Yesterday I attended the graduation of a culinary training program. The students are ex-felons and people who might currently be homeless. This program is twelve weeks long, and is conducted by my employer. On the first day, 25 students arrive, looking sullen, angry, above it all. These tough expressions are the looks of people afraid. They are afraid they cannot complete 12 weeks. They are afraid to have to give themselves over to structure, order, and rules. They are afraid of what the people in their lives might think about them. They are afraid of obstacles that are going to get in the way of them making it to class each day, be it child care, the bus schedule, or a parole officer, or doubts about housing. Many of these students are addicts, which as I have learned is not something you just defeat, but that you work to defeat every single day. It's likely that a number of the students have been incarcerated - many for violent crimes or slinging drugs. On the final day of their program, their literal graduation day, they are changed people. It is evident in every facial expression, in the new confidence they carry, from the new skill sets they possess, and for many, from the knowledge that they have a job - one that carries a wage, set hours, and structure.
At each class graduation, there is a brunch held at the Kitchen, where, all of the students are invited to speak in an informal setting, surrounded by a ton of great food they didn't have to prepare. The staff of the Kitchen is also invited to speak. I listened to tales of incarceration, of children in group homes, and of learning to "be a lady" and to get along in a group setting. These were the words of people with changed lives. When it was time for the staff to speak, I knew I wanted to say something. I always seem to adopt a student each class, and I wanted to offer some kind of wisdom with my congratulations. But this time, I had a hard time coming up with the words I wanted to say. I wanted to offer them advice, as I too am a student, a month away from my own graduation. But honestly, there was nothing I could offer to them. Instead, I had to thank them for what each class teaches me.
You see, I voluntarily opted to apply to a graduate program. Upon entering, I really viewed the classes I was about to take as a lovely hobby, in which I would get to read theory and feminist works, and discuss them with others. Sure, my sullen-face was based on the fact that I was older than most of my entering classmates, and that I had spent seven years working before I thought I might attempt a master's degree. I didn't need to be there, and when asked what I would do following graduation, my answer was always, pretty much the same stuff I do now. But watching this graduation yesterday made me reevaluate this position.
The pressures the students face are unknown to me apart from a viewing of The Wire. That is the closest thing in my experience to understanding what they may have lived through. I have not been homeless, and I have never been incarcerated. I have never had a gun held to my head, and I have never had to make my living selling drugs for someone else to other addicts. I would not say that I grew up wealthy; in fact, it's more that I grew up poor in a middle class town, which of course lends itself to an expanded body of knowledge than had I lived among people with comparable earnings as a child. That was thanks to parents, who, while I was small, sought out the very best community they could feasibly afford. But my knowledge of what these students enter with is still limited to pop culture references and readings often written from an academic perspective about how the "others" live.
I study feminist theory and intersectionality, that is, how race, class and gender intersect in every day situations. It is my job to seek out ways of knowing about people that differ from me, how their experiences shape the people they are, and how they relate to the world and the world to them. In my readings, I learn that academia is a place of privilege, and most of the participants come from privileged backgrounds. This both empowers me and terrifies me. I finally came out as working class. I understand people who work in factories and why using gender neutral pronouns is ludicrous to them. I spent time on campaigns and working for a labor union giving voice to people I saw as being like me. I also learned quickly the difference between rich and wealthy. I see people I grew up with both in awe of me, and appalled by me and my new-found elite liberal ways, yet I want to remind them that I bartended my way through college, and they were there. What I didn't do was work my way from abject poverty to become a chef.
This is in no way a poor me meme, but instead a thank you to the students of class 78, who make me want to work harder and do more. You constantly make me reevaluate how I approach my studies, even from my place of working class, to ensure I consider more viewpoints. You inspire me with the challenges you overcome, and make me recognize that I too want to try harder so that I too can offer my family a better life, and so that I too can enjoy personal fulfillment. Perhaps it was that I was born in 1978 and their graduation occurred a day after my birthday that I really paid attention. Making big changes is challenging. Lord, I said that in my high school graduation speech..."life is a challenge," I quoted. The wisdom I somehow found at 18 is actually true today. Congratulations class of 78 - please wish me luck as I join the class of 2010 one month from now!