Written by Maddie Evans
Art by Reynaldo Brigantty
After months of pushing it down to the bottom of my to-do list, I finally started sorting out the drawers under my bed. I would have wholly regretted my decision to empty everything out onto my bedroom floor if in doing so I hadn’t found Zadie Smith’s NW, a cardigan I had mourned the loss of, and my 2016 diary still clinging onto its easily breakable lock and key.
I paused my lacklustre tidying up, cleared a space on my floor and sank back in time– reuniting with my 18-year-old former self.
I have always tried to keep some sort of diary, I like the idea of being able to recall the small, ordinary, daily things that don’t often qualify as a memory. I kept diaries through my school years but it was always without any real patience or dedication, and come March the entries would have wilted into singular sporadic sentences. I would spend hours explaining, in meticulous detail, the fallouts that tore through my friendship group over a single lunchtime, leaving most of us in tears, and I’d allow months to slip by before I thought about opening my diary again–that’s when I would scribble in a flushed and love-struck frenzy about the boy I liked vaguely acknowledging my existence.
My new year’s resolution of 2016, among other things, was to consistently keep a diary. It was to be a momentous year in comparison to every year that had come before, I wanted to make sure I had an archive of every moment so I could dip back into them at will. It was the year I finished my A-levels, the year I moved out and started university.
I moved to university in September 2016. The pages running up to the day I left for university have a hand-drawn countdown in the right corner of each page. I flipped the pages and watched the number fall to “MOVING DAY”: two words I had written in alternating colours and big block lettering. The entry under “MOVING DAY” detailed everything from waking up and my last breakfast at home, the time we set off, the songs played in the car, arrival time, and a brief account of the university’s curious mix of architecture: a modernist velodrome shaped like a fifty pence coin, casually slotted alongside curvilinear, neo-gothic halls.
According to my diary, the first person I spoke to was a new flatmate. He was wearing “a polo-sport t-shirt, stupidly paired with toast-coloured moleskins…..how could anyone do sports in moleskins?! ” I unkindly noted.
I said hello and he looked at me quizzically, “Where are you from?” he asked, every vowel hit perfectly, like a fine-tuned piano.
“Lancashire” I replied, gingerly
He raised his eyebrows, “Goodness,” he said looking at me with unconcealed fascination, as if he’d never encountered anyone beyond the midlands.
What did he even mean by that? Maybe he’s just socially awkward? I wrote, ingenuously, the handwriting scurried in frustration. The entry quickly moves on and headfirst into the excitement of freshers and new faces, passionate singing at the back of the bus, grazed knees and questionable nightclubs but the encounter with my new flatmate marked a paradigm shift in the way I felt about my working class roots.
In my diary, I have concluded each entry with a single image summary of the day’s events. A smiley face for a good day, a sad face for bad– naturally. The 3rd of November, 2016, is punctuated by a big sad face (with a single tear drawn in blue crayon for emotional effect). I had been sitting with a group of people from my course waiting to enter the exam hall, and somehow we had fallen upon the topic of maintenance loans. One girl on my course revealed that she’d only been given a “very small” loan, and went on to express her anger at how “unfair” it was that she’s being “punished” because her parents “aren’t on the dole or alcoholics.” I felt sheepish sitting there on my maximum maintenance loan. Neither of my parents fit the character profile she provided, not that any shame should be attached to economic hardship or illness such as addiction. She went on, “they just get it easy, don’t have to have a job or anything whilst studying, probably wouldn’t pass the first year otherwise,” the rest of the group agreed with vigour. “I only got three-thousand-ish for the year” one student announced, which prompted the rest of the group to reveal their own lowly figures. My silence was quickly prodded at, “what about you?”. I said that I wasn’t sure, in a tone of voice I hoped signalled disinterest, so I could unlatch myself from the conversation and slide away unnoticed.
The total maintenance loan a student receives is based on numerous factors but most prominently it is dependent on their household income per annum. Maximum loans are given to students whose annual household income falls below £25,000 a year. As household income per annum increases, the amount of maintenance loan a student is entitled to decreases. It’s a hot topic among students– more often than not, it’s the students from wealthy backgrounds that take umbrage with the calculations, totally ignoring that they will be graduating with half the debt poorer students will. Even with a high paying job after graduation, a working-class student’s disposable income will be significantly lower than a middle-class student in the same job. Rather than enabling greater equality for students of low-income backgrounds, student loans seem to have had the opposite effect. A report carried out by University College London in 2017 revealed that students from working-class, low-income backgrounds are significantly less likely to apply to university over debt worries. Student loans made higher education accessible for the working class, yet opening the door to an upper-class space comes at a cost: whopping debt.
