A few years ago, I was strolling through my new neighborhood with my dog, checking out my new surroundings and saw a beautiful little house on an adjacent street. The next time my husband and I were out walking together, I excitedly ushered him down that same street, telling him all about the cute garden and great location of this gem I had found. When we got there, his forehead crumpled and he looked confused – “Are you sure this is the same house? This place is a dump!” and suddenly I saw what he saw – the crumbling foundation, the paint peeling off the broken shutters, the roof badly in need of repair. I was startled at how quickly my perspective shifted, and how suddenly this cute house became something considerably less romantic. It made me feel naive, a little embarrassed at my previous assessment, and sad about the reality that it was clearly a neglected house. I’ve walked by that house dozens of times and each time I think about this moment. I’m still not sure whether I’m glad that I can now see the house for what it is, or whether I’d have rather never showed anyone and gone on looking at it through my rose colored glasses. This is exactly how I felt when I saw Slate’s coverage of Kenneally’s photos from her “Upstate Girls” project.
I grew up in a town like Troy*. I know what the inside of those homes feel like, what the sound of the TV does when it’s absorbed by a room packed with furniture inherited from grandparents and dragged home from the Salvation Army. I remember being told not to run too hard into the walls when playing tag because a friend’s mom was worried we’d put holes in the crumbling drywall. I remember getting ready at a friend’s house for a school dance, spending hours primping and perfecting our outfits, and then emerging wreaking like stale cigarettes and cats; being teenaged girls, we drenched ourselves in sickly sweet smelling body-spray to get rid of the smell. When the cardboard packaging plant went dark, I remember kids living with aunts, cousins, and grandparents while their parents went down South to look for work. I especially remember being forced to attend various educational summer camps and missing out on all the drama and trouble my friends were getting into without me at home as they ran around free of adult supervision.
I remember what it was like when those friends fell out of my daily schedule as they were told that they weren’t smart enough to be in my advanced classes, when they didn’t start taking cello lessons with me, or join the skiing club. I remember not understanding why those friends didn’t just “work harder”, so we could all still be in classes together, and in the same activities after school. We didn’t talk about money or class, we didn’t compare Christmas presents, we barely knew what each other’s parents did for work, we were just friends in different social classes, often living in houses within walking distance of one another.
At college, I struggled to adapt to a world where the women around me were, often mystifyingly, class conscious. Everyone around me seemed to know precisely what being “rich” and being “poor” meant (although they would never, ever use those terms) and who fell into which category. After taking a few of my friends to visit my hometown during winter break one year, they said they felt like seeing it “explained a lot” about my relative ignorance of how the rest of the world works, and I felt relieved.
I should say that I did not grow up poor, even to the friends I referenced in the paragraphs above, the photos that Ms. Kenneally took would be what we indelicately called “scummy” people’s houses. But we all hung out together. In elementary school we would run through each others sprinklers and bike barefooted to each other’s houses, in high school we would sneak light beers into moldy basements and watched pirated movies. But Kenneally’s work forced me to see my town as a sociologist might, shifting my perspective from the rose colored mists of my own memory to the stained polyester surroundings of the people in her photographs.
Viewing these portraits was a vivid reminder for me of just how difficult it is to cultivate what C. Wright Mills called a “sociological imagination”. In order to truly understand their own life circumstances, Mills argued that, “the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one”** As a teacher, I hope to cultivate a sociological imagination in my students, but this experience is a reminder that acquiring this kind of perspective, for some students, may constitute a more radical confrontation with their own memories then I ever anticipated.
*my town is about 2.5 hours away from Troy, with almost the same poverty rate, less racial & ethnic diversity and about 1/5 the size.
** C.W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination, pg. 5