Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Class Lessons from Childhood Shape Me Today

My feeling about class are complicated. I grew up in an ambiguous class environment. All three of us kids were raised to work...and work hard...on our big gardens...on wide-flung family construction projects...on our music, and homework. My respite was walking in the woods and reading. We got good grades. My sister became a world class physicist. My brother became an industrial arts teacher and head of the department...and negotiated for his teachers union. Both were named teacher of the year the same year. I became a woman of the world with a lifelong passion for arts, community, and culture, living episodically in chapters.

Pop grew up in an equally ambiguous class environment. It was...and he remains...refined on one hand and absolutely practical and tied to the land on the other. Pop can come in to eat in his muddy work clothes, and insist that the dinner dishes be cleared after the main meal and clean dishes set out for dessert. He's not easily pigeon-holed once you investigate more deeply into him.

My parents both came from similar backgrounds, but forged their adult lives in different directions, with the exception of their devotion to one another and the welfare of the family.

Both my parents came from agricultural backgrounds and worked hard with their hands. Mother's family were farmers and her parents had very little education. Pop's growing years shaped on Evergreen Heights midst a family effort that was considered one of the premiere horticultural achievements of its time (in the late 1860s and early 1900s).


My father with his blue collar work...and my mother with her white collar teaching jobs.


My father with his high school education who is sooooo smart..with such an expansive and incisive view of the world/life.

My mother with her 30 hours beyond her masters. She was smart, too...extremely practical, and strong willed (as my father, but differently). She was our strategic family visionary, and extremely goal oriented. She was focused as family matriarch on what was best for both the nuclear family and the extended family. Both my parents were the rock for that extended family, and often served as the family bank.


My father's artistic talents even now reach into carving, writing, music. His tenderness that I see more and more now that he's not so stressed and has softened with age.

Mother suffered a disabling car accident in her youth that she fought her way back from and was the first in her family to get a college education. Mother is a little more unified in my view. She can be more easily understood in terms of where she came from and what she had to overcome. Yet, she was also talented in painting, quilting, cooking, gardening as a way of expressing her creativity.


When Pop showed up in his muddy overalls to pick me up, I felt embarrassed as a child. I didn't want to be living this mixed-class, anachronistic childhood. I wanted to be like my school chums who lived in a white collar world based in suburbia. Their mothers stayed at home in the 1950s and their fathers worked in business or as doctors and lawyers. They all had Barbie Dolls. They all had the newest of everything including new clothes. Mother knitted a two-piece dress for me once and cut down Julia's clothes for me to wear...and cut a homemade skirt out of a flower-printed flour sack.


Femininity wasn't valued in our family culture. Our core family value was being strong. As an intuitive type, I was a little out of my element in this family, viewed by my parents as "too sensitive." Yet, in my own way, I was/am strong. Daddy was so proud of his girls who knew how to use tools and work construction and help him equally as well as his son. The difference between me and Julia was that she mastered this in her science and could do/teach all these skills and problem solve. Me? On my own, I'm rather useless. But, still a good helper.


I still tend to value people who meld working class/blue collar backgrounds with lives defying cultural stereotypes of how they should be...that is, red necks.

One of my best friends here is a couple who know what it is to work in a mine and know what it is to fabricate metal on an assembly line. At the same time they are smart, funny, well-informed and curious...the essence of a cultured person. They've been activist workers for Social Justice in all its forms. They defy categorization just as my father did, upon investigation. Like my father, they both tender and tough...with an inbuilt graciousness and hospitality. I feel so at home with them and as a guest in their home. I can now visit them as I am and they also come as they are as we eat a buffet supper of left-overs together. How good is that?


I admire artists that embody this seeming contradiction as well in their own cultural mix.

Mark O'Conner
, one of the country's foremost fiddlers who also composes and plays classical music...without classical training...and grew up in the South.

B. H. Fairchild’s poem "The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano,” from his 1998 The Art of the Lathe. You can read this poem on an earlier Riehlife post here.


A friend who visited the St. Louis Art Museum and saw me speaking to the guards there, told me: "You don't act on the idea of separation. The vibes you put out say nothing of differences.There is no posturing. I noticed this when we went to the art museum. You struck up a conversation with some of the workers there. I thought it a bit odd because maybe I'm not that open socially. I wouldn't assume that these workers would even want to talk to me."

Many of us are trained this way. Because of my father's role modeling on this, and because of my five years in Africa and then many years working with a variety of ethnic groups in the United States, I have chosen this course. I don't always make the effort to chat. If my energy is low, I don't. But I get so much from these exchanges. It seems the folks I talk to, do also. I see it as an ordinary effort in my everyday effort that is small, but part of slowly changing our culture to reflect it's true promise.

America was founded by people who worked with their hands as well as as those who owned plantations and ate with real china and siverware. We like to think that because we are a democracy and a meritocracy that we are not a classist society. Therefore, we do our best to pretend to ignore our class bias and prejudice. Often I believe this is an even deeper prejudice than race and ethnicity, because it cuts across all the cultures and color lines. Yes, it's there. And, it's never gonna go away unless we look at it.

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3 Responses »

  1. Janet, wonderful observations and summary of so many threads of thought. I enjoy talking with strangers too - at stores with checkers and clerks, waiting in line or just "out and about" where you are already sharing a moment in time and catch each others eye and share a conversation as well.

  2. Yes. I don't feel that this talking with strangers is so much an extrovert quality vs. introvert.

    Rather, I think of it as a way of creating my village. Expanding our worlds. Making things comfy my most idealistic leap...adding to the harmony and peace of the world.

    Thanks so much for commenting and sharing more of yourself.

    Auntie J.

  3. A small kindness can go a long way to brighten a day - whether it's you own or someone who's name you don't even know. And it's worth it either way.

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