Tuesday, December 5, 2006

We, the Deserving Poor

Even though at the elite private school I was visiting, today was 'casual Friday,' I knew better. Think Françoise, I told myself, as I clicked through the mothers at Josh’s school and landed on ‘understated professional.’ To create the look, pants, not low slung, denim or any other dubious material, and fastening around the waist without the aid of a safety pin and a gaping view of underwear. Okay, jacket then. Long, copious, double-breasted and therefore unlikely to reveal the substandard trouser fastening. Boots. Winkle pickers, but they lent me a somewhat dangerous air; just how dangerous a certain scone on a low coffee table knew only too well. (My sister arranged an afternoon tea at a posh hotel when I was last in London and was mortified when I managed to spear one of the raisin scones and jiggled it about unwittingly as I kept time to the string quartet.)

Although I have elected by certain life choices to distain the privileges afforded to me by birth (i.e., being white), and although material possessions are a low priority when compared to love, laughter and paying my son’s text messaging bill, I always believed, that should push come to shove, I could muster a suitably bourgeois wardrobe. After all, I did have my mother’s example on how to put myself together, whether it be for an audience with the Queen or a trip to the supermarket (my mother makes no distinction, both require lipstick and pantyhose). What I hadn’t realized, was that 15 years of living in the US and going to the supermarket in sweats had left me woefully deficient in understated professional wear and I couldn’t even produce ‘casual separates’ without bleach stains or B.U.M. (the British equivalent of B.U.T.T.) emblazoned on the front.

An hour later, I had perfected my interview outfit. We are applying to 5 schools, which means 5 open houses and 5 interviews. I wondered how I could accessorize a bright red jacket and black pants to look different 10 times. Perhaps they would think I worked as a parking valet and that this was my uniform? Good excuse, but hardly likely to impress any Admissions Director.

Such was my desire to appear the perfect parent, I arrived at the school half an hour early. After driving up and down the street for a while in a kind of lazy reconnaissance of the neighborhood, I turned into an up-market grocery store. The cashier rang up my bag of oranges: $8.25 – more than she was earning per hour. Poverty is relative, I realized, smiling at the baggers, who were yawning and chatting to each other in Spanish, but they didn’t smile back. I had dressed the part too well; I was just another gabacha.

At the school, it was another story. An elderly security guard ushered me to my parking space, walking backwards and bowing. Did they practice court etiquette here? Would he also spread his jacket on the ground before me? Perhaps the school had received word that the Notre Dame scout would be arriving in a black 1995 Honda civic? If this kind of attention was the result of my carefully chosen wardrobe, Francoise must live a charmed life.

I walked to the admissions office, passing teenagers in jeans and tennis shoes; nothing baggy, frayed or vaguely gang banging – my son would also have to go through a wardrobe upgrade. Waiting alone in the reception area, I leafed through the hefty yearbook: lots of theatre, lots of sports, lots of graduates in jacket and ties – this wardrobe thing was worse than I thought. I peered at all the pictures obsessively, no longer interested in academic standards or extra-curricula activity, but focused purely on apparel. Is this what private school would do to us? At least at the French school I am not expected to have any sense of style, because, after all, I am British. Our French cousins have long given up expecting elegance or good food from their neighbors and are satisfied with being able to rely on us for pop music and waxed coats.

A couple walked nervously to the nest of chairs I was occupying. Parents from the diversity program, I surmised. After my struggles this morning, I recognized the look that strives for Jackie Onassis but stalls at Madeleine Albright. Just then, a slim, blonde arrived, flashing a perfect smile and greeting everyone with confidence. Our wardrobe insecurities did a quick inventory of her green leggings and riding boots, topped with a long green sweater. She looked like the mounted section of Santa’s elves. As I embarked in casual conversation, it did not surprise me to learn that she lived in Beverly Hills. Good skin and expensive highlights didn’t need dress-up clothes. The security guard was probably still prostrate in front of her car.

The Admissions Director was suddenly before us. She escorted our little group around the building, which housed the library and various classrooms. I hung out with the couple and chatted in Spanish. She was from Mexico, he was American. I liked them; they laughed at my jokes. The Admissions Director, on the other hand, did not appear to share my sense of humor. “I’ll have to move to a bigger place,” I said, as we viewed the art projects, which included a 6-foot papier-mâché carrot. “Well, you could put it outside,” said the Admissions Director, with a thin smile. Had I somehow insinuated that the school was not being sensitive to families living in cramped housing? She obviously had me ear-marked as a financial aid candidate. Next time I would wear leggings.

The tour included a well-equipped theatre, which prompted the question: “Do you have many parents in the film industry?” She again gave me a guarded look. “Well, this is Los Angeles, but I always say you won’t see our entertainment industry parents in the National Enquirer.” She swung round with a beaming smile to the Beverly Hills elf:
“They’re all family people.” I had forgotten this was The Valley. Perhaps she now thought I was suggesting the parents were porn stars.

We returned via the elementary school. I hurried to catch up with the Admissions Director and the Beverly Hills matron, desperate to redeem myself.
“I think it’s great when the big kids and the little kids are all on one campus,” I enthused from behind.
“Yes,” agreed the Admissions Director, keeping step with the Beverly Hills woman. “I remember seeing our football coach out on the field with his baby in a harness. It was such a good role model for the boys,” she smiled over at her companion.
“I see that a lot in my neighborhood,” I said, trotting to keep up, happy to have at last found common ground: “All the gang members look so tough and there they are with their little babies, taking such good care of them.” There was a silence. “Of course, I guess you don’t see much of that in Beverly Hills, ha, ha, ha!”
“We have other problems,” said the Beverly Hills blonde, fixing me with a hard stare.
I fell back to ponder this. Could she have possibly known about the time my car caught on fire on Rodeo Drive?

Our walk-through ended back in the admissions office. The Latina and I stood awkwardly as the Admissions Director addressed the Beverly Hills mother standing behind us. “So sorry you couldn’t make an orientation, then you would have had a chance to meet the parents,” who are nothing like this motley crew, was the unspoken end to the sentence. The Lady In Green departed. No regret was expressed about us not being able to make it to the orientation.

I went back to my car wondering if my son stood a chance in hell of getting into this place. I had a feeling we might be tolerated for our ethnic, economic and sartorial diversity, but clearly we would not be donating a new wing to the library. “What can your culture bring to our school?” was one of the questions on the minority program application. What did they expect? That because his father was born in Mexico, my son could teach them ballet folklorico?

I drove away already writing an ironic account of the visit in my head, but the truth of the matter is that it did not sit well, this role of the deserving poor. My own fault. I have never much cared for wealth and privilege, so I should not now be surprised if wealth and privilege do not seem to much care for me.

Copyright © 2006 Louise Godbold


Anonymous said...

When can we expect a new piece on your winter vacaton in Europe?

Lou said...

My French Christmas vacation piece is coming up, but first I wanted to finish "Inhabiting the Spectrum." Hope you enjoy.