayed home with me and my brother. We went to public school, and though Georgia isn’t exactly an educational mecca, the school district we were in was one of the best public school districts in the country. There was very little racial diversity – when I attended, my high school was something like 96% white, 3% asian, 1% everyone else. We had what I consider to be a white picket fences sort of upbringing – mom at home, dad at work, we went to school and participated in various extracurriculars (sports, clubs, etc.). I briefly played soccer and tennis, did swim team every summer, and ran cross country in high school. My brother did all the same sports, but for longer and at a higher level (I… preferred books). I was never aware of money being an issue – if Johnny or I wanted to try some activity or pursuit, we could; if we wanted something (clothes, electronics) and could make a reasonable case for it, we’d usually get it for Christmas. We were NOT allowed to quit our pursuits mid-season, which was different from a lot of our friends. We took family vacations every year – sometimes to visit relatives, and starting when I was 10 or so, we’d go skiing every year. Sometimes we got to take friends with us (because my brother and I would fight with each other, so I think it was more pleasant for my parents if we brought friends).
While I don’t think my parents ever allowed us to feel any economic hardships, they did work hard to instill us with good money management skills and work ethics. My brother and I both had jobs in high school – I worked at an animal hospital, and my brother worked at Target. In neither case did my parents tell us we had to work, but they encouraged us to do so as a means of making personal spending money, as well as to begin gaining work experience. We both got allowances growing up (I think $10/week in high school?), but we weren’t spoiled as compared to our peers. Which means: our parents bought each of us cars, but they were older/used, and we had to pay for our own gas. We had to do chores around the house, but I am pretty sure I was a total asshole about it. My parents put a lot of effort towards us developing good financial habits – we had credit cards and savings accounts in our early teens, and started doing our own taxes as soon as we had jobs, even though we were both still dependents. Which, now that I think about it, means our parents stopped claiming us as such (and thus didn’t get the tax credits), for that learning experience.
My family has always put a pretty high premium on education, and I think it was taken for granted that my brother and I would go to college. Both of us went to an in-state school, which was pretty affordable (particularly with Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, which paid for tuition in full), and our parents paid for our room and board while we were at school. They wouldn’t have been able to if we had chosen out of state schools, I think, but I’m not totally sure. They also bribed us to be high achievers, by giving us any money we earned towards our tuition in scholarships (besides the HOPE one). I worked all through college, while my brother didn’t – I worked at a climbing wall and in the gym, as well as in various teaching and research assistantships. All the jobs were for spending money, though I ended up putting most of it into savings as well.
Writing all of that out, the thing that really jumps out at me most is that, while we both had to work hard and take personal responsibility for our choices, we had choices. A LOT of choices. And, probably more importantly, a very solid safety net.
My parents met while working at a summer camp in New England, and are both from New Jersey. My mom worked for AT&T Bell Labs while my dad went to graduate school, and she got a degree in Occupational Psychology while she was working ( I think there was a free tuition situation through her job?). My father got a job in Atlanta after he finished school in NJ, and they headed down here. My mom worked until she had my brother, and decided at the end of her six week maternity leave that she couldn’t send him to day care. Once my brother and I were in school, she did a lot of volunteer work with our schools and sports teams, etc., and worked part time jobs on and off.
My maternal grandfather owned his own business (real estate maybe?), and my maternal grandmother stayed home with the kids. They were solidly middle class, maybe upper middle. I have no idea what my paternal grandparents did, but I think I remember my dad telling me they were middle class as well, albeit perhaps not the upper end. My dad and one of his sisters are both physicists (my aunt works at NASA and is cool as hell), and his other sister is an estates lawyer (I think) in Manhattan, which as far as I know means she is really good at her job. That whole branch of the family (including me and most of my cousins) is pretty graduate/professional school happy.
I am kind of excited to talk to my mom and fill in family details I have forgotten. I’m having one of those moments of clarity where I realize how little I know about my parents as individuals, as opposed to just my parents.
I’m also feeling all hyperaware of privilege and I think I’m going to go quietly freak out about how to raise my kid to not be an entitled snobby pants. Ack. I know when I got to college, I was a total jackass and thought I knew everything and that I was smarter than everyone. I remember saying OUT LOUD that I thought people with southern accents were dumb. Yeah, that was special. Then I spent my undergraduate years in the Poultry Science department and that knocked a lot of the stupid right out of me. THANK GOODNESS.
OK – now I feel boring and also kind of like an asshole. Tell me about you! You are more interesting than me! Also, maybe my mom will turn up and set the record straight if I botched anything. Hi, mom!