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  • Virginia M. Schwarz

Education and the Grandma Figure

Note: This was originally written for Education Leadership and Policy Analyis (ELPA) 940. Describe how race, class, or gender has influenced your educational opportunities and experiences. Assignment created by Professor John Diamond.

I come from a family of five with two parents, a younger sister, and a grandma. My parents are working class, and my grandma took it upon herself to make sure my sister and I would not be. She was born in Missouri in 1919, accumulating wealth by moving to California with my grandpa and building houses for forty years. Remembering the Great Depression, Grandma and Grandpa always talked about the importance of hard work and saving. Over a lifetime, they turned the two dollars they moved with into multiple properties, and Grandma now lives off the interest. When I think about race, class, and privilege, especially in terms of education, I envision this “grandma figure” — in my case, a 95-year-old white woman— and know I am enrolled in a PhD program at a top university because of her cultural and financial capital, a wealth accumulated well before I was born. Maybe I would have gotten to a similar place without a benefactor, but as a kid, I wasn’t exceptionally smart or hard-working, so I was fortunate to have the “grandma figure” step in where my parents could not.

Until I was twelve, my parents, sister, and I lived in the older part of the city. Liquor stores, strip clubs, and bars were our neighbors. The neighborhood also had “character,” a term I use in my adulthood to describe a place with coffee shops, small specialty stores, and most importantly, people from a range of identities, backgrounds, and experiences. People in this part of the city formed a tightly knit community— everyone mixed and chatted and seemed to care for each other. My parents didn’t mind our location until I got to 5th grade and wanted to walk home (like all the other kids) and 6th grade when I had to go to middle school and was told not to wear certain colors.

The “grandma figure” intervened. We used her address and lied so that I could be in a “safer” neighborhood, half of an hour into the suburbs, and I went to a mostly-white school in a high-income area. For my high school, Grandma gave my parents the money for a down payment to actually move into that neighborhood. I resented being jerked around and losing all of my friends, but I see now that my family was doing all this to make sure my sister and I had a good future, a good academic future. College was part of our discussions with Grandma, and she always wanted to know which university I was currently considering. I never thought of college as optional; since I was a little girl, it was as natural as the 13th grade. I’ll pay for your books, she said. And let me know if you need anything else. She had paid my application fees, too, so that I could apply to ten schools and have a better chance.

Grandma bought my clothes. She taught me how to dress and act presentable. When I turned 18, she gave me “the money talk.” Pay your credit cards off at the end of the month. Don’t go into debt for anything other than a house. Balance your check book like this. Here’s a bank account and $500 to practice with. Upon college graduation, she bought me seven suits. Seven suits! You know I’m an English major, right Grandma? So Grandma used her privilege to help me and my sister get ahead. She gave us an address, an easy way into college, a sense of professionalism (and the funds and clothes to be professional).

As a white woman married to a white man, she was able to accumulate that wealth in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The educational opportunities I have can all be traced back directly to having those early advantages from generational wealth. I feel like my grandma’s investment, in a sense— the sum of all of her gestures. I’m proud of myself for capitalizing on the opportunities given to me and for creating new ones through those accomplishments, and I hope Grandma will live long enough to see me graduate one more time. I love her beyond words.

Spending six years teaching showed me that not everyone—or even many— have a “grandma figure.” It took me a long time to really see and understand all of the forces that made me, especially in terms of educational experiences, but basically, school was always valued in my home, and I had access to the best learning environments from middle school through college. My grandma’s status was transferable: she gave me the money and the mindset to succeed academically, culturally, and economically. I didn’t earn that. I was born into it. I’m glad we are going to talk about “whiteness” in this course, because I’m not sure I understand it correctly. To me, it means that my relatives have had generations to get ahead, and I am the walking proof of what someone can do when they are given a “leg up.” And despite having these advantages, no one has openly questioned my legitimacy or ability in the academy or in the workplace.

As a student, I did not attend many community college classes, but I feel extremely grateful to have spent more time there as a teacher at Portland Community College in Portland, OR. There I gained a true education. Privilege and oppression were once abstract concepts, concepts I didn’t really grasp and definitely didn’t know how to combat. To me, they weren’t my lived experiences. I was even reluctant to call myself a feminist. But through teaching English, I became aware of power dynamics in the classroom— both because of my position in the front of the class and because of the course content, English. I was told to make students write, act, and think a certain way, and that didn’t sit right with me. I began to read lots of academic articles about student-centered approaches to teaching and critical pedagogy.

During this time, students let me into their lives. People of all ages— from the high school senior without a major to the mother getting a second chance at her education— shared their stories with me, and I learned that most of them were working much harder than I did and living paycheck to paycheck. I saw Portland through their eyes. Everything on Portlandia is true, for sure. But there’s another truth: Portland is populated by many racist and classist white people, and as most students told me, awful to people of color. In the neighborhood where I lived and worked, there were many homeless people and people living in generational poverty. My students and I experienced gang scares on campus, and they didn’t have the resources to leave the neighborhood to go someplace else.

That’s why I’m here. This is a PhD fueled by my educational experiences and my attitudes about education— but not necessarily the education I received, the education I will be creating for and with others. I want to help all students become critical thinkers and creative problem solvers. I want to help them secure good jobs and succeed on their own terms. I want to help them resist, effectively. I want them to have more agency in and over their lives. I want them to enjoy college. I want them to tell me what they want so that I can be a supportive mentor. I’m getting my PhD in Composition and Rhetoric to become a writing program administrator so that I can (re)design writing programs to better address the needs of all students, including those who are from underserved and marginalized groups. I’m looking forward to learning more about policies and interventions that combat rather than perpetuate racism and inequality.

In sum, my understanding of self in terms of race, class, and gender (although I didn’t cover that) was formed embarrassingly late, and as a successful student at a nice university, I never really thought about my position of privilege (or the systems of oppression working against me). My grandma certainly has a simplified and dated view of her wealth, “work hard” and “save.” Working with community college students really made me critically examine the ways in which people are oppressed and my own implication as an educator in an unjust system. I feel that despite being a person who has previously benefited in certain, clear ways from this system, I can still be an advocate for change and equality. In fact, I see supporting reforms as my personal responsibility because of those benefits— I have the seven suits to do so.

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