Luckily, when I applied for university, the debt I would be raking up throughout three years of study didn’t act as much of a deterrent. Everyone I knew was in the same boat as myself, about to take on a five-figure sum I owe you.
I’d gotten to know my flatmates quite well but a distance between me and (let us call him: Moleskins for confidentiality purposes) Moleskins remained. I hadn’t had a conversation with him beyond half-hearted ‘good mornings’ or tedious comparisons of lecture timetables simply to fill the silence. Moleskins had amassed a wide circle of friends within the first month, and one particular weekend it was his turn to play party host. Being that it was to be held in our flat, we were all given a reluctant invite. It was laughably ostentatious for a student party: finger food, innumerable dips, a cheese board, a tropical fruit platter, and both cake and dessert. I suspected it was his way of inconspicuously revealing his wealth. The party lasted until the early hours of the morning, and once most of the guests had hazily floated back to their rooms, we began clearing up the mess. I started scraping the leftover food into a pastried heap onto one plate.
“Wait,” Moleskins yelped, lifting his hand with urgency.
“Save the spare food! Take it home to feed your family!” Laughter erupted from the bodies spewed across the couch. It’s a memory that needs no written reminder, the moment still plays with sharp clarity and the embarrassment I felt in that moment still has the capability to turn my skin a light shade of pink. Was I a running joke between him and his friends?
I’m not alone in my experience– not that I am naive enough to have expected to be. A good friend of mine studied English at Oxford, we spoke every week and with each weekly catch-up, the ways in which she’d been made to feel ‘lesser than’ grew in number, taking up more and more space in our conversations. Much like myself, the feeling of inadequacy she felt came back to one thing: her working-class background. “They told me not to read our argument, someone else should do it. If I were to read, we probably wouldn’t be taken as seriously. I knew that they were referring to my accent as if the content of what I was saying would automatically be nonsense because I don’t elongate my vowels.” She went on to graduate with first-class honours. And despite her incredible achievements, there were times—often as a result of the alienation she was made to feel–that she felt was destined for failure. That her place at Oxford was simply a tokenistic gesture to make up the diversity statistics.
Working-class students don’t get a free pass into Russell Group universities, and in fact, they often outperform their privately educated peers. This revelation is commonly met with surprise but working-class success in higher education makes total sense. If you have had to rely on self-motivation to carry you through your A-levels, if your results are the product of assiduous and dedicated independent study rather than private tutoring, if you had to slot your studying in conjunction with the local library’s timetable because you didn’t have your own room or computer to complete your work – then you are already well-equipped for undergraduate study – self-motivation, time-management, perseverance all being well-practised skills.
Universities have previously long been places for the middle and upper classes, and despite the world of higher education resembling a more accurate picture of our society, still, many of the most elite institutions remain almost separatist in nature. A dividing line running through, class position being made central to a students identity, even though it’s not instigated by that individual student,but rather by the university they are apart of.
A few months into university, I wanted to rid myself of every working-class signifier I had been carrying around, withdraw from the shapes of my old life, and leave it behind like a shell. I swiftly decided that discarding my accent in exchange for painfully forcing my vowels into perfect formation would be a total farce. I did have one thing in my arsenal though: an understanding of how to navigate the ecosystem of cultural capital. The worlds of the upper and middle classes seemed to be ones in which I could read myself into. What I lacked in economic stability and private education I made up for in shared interests, knowledge of the arts, and a certain way of presenting myself. But why should the working class have to endlessly and tirelessly contort their appearance, their manner of speech, their opinions simply to be half-heartedly welcomed into the same educational and employment opportunities that are breezily granted to the middle and upper classes?
When I think back to meeting my flatmate for the first time and all the little and big ways in which my working-class roots were used against me and held up as a source of shame, I feel a delightful and wholly unself-pitying sense of anger. The anger that I held towards myself has been rightfully redirected towards those people who appear to find the working class so unspeakably repulsive that they wish we could be forcibly removed from their lives. This might be because the working class serves a constant reminder that the privileged position they hold has only been made possible because society is structured to benefit them, and that opportunity comes knocking to those with money. I expect that in the future I will have to come up against some of the worst of the upper class once more. When I do, I will take unbridled joy in watching the rich and privileged squirm at the realization that somehow, once again, one of the working class has wormed their way into another of the territories they used to reign.