I am so tired. Stress permeates every action and thought, it’s making my movements sluggish and stupid, it’s making my voice low. I am homeless. It’s a stigma that I never thought would be mine. My housemates arranged to move out before I was ready and now I’m on a mattress in a beloved friend’s kitchen. It’s not been the best year. The year before that wasn’t so sparkly either. I don’t know what I was expecting.
Since I could talk and read, adults have labelled me bright, sparking a chain reaction of SATs, 11plus, CATs, SATs v2 (The State Strikes Back), GCSEs and then A-Levels, not to mention end of term and year streaming exams. Constant testing to ensure that I wasn’t somehow cheating the system by fluke. Despite being the first kid in my family to go to college and not head first into work or the army; under Blair’s government it was always taken for granted that I would get to uni, become a doctor and get out of the white-van-man town I lived in. And go to uni I did. My mum’s greatest boast is that I ‘did it all myself’, meaning that she didn’t have to give me a penny the entire way through which had always been the biggest concern. I was the only kid in my class to get into Grammar school without a tutor; my A-levels were EMA funded; when we couldn’t afford a retake – I worked my ass off at A2 to drag up that grade; I had a job throughout. I’m telling you this because it wasn’t until I got to university that I even realised that not everyone knows that experiences are shaped by money, or lack of. I was regularly and flippantly called a chav, mostly when people found out that I had only been to the theatre for Christmas pantos or on school trips, or when I didn’t know what hummus was (I also once got called a racist and another time got called white trash for that faux pas.) A housemate, frustrated by my generous hardship scholarship, once quipped that ‘we can’t all have our parents divorce just to get money off the state’. Ouch. She didn’t know, she couldn’t have known what it felt like. On the eve of our first GCSE exam, her parents were probably tucking her in early while I was cowering upstairs in tears, clutching at my little sister, hearing furniture crack and voices hoarse from shouting. We went downstairs at 2am to find mum on the floor with blood running down her face. The breakdown of my parent’s 20 year relationship came first, I knew that instinctively. The next morning Mum went to work stoic and I got an A on my English paper.
I never felt entirely at home at uni, it’s not made for ‘people like us’. Charity work and a brilliant support network distracted me from every ski tour idiot who whined about their overdraft and scoffed at the thought of anyone at Warwick without ‘at least some money’. I nearly tore that girl’s face off. On another occasion, about two months ago, I was sitting in a Hackney park when a friend of a friend asserted that I had a degree so I must be middle class. As though letters after my name erased 23 years of having my arse (and the arses of the people I love) kicked by the system. The fights I had been in, the fights I had stopped, the needles on the edges of the playgrounds, the times the police came to school and stopped me when I came out of shops, the childish bullying I was victim to for not having stuff – all silenced. The parental frustration and the relentless pressure caused by constant budgeting, the fear of losing my job because I can’t afford uniform and the stress of making £50 last the month – irrelevant. My intellect does not somehow ‘promote’ me into your rich-ass world and simultaneously, your shared house and shabby chic clothing do not let you into mine. Another friend tried to ease the tension by saying how ‘skint’ they were but all it did was highlight how oblivious these otherwise right-on people are. The people who, when times are tough, go on holiday or ask their parents for money; the ones who go travelling and suggest I do the same. I lend to my parents just as often as they lend to me and I have used up my pro-rata holiday time from my zero-hour contract job looking for a roof and saving it for when an emergency comes.
But, in a sense, he was right, the guy who made me feel like a class traitor for fulfilling my potential. My accent and vocabulary in Warwick provoked laughter sometimes but at home it instigates rage and ridicule. My ever-supportive mum called me Eliza Doolittle when I came home that first Summer. When I get angry about the news or drop academic language into conversation, it’s read as a statement and as a challenge to the intellect of the people I’m talking to. I’m just talking. I’m accused of having forgotten where I’m from, of having dreams of travel that can never come true, of daring to hope that one day I’ll have a job that might change something. I feel trapped between the two worlds. I feel hopeless and abandoned and like I’m a failure, light-years behind everyone else I know. I should never have gone to university, the system wasn’t made for people like me. But I can’t go back now. At the apex of arguments my sister always screams that I think I’m too good for my home town, for my family. I hope that one day, she sees that I think that everyone is too good for this. I had a wonderful childhood that was filled with love but no one should have to go without, no one should be ridiculed for being poor. Just because we had no money does not mean that we, and other desperate people, had to live in a place where drugs, drinking and fighting were the primary ways to cope. No one should be hungry or be jobless or, of course, be homeless. But we are these things. And given the reception I felt at university, the training ground for politicians and world leaders, I know that we will continue to go without until we organise and put that fight we learnt as kids to good use.
But that’s pretty fucking hard to do from a kitchen floor.