I Never Worried About Being Working Class Until I Went to Art School

Growing up in Telford, social class was never a big deal. That all changed when I moved away for university.

17 February 2021, 9:00am

“How are you getting eight grand a year while I’m getting nothing?” a flatmate asked me as our student loans rolled in, a day I’d impatiently anticipated while assigning which emergency can of soup I was going to crack open on which days. 

I asked him why he didn’t get anything, wondering if he’d done his application wrong.

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He said “for whatever reason” students with rich parents didn’t get maintenance loans. This made him, in his words, “fucked”.  

“Yeah, you seem really fucked with your brand new car and weekly Ocado deliveries pre-ordered by your mum,” I thought.  

Until then, at 18, I wasn’t conscious of my social class. This may sound ridiculous, especially as my single, teenage mother – who juggled college with two minimum wage jobs – shared a single bed with me in my nan’s house until she could afford to rent a council flat. 

I grew up in Telford, a mining town just west of the Black Country and bordering Wales. It’s diverse but sadly not integrated – one of those towns that’s bewilderingly Tory blue, where the poor have been gaslit into voting for parties that oppose their interests.

Most men work locally, while women marry young, have children and work part-time happily too. My life was mirrored by my friends and classmates. Our parents worked in shops and factories, and until my mum eventually graduated from university and became a support worker, I knew of few other occupations. I was aware of them, but they were the jobs you daydreamed about – not the jobs you actually applied for to pay the bills and keep your family afloat. 

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Still, I dreamt big. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I discovered Roald Dahl and started folding stolen printer paper into “books” to document my “novels” in barely-legible crayon. I even forced my mum and my primary school teachers to write endorsements on the back: “You could write that it’s tea-spittingly funny,” I’d direct, copying a Stephen Fry quote from the local WH Smiths shopfront. Though my community upheld the unbreakable school-work-house-marriage-children formula, my family were encouraging – but I needed a “real job” to sustain my “hobby”, so I applied for a combined creative writing and journalism degree. 

Beth Ashley: "Unaware of how other people lived, I never felt like I missed out on anything." Photo: courtesy of author

I was quintessentially working class, but naivety had granted me blissful oblivion. Unaware of how other people lived, I never felt like I missed out on anything.

Going to art school in Surrey was the first place I mixed with people from other class backgrounds. That conversation with my flatmate wasn’t the only one causing division. Throughout freshers week, as we crawled pubs and played Never Have I Ever – the only ice breaker anyone actually likes – nonchalant comments about money, skiing trips, and even a family butler, left me feeling isolated. 

I’m not alone in this feeling. Ben Rogaly, a professor of human geography at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research, notes that spending time in typically middle-class spaces can be traumatic for some working-class people. “Teaching in a university, I sometimes see working-class students enter this middle-class environment and feel alienated, even experiencing mental health problems. They can accumulate a sense of exclusion, of otherness.”  

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Though my flatmates were all genuine friends of mine, anger deriving from distinct class division became a theme of my student life. The rich had a very different transition into the art world to the few working-class students. Their families never questioned their career plan, and they arrived without the budget tracking sheets and tinned food our mums had tearily pressed into our arms. Some had never worried about money, and probably never would, which I found irritating and at times unbearable. 

The isolation was only exacerbated in my first media job. I found it through a diversity programme but was still surrounded by upper-middle-class people. Soon, co-workers started unrelatable conversations about their electric cars, holiday homes and nepotism-fueled career trajectories.

Colleagues found anecdotes about my life funny when they weren’t meant to be, savouring the dramatic elements like it was a soap opera. Eventually, I started dressing like them, diluted my accent to flow with theirs, and avoided discussing anything that was a class signifier - like my family home, my mum’s relative youth and the schools I attended. I was performing upper-class at work as a protective shield, then switching back to default at home, which was a £250pcm bedroom with someone else’s vomit on the walls.

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Rogaly observes in his book that many people have mixed emotions about their identities. “The same person could feel pride and shame at their background,” he tells me. “[They] could disavow belonging to a social class altogether in one conversation and identify with a class in another.” 

It’s hard to pinpoint when I stopped acting like my colleagues and actually became one of them. After a few years of hard work and promotions, I found myself living in one of the most affluent areas of Hampshire with a salary I never imagined I’d have. I only noticed the transition when a friend pointed out I was earning more than most of my family members – a realisation that brought a confusing mix of relief, guilt, and fear that I was a “class traitor”. 

For a long time I lived in a constant state of imposter syndrome. My colleagues never really bonded with me. But back home, the way I was seen, talked to (or about) had shifted. My family don’t always understand my career but they’re proud. Friends who remained in our hometown think I’ve abandoned our roots. 

Flippant jokes from friends about me having a New Yorker subscription and spending all my time in pretentious coffee shops (to be fair, I deserve this) had me wondering if I had abandoned my class, but I didn’t feel like I had. 

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I’ve whined to my mum – who studied class mobility while trying to achieve it – about this confusion. She’s adamant a person can’t change their class once they’ve reached adulthood, because our identities, values and behaviours have already formed. “Even if you won the lottery, you’d still be a poor kid at heart.” I’m not sure if I agree, but at least she doesn’t think I’ve abandoned her. 

There's limited research on whether someone can entirely move from one class to another. I know because I’ve looked, extensively and nervously, as I frequently feel obliged to pick a side. It seems classist to dismiss my obtained wealth, but equally so to disregard my upbringing. Though I don’t have the insulation my new peers have long-held, I’m unsure of my place now that I’m financially comfortable and living in a middle-class bubble. There is one Oxford University study that defines social mobility as “someone landing an occupation of higher status than their father.” I never had the latter, so to quote Kanye: I guess we'll never know.

I still feel like I’m in turmoil, but I’ve found comfort in that. As Rogaly says, discomfort can help “to challenge class inequality and speak about class in terms of the social relationships entailed – rather than trying to define what it means to be in a particular class”. It’s a privilege to have acquired my dream job and a comfortable home, but be grounded by the working-class values I was raised on. I didn’t believe I belonged because I hadn’t seen anyone else like me in the spaces I wanted to occupy, but I know now that the imposter syndrome I felt had little to do with me – it was a reverberation of deep-seated inequality.   

@bethmayashley

Tagged:

Politics, class, working class, Art School, class system

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