Before I enrolled as a degree candidate at Boston University, I spent two years working full-time days and attending night school with a full load of courses. I couldn’t afford full-time days, and without a high school diploma, my path to a degree depended on regular placement on the dean’s list.
I’d had to give up well-paid work in operating rooms because I missed too many night classes due to being called in for emergency surgeries. So I found work with healthcare agencies that would place me at hospitals as an orderly or attendant to older people. It was the second type of work I found easiest on my schedule. I also had the opportunity to work with some fascinating people, a retired obstetrician, a boatbuilder, and a very elderly gentleman who had spent a life as a grain trader.
The retired grain trader at age ninety was interested in reading about his former industry and raging about the stupidity of the younger generation. These rages would culminate in rambling phone calls to his financial advisor. After this, he’d call a cab and whisk us off to one of his clubs.
The clubs were what you’d expect for exclusive Boston area WASP ( White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) enclaves: stodgy, pretentious, and full of people whose lives were one sinecure position after another. Typically, after entering, I was relegated to the rear of the dining room, where I would not be seen but could observe if I was called upon.
I noticed a couple of distinctive things right away. First, the employees are divided into the coopted and the non-coopted. And second, the food was awful; the club may have been elite, but it would never win stars or good reviews. The coopted employees acted as though they were junior members and, by the grace of their scraping and bowing, might one day come to the notice of the membership committee. The non-coopted employees were women ( these were men’s clubs), black, and Hispanic; they knew that no membership committee would ever glance their way. They knew there was a sort of infrangibility, an unbreakable wall separating them from us. In a supposedly democratic society, the members of these clubs believed not so much in class but in caste; and not so much in people’s ability to better themselves but in their ability to keep others down by the grace of their superiority.
The day came when my advisor at the university told me that I’d be permitted to become a degree candidate in the College of Liberal Arts, with the only proviso being that I had to have a high school diploma or GED to graduate. So the next day, I said goodbye to the agency that placed me as an attendant and gladly gave up being treated as a low caste servant and eating poor quality food at the finest of clubs.
In retrospect, I can’t say it was just an experience that I found interesting in the past tense. On the contrary, it had significant repercussions for my life. It showed me the dangers that an absolute sense of privilege has for a democratic society. And how rapidly class, ethnicity, and race can become frozen by the privileged into a sense of caste.
Dwight Eisenhower once said, “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”