Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 3.3]

Two months after the Christmas dance, I got another out-of-the-blue phone call from Ryan telling me he wanted to “take a break” from us for a while. “Well, Babe, I don’t want to, but I just think we should. I only have a few months left before graduation. I was talking to my parents and they’re afraid that I’ll regret not spending more time with my friends.”

I was stunned and instantly, utterly lost. Yet I loved him enough to obey his wish. So now, from the outside, I watched him walk the halls, attend school sporting events, congregate before and after classes, cruise “the strip,” flirt with other girls, and essentially have the time of his life.

To my horror, I sometimes inadvertently received or overheard information secondhand about parties he’d attended or girls he’d gone out with. I spent the last three months of Ryan’s senior year oscillating between fits of crying, raging jealously, a craving for self-destruction, and paralyzing numbness. The only reason I didn’t lose it completely, I think, was that about every two weeks, I would either receive a call or a knock at my bedroom window at night from Ryan, who would profess his love for me and tell me how much he missed me. All he had to do was ask, and I would let him in and let him take me, only for him to revert to his distant state again for another two weeks.

In my mind, I clung to the idea that he must still love me; he was just torn and had obviously gotten some very bad advice from his parents, who could put a lot of pressure on him. It never occurred to me he may want to have his cake and eat it too. I trusted that Ryan would never hurt me intentionally.

Spring break came and Ryan’s family took their typical vacation with six other well-to-do families down in Captiva Island. That trip always killed me because Bridget McDunn’s family was one of the families in that inner circle. If it wasn’t torturous enough that my lifelong nemesis got to vacation intimately with my boyfriend, rumors quickly got back to me afterwards, this time from Bridget herself, that Ryan had hooked up with a junior girl there named Angie—a tall, blonde, gorgeous beauty-pageant-type—not the short, brunette, pixie-type like me. Worse still, I heard that he’d asked her to prom. Another girl I knew fairly well named Jenny had gone on the trip, too. She confirmed the rumors and then told me that she’d overheard Ryan’s mom telling Bridget’s mom that she was glad I was out of the picture.

Supposedly, Ryan’s mom and dad had become very concerned that he was spending so much time with someone from the “wrong side of the tracks.” It took a second to register that that someone was me. In an instant, the shame of my father’s blue-collar job, our small house absent of a mother, my secondhand clothes, and my cheap haircuts flamed up in me as intense heat. I partly agreed with Ryan’s parents that he was too good for me; I’d always felt he was out of my league. I only wanted the best for Ryan, too.

That night, I found Dad in the basement listening to Mozart and reading. He knew I was heartbroken over Ryan, and although he told me he’d be here to talk about it any time, he’d otherwise given me my space. I hadn’t shared the depth of my grieving with him or given him many details as I wanted to protect his positive perception of Ryan and I didn’t want him to worry about me. A part of me didn’t want to acknowledge the rejection I felt or probe too deeply into the details for fear some concrete reason for him dumping me—a genuine flaw or inadequacy within me—would make its way to the surface. But I’d reached a point where I couldn’t carry it all around with me anymore.

“Dad, I heard the most awful thing today.”

“Oh?”

“Well, you know how Ryan and I haven’t really been seeing each other the past few months?”

“Yes, I am aware of that. How’re you doing?”

“Oh Dad.” I broke down in awkward sobs for a few minutes. Dad waited patiently until I could speak again.

“Ryan had said he needed to break things off for a while because his parents felt he needed to enjoy his senior year with his friends or he’d regret it. And I thought I understood that. He still calls me and sees me sometimes. He says he still loves me and sometimes acts like he doesn’t want to be staying away from me.”

“Okay…”

“Well, he just came back from his family vacation with those other families and I heard that he ‘hooked up’ with one of the girls there and that his parents don’t really want him to be with me because I’m from the ‘wrong side of the tracks.’”

“They said that? Are you sure?”

“That’s what Jenny told me. I don’t know where she’d get something like that or why she’d lie, so I suppose I do believe her.”

“Oh wow, Michelle. I’m sorry. That’s an awful thing to say. And it really pisses me off, although I’m not really surprised.”

“You’re not?”

“No. Those families are some of the most snobbish people in town. They never speak to me if I run into them. And, I don’t think you know this, but Ryan’s dad was your mom’s and my divorce attorney.”

“What?”

“Yes, but once you started dating Ryan, I didn’t want to say anything. Unfortunately, Ryan’s dad knows a lot about our personal business, including our marital problems and your mom’s suicide attempt. We discovered he was kind of an arrogant ass while working with him, but we weren’t going to switch lawyers after we started.”

