Today’s guest post by Christina Thatcher is a fascinating account of being a working class academic, and the feeling of not fully belonging to your past or present. It tells of her upbringing in the US by hard working parents, doing well at school, then going on to University to study, and now living in the UK working as a Creative Writing Lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University. The poem ‘Subtext’ is from Christina’s brand new collection, How to Carry Fire. You can buy a copy of the book, here:
“I grew up in a working class family. My mom worked on a farm and my dad in a factory. These were physical jobs. When I was a kid, I remember bragging to friends about how strong my mom was: she can lift 50 hay bales. I have a filmic memory too—which plays on repeat—of my dad walking through the back door after work, dropping his car keys, grabbing a Budweiser and heading straight to the couch. His back was a constant ache.
Both my parents valued hard work and believed in the adage that children should ‘be seen and not heard’. I knew better than to bother them with my child-sized worries. After all, my dad’s reply would only ever be ‘wait until you get to the real world, honey, then you’ll know what worries are’. So, my brother and I tried to keep out their way but often found ourselves eavesdropping on adult discussions about work, food and money: how much or how little of it we had. These eavesdropping sessions transformed us in different ways; my brother turned to material goods (‘if only we had a bigger TV…’) while I turned to education (‘a degree is my ticket out…’).
Both my parents were high school drop outs. Although they encouraged me to study and get good grades they frequently spoke about how much they hated school. They joked about how it was a place where children ‘did time’, a necessary evil. Still, when my report card arrived, they never missed an opportunity to say how proud they were of me. Soon, school became my place, the teachers offering their bay-windowed classrooms as safe havens and creative sanctuaries.
In 2004, I graduated high school and then went on to graduate university. After that, I won a scholarship to come to the UK where I completed two Master’s degrees and, very recently, a PhD. Every step of the way, my parents cheered me on from afar but, as I attended class after class, I could feel a gulf opening between us.
As I progressed further into my education, I could feel myself straddling my old life and my new life, never quite feeling at home in either. I had no one really, to introduce me to academia or make it clear what was expected of me. I frequently asked myself: do I belong here? Am I good enough for this?
I tried so hard to quiet these questions and, instead, focus on learning. In addition to my coursework, I practiced handshakes with well-to-do friends, noted down new words to expand my vocabulary, asked for professional clothing advice from university counsellors; but it never felt like enough. Meanwhile, other working class friends and acquaintances would poke fun at me, call me books or professor. Soon, I began to feel like I didn’t belong anywhere.
Now, even as a full-time Creative Writing Lecturer, I am still trying to figure out what it means to be a working class academic, to navigate a world that once seemed so impossibly out of reach. I am still trying to figure out a way to both honour my roots and embrace my new path. One way I am figuring these things out, is by writing poetry.
My new collection How to Carry Fire speaks to my experiences of growing up in America and, much later, moving to Wales. Several poems in this collection deal with class issues but I will leave you with just one today. This poem ‘Subtext’, attempts to capture some of what it means to be both working class and an academic, although, honestly, I still have so much to figure out.”
Christina Thatcher is a Creative Writing Lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University. She keeps busy off campus as Poetry Editor for The Cardiff Review, a tutor for The Poetry School, a member of the Literature Wales Management Board and as a freelance workshop facilitator across the UK. Her poetry and short stories have featured in over 50 publications including The London Magazine, North American Review, Planet Magazine, The Interpreter’s House, and more. She has published two poetry collections with Parthian Books: More than you were (2017) and How to Carry Fire (2020). To learn more about Christina’s work please visit her website: christinathatcher.com or follow her on Twitter @writetoempower.
What the doctor means when he shows you the scan, points
to visceral fat clinging like anguished ghosts to your pancreas,
is that you were poor. He means your body was built on Big Macs,
stacks of Ramen noodles. He means you should never have eaten
those sweet treats dad smuggled from factories, burping up
synthetic mint for weeks. He means you are smarter now.
You know the definition of subcutaneous so your belly must
shrink, assume its correct position. He means you must eat
green leaves until your insides gleam, pop enough blueberries
to grow neurons. He means you must shed your cells
like thousands of colorful scales. Only then will you be new.
(You can buy a copy of How to Carry Fire here)