'Tis Labor Day!
A day where people remember laboring by not laboring. But that’s because we’re not celebrating working exactly, but the people who do the work, primarily those workers who do/did the most uncelebrated, foundational labor that builds and keeps the country running. Machinist and labor leader, Matthew Maguire (while secretary of the Central Labor Union in NY), suggested the idea of a labor day holiday in 1882 (though some argue it was Peter J. McGuire who was with the American Federation of Labor – either way, it was some Irish dude). The idea kicked around for a bit until Oregon celebrated it officially in 1887. It didn’t become a federal holiday until Grover Cleveland mucked things up royally sending in federal troops to break up a railroad strike at the behest of big business which resulted in the deaths of 34 workers. Apparently the holiday proposal passed Congress in a neck-whippingly fast six days after the strike ended.
That kind of history is important to me. Frankly, it should be important to every red-blooded, flag-carrying, beer-drinking, fry-eating, U.S. citizen, but I know it’s not. Like Memorial Day, a lot of people are just like “yeah! Day off!” Also like Memorial Day, Labor Day provides me with a concentrated time to focus on my own complicated feelings about American identity; this time about my working-class guilt. Not guilt about growing up working class, or being working class, or having worked blue and pink-collared jobs, but guilty about my shift in class status.
Working hard was always a necessity for me and really, came fairly naturally. It wasn’t just that I was told by a handful of people I respected that if I wanted to “be” something in life, I needed to work hard, but I have this annoying earnestness about doing a good job. When I worked in a maintenance crew, I would diligently do each task quickly and thoroughly, then run to the next one, wanting to impress the guys I worked with (I was the only female working there and the youngest). My supervisor finally planted me in a large back room with a small paint brush and a bucket of Beige #5 and explained that the goal wasn’t to work quickly. No sense in getting done in an hour, what can take all day, he said. When I waitressed, I actually felt bad if I got a person’s order wrong (which I almost never did) and took great pride in being able to carry six full dinner plates at once. Even when I played organized sports, the thought of playing badly and letting down my team could bring me to tears. I practiced outside of practice, I focused with a level of concentration some kids reserved for vocab tests (something else I worked hard at, but not *too* hard; that was pretty easy).
Even though I’ve always been smart, and done well in school, education in a general sense always a life goal, working with my body was what provided me a sense of purpose. My body carrying food, my body painting and raking, my body building crates, my body pulling espresso shots one after another, my body fixing something, my body sweating and aching, my body functional, my body in the service of community. There was a physical toll and a physical outcome. Someone got something tangible, quantifiable. Progress could be measured. There’s a level of satisfaction in that, a sureness that what you did affected someone else’s material life.
Now, I’m not going to get all emo about how teaching is a work undervalued by contemporary American society (which it is) or that I don’t experience its meaningfulness. Despite the surface level of complaining many students do, every semester I’m gratefully reminded of the fact that teaching does matter and it is significant to the students who want to engage. And really, it’s physical: walking around the classroom, writing things on the board, carrying piles of essays to grade. No, the guilt I have is over my writing.
Even though it’s my writing that got me into graduate school, my writing that got me out, my writing that was an integral part of my getting a university job, there is still something about sitting at my computer in the middle of the day and typing out a poem that makes me feel like I’m cheating somehow. Like I’m napping on the job. Maybe it’s because in my previous working life writing was reserved for after work. It got snuck in when no one was looking, something I walked away from the crowd to do while sitting against a tree on my lunch break. Writing was mine. It made me feel good. It helped me process my emotions and thoughts, it stayed (primarily, then) in my notebook. Maybe writing still feels selfish to me, self-centric. Because I like it and it feels good to do, it can’t be work. Work is that thing people don’t want to go to in the morning. Work is where an American “does their time,” like prison, until the freedom of retirement.
But I can picture myself writing and reading and talking to people about writing and reading until I die. I don’t have a desire for premature retirement, though sometimes I wish I could spend entire days just writing and researching uninterrupted. A lot of the writing I do is prep for the long game. I have to be patient for an outcome that might not manifest for six months, a year, two, five. It’s not like I write a poem, email it to someone and then it’s in a journal that someone reads and likes. Even if a poem does make it into a journal and someone does like it and maybe the best case scenario happens and it touches them emotionally, aids in grieving, helps them understand a specific kind of loneliness, helps them build compassion; for the most part, I’ll never see that. Writing can be like spitting in the dark; you just assume it’s going to land somewhere.
I want one thing to be clear: this post will not culminate in an elaborate metaphor about intellectual labors and the strain of the mind as a muscle like those in someone’s back lifting box after box to load onto a truck. I’m not going to defend or draw comparisons between the mental and emotional labor of writing an essay or a poem to that of laying foundation, rebuilding roads. This post is about naming that which I feel uncomfortable with, accepting the privileges that are undeniable in my present life.
Of course the work I did to get to this material place – the opportunity to wear nice, professional clothing, to have my own office, to have even a little bit of a say in my schedule – matters; it was physical and mine. That defines my engagement with education, with academics, differently than it does my colleagues and even students who were born higher up on the ladder. The end result though is that many people work as hard as I did – as I do – and they do not end up with the same privileges.
I have no answer to this dilemma of guilt and privilege and discomfort. Frankly, I don’t think there is one. It’s this discomfort that reminds me to be grateful. It’s this tension that helps me remember how hard my ancestors worked so I and other women/people of color/queer and working-class Americans could claw our way into this pseudo white-collared world.
The best I can do right now, is turn to a couple of my favorite working-class writers, those whose writing also sometimes examines this tension and made me feel like there was a place in this literary landscape for stories of all kinds of labor.
Jan Beatty – “My Father Teaches Me to Dream”
Jim Daniels – “Work Boots: Still Life”
Philip Levine – “You Can Have It”
Gary Soto – “Mexicans Begin Jogging”
Natasha Trethewey – “Domestic Work, 1937”
Charles Bukowski – “The Trash Men”
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke - "The Change"