What I’m really thinking: A working class student from the country
Stacey Wrenn writes about her experience dealing with privilege on Campus
When I was in Montessori school, my teacher sold me the “Disney” line that I could be whatever I wanted to be and I believed her. I went home and did some digging in the back garden with my dad and decided I was going to do that for a living because it was fun. After some thought and the realisation that my weakness meant I wouldn’t be a good builder my dad told me I could do that as an archaeologist.
By the time I was 8 I had devoured all the relevant, child-friendly books in the library. My mind was set, all I had to do was work hard they told me.
I came up to Dublin when I was around 10 with my dad on a SIPTU strike. As we marched and chanted our way towards Merrion Square I found myself in awe of not only the camaraderie but also the wealth that surrounded me: the mud-free cars that were no more than a few years old and the seemingly never-ending Georgian houses converted into offices with men in business suits walking in and out of them. They shook their heads at us and said we were getting in everyone’s way. I was so confused; all we wanted was for the bankers to pay for the damage they did and not for my dad to have more pay cuts to compensate for them. Little did I know that those same men and their accountancy firms would be the same people disgruntled by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) anti-fees march I was part of in 2016. On the bus home I couldn’t help but think that Dublin was a very odd place.
When I was in secondary school they told me about the application points system and how I’d have to “compete” for a place. They encouraged me to work harder and that I’d be fine, so I did and I got my place in Trinity. I was going to immerse myself in the city and see why Dublin was so odd. It must just be something I had yet to learn about, something that made sense. But it wasn’t. It’s odd to me because there is such a class divide in the city and that was made clear to me when I came here.
“But they don’t understand the attitude that I’ve carefully developed and added to since I started secondary school: academic success is key to getting a good job, maybe if I can prove that I did well I’m guaranteed to get a job. That’s all it comes down to, stability.”
When I began college, my sense of difference hit me in the face with no warm up period or time to adjust. I asked some of my classmates what’s the deal with the SUSI maintenance grant was and if they’d gotten theirs yet because I hadn’t. They hadn’t heard of it.
They asked each other what they did over the long vacation to break the ice; they compared their inter-railing exploits and when it came to me all I could say was “I went home, did some painting for my mam, tried to find a job”.
It didn’t surprise me that a few months later these people weren’t talking to me, that when they circled together in front of the lecture theatre I was stuck on one of the leather couches looking at my phone. We had nothing in common. This only got worse as the terms went on.
“I asked some of my classmates what’s the deal with the SUSI maintenance grant was and if they’d gotten theirs yet because I hadn’t. They hadn’t heard of it.”
The budding economists and debating gurus of Trinity attempt to relate to me when they find out that I’m certifiably poor; they talk about how dreadful the recession was after the Celtic Tiger and try to lift your spirits by talking about the boom that’s been happening in the last year or two. I feel like saying, “What boom? What recession? What Celtic Tiger? It’s always been this way.”
But proper society doesn’t deem such behavior acceptable so instead I attempt to break it down for them: we didn’t go on family holidays abroad, I thought skiing was only something that happened on the television, and I had never heard of that intellectual summer camp you went to so your philosophical enlightenment there means little to me.
I’m both excited and terrified for Trinity Ball to come around. Excited because I convinced myself to buy a ticket and I get to pretend for one night that I’m on equal footing with my friends because we’ll all think the drink prices ridiculous. Terrified because I know that I’ll find myself comparing the price of a tin of mixed beans in Lidl and Aldi for longer than usual.
Then exams will come round and, again, my friends will be off planning their annual trips while I’m dying like it’s the Leaving Cert all over again. They’ll sigh when they see me carrying a box of books and reiterate that our year doesn’t count yet, that I should just chill.
But they don’t understand the attitude that I’ve carefully developed and added to since I started secondary school: academic success is the key to getting a good job and maybe if I can prove that I did well I’m guaranteed to get a job. That’s all it comes down to, stability. I crave it because the government has scared me into fearing for my future; I crave it because I know that I’m at a disadvantage. But even if I do my best and end up being the best for the job, your uncle will still hire you before me.
“I’m tired of my life being used by the left as some sort of case in a large anthropological study, or being treated like I’m just another pawn in their grand plan.”
When I do get a chance to travel the three hours home and see the people I went to school with they poke fun at how Trinity is just ‘full of toffs”. In the beginning I would jump to deny that but now I find myself joining in and joking, “Yeah I’m their working class experiment, let’s see how long they put up with me”.
There’s blatant hypocrisy in the “welcoming” and “activist friendly” environment that we proclaim to have in Trinity.
It’s difficult to have even the softest of conversations with some college mates without them reiterating the stereotypes of where I come from to me. I can’t even express the most basic need of missing the home I was brought up in without them butting in to say, “it’s a bit dodge down there isn’t it?”. Let’s not pretend that gang violence is something confined to a single part of Ireland.
I’m tired of my life being used by the left as some sort of case in a large anthropological study or being treated as though I’m just another pawn in their grand plan. Your intentions may be good and you may feel genuinely bad that you were privileged growing up with better opportunities than me but that still doesn’t remove the fact that you have that privilege.
For a change I’d like for our needs to be asked of us rather than projected onto us. I’m not some obscure thing you reference in your sociology essays. I’m here and I exist.
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