I thought about this for a minute. “Still, Dad, why wouldn’t they like me though? I mean, I’m a cheerleader, I get really good grades, I try to be a really nice person, I don’t bother anyone…”

“Michelle, many people think they are better than other people based on how much money or education they have. Ryan’s parents are in what is called a different ‘social class’ than we are.”

“What’s that mean?” Although I think I knew what he meant.

“There are several social classes in America: (1) the upper class—really wealthy people who either have old or new money, like the Kennedys or Warren Buffet. They have most of the power in this country; (2) the upper-middle class—people who aren’t super rich, but have plenty of money to buy things, send their kids to the best colleges, take vacations, etc. like doctors and lawyers and Ryan’s family; (3) the middle class—people who have good jobs, probably went to college, and get by fine. But they can’t spend money however they like; (4) then there’s the lower class, which is called the ‘working class’ and is made up of mostly blue-collar workers and people who didn’t go to college. They struggle financially and may live in poverty.”

My stomach sank as I did the math. “Dad, where do we fall in this exactly?”

“Well, we’re probably somewhere between the middle class and lower class. My job pays pretty well for a blue-collar job, but I didn’t go to college, and we live in a pretty cheap neighborhood.”

Although I felt misjudged and it made me angry, I could see what Dad meant. It did seem people could be separated into one of these categories. I knew there were really rich people and really poor people out there; I just didn’t know there were standard groupings for all of us based on how much money and education we had, and that those groupings resulted in biases. It was disheartening to realize we fell into one of the lower groups and embarrassing to think that the rich people in town, like Ryan’s parents, were aware we were in a lower bracket.

I thought back to stealing Bridget’s art crayon and jacket. I guess that’s the kind of thing they would have expected people from my social class to do. My shame intensified. Did her parents and Ryan’s parents really think we were lower-class citizens? I panicked suddenly and cringed at the thought of Bridget’s parents telling Ryan’s parents, over cocktails on the beach, what I’d done all those years ago.

“So Dad, in a sense, does this mean that people from higher classes are always going to look down on us, no matter how nice or smart we are?”

“Well, some of them might. Upper class people don’t tend to want to associate with lower class people. But a lot of people believe in a meritocracy—which means you can earn or prove your worth to society, regardless of the family you were born into. In other words, you can move up in social class if you get an education or get a job that pays a lot of money.”

“So you mean I’m not stuck in the lower class if I don’t want to be?” I desperately wanted to propel myself out suddenly.

“That’s right. But, Michelle, I personally don’t think you should pay much attention to social-class structures. They are a way for people to label each other; mostly, the rich use them to label the poor. I don’t believe they are absolute categories that can be ranked from positive to negative. I read a really good book about this I want you to read. It’s called Class by Paul Fussell. He makes some interesting distinctions about the classes. In my opinion, each one has positive and negative characteristics associated with it. For instance, some of the most corrupt people in the world are in the upper classes and some of the most value-driven, compassionate people are in the lower classes. The most judgmental class is probably the middle class, not the upper class, because they are always fighting to get ahead and DO judge their own value on material possessions alone. Fussell says the middle class is the most class-conscious class. But, I believe we should never make judgments about the worth of people based on their social class. Besides, being in the upper classes can make people feel elite when they haven’t really earned it or done positive things for others.”

“Yeah. It’s horrible for people to judge me when they don’t even know me. And, Dad, you are one of the smartest people I know and you never went to college. You’ve never been mean to anyone. Why can’t people judge each other based on how they behave?”

“I agree with you, and I’d go a step further and say I think it’s important that we don’t judge people at all. Often, people are just a product of their upbringing and whatever they learned in school. Many don’t think for themselves or challenge what they’ve learned from school, the media, church, their parents, etc. because they were punished for doing so. We should give people the benefit of the doubt. Their behavior is not often well thought-out or deliberate. Personally, I kind of feel sorry for rich people as much as poor people because I don’t think that they are really any happier because of their success or money. Those things can be traps. People are never happy with what they have. They always want more and feel bad about themselves until they get it.”

“You know, Dad, I’ve seen that a little. Ryan’s parents always fight and I’ve never seen them—or Bridget’s parents—laugh, or even smile genuinely. They don’t seem very happy or like they love their kids the way you love me.” My mind was desperately searching for consolation. I didn’t have all that they had in the way of money and opportunities; however, I had something (worth more than anything) that they didn’t…my dad…the best, most loving dad in the world.

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