Title: Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education
Author: Stephanie Land
Read In: 2024
Description: A memoir of her journey to attain a creative writing degree while struggling with poverty as a single mom.
Purchase: Bookshop.org (affiliate link)
Having a kid and trying to date felt equivalent to hanging a wedding dress in my closet and bringing it out to show a person when they picked me up for the first time. Men no longer saw me as a lighthearted dating prospect. They looked at me and I could almost see the reflection of white picket fences and family dinners at five thirty in their eyes. To some this could be attractive, but the shitty part was that it wasn’t even appealing to me. Not only was I not attracted to a “family man” type, but I wasn’t anything near a “family woman.” I hated cooking and ate standing at the kitchen counter. My life revolved around work, school, my kid’s schedule, and whatever cheap concerts, rock climbing, and hiking I could afford to fit in.
I looked around and tried to imagine living with someone like his friends did, with our books combined on shelves in the living room and some kind of coffee apparatus that made more than a single serving.
Naturally my solution to that heartache was a vow never to kiss another writer.
I got the sense that not only did work have the greatest value, but I, too, only had value if I was working.
Everything about our lives seemed precious and profound at the same time.
One day she [Debra Magpie Earling] said, “The stories you choose to tell are the stories that make up who you are.”
I went down to the creepy basement area under our apartment and dug out bins full of journals, photo albums, and yearbooks. I still had my diaries with puffy covers and teddy bears and locks to keep my little brother out. For a long time, I had these things on display in my house and proudly referred to them as “My Paper Collection.” In an essay for a creative writing class in my early twenties at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I wrote about them and how they’d be the first thing I would grab if my house ever caught on fire. Now I had to dig them out of a basement. This downright poetic indication of their lower status in my life created an indescribable discomfort in the deepest center of my chest. The last time I had looked at these things, motherhood hadn’t yet consumed me. I’d never wanted to believe that the responsibilities of raising a child squashed all the hopes and dreams out of you, but at that moment it sure felt like it.
How men continued to pee all over their toilets throughout their lives and not care was a mystery I didn’t want to solve.
While she ate, I looked over my notes from class again, and pulled the book we would discuss in class that day out of my backpack.
“Why do you have to read books so much?” Emilia asked, mouth full of sugar, butter, and toasted bread.
“Because I want to be a writer,” I said, digging through my bag for a pen. “And if you want to be a writer you have to read and write a lot.”
“You must really, really, really want to be a writer then,” she said, adding a dramatic eye roll.
A warm room with a row of windows meant that I could take off my coat and look outside. Since I accidentally discovered during the first week of school that the room was vacant before class, I enjoyed being twenty minutes early to get a few minutes of peace. Sitting for any length of time often blanketed me in a heaviness, though. It felt similar to the sensation of falling asleep after crawling into bed, feeling the weight of your body sink into the cushion below. I had to choke down my lukewarm coffee and hoped that biting a spot inside my cheek would keep my eyes from drooping.
“Whatever makes you an outsider is what makes you a writer.”
I grabbed one of the hard ciders out of the fridge and turned off the lamp over the futon before I poked my head into our room to make sure Emilia was fast asleep. Like a teenager, I tiptoed to the drawer to the right of the kitchen sink where I kept a pouch of tobacco, some rolling papers, and a lighter. My thickest, oldest hoodie hung by the door, and I reached to grab it and put it on. Stepping out onto the porch felt like entering a different world, one where I was myself again. If I slept on the futon that night, it would be a whole eight hours before I would be “Mom” again. For now, I sat on the top step of the porch, opened my drink, and placed the assigned reading in the spot with the best light.
Orwell, predictably, couldn’t hold my attention that well. I leaned back on the post to close my eyes for a second or two. My phone buzzed in my pocket and I checked to see who it was. A text from Daniel, telling me to go out to the bar, but I closed it and put it back where it was without responding. I didn’t feel like saying no. I just wanted ten minutes, maybe thirty, to smoke a cigarette, have an adult beverage, and maybe read a few paragraphs of Orwell, before I had to scrub my face, brush my teeth, and collapse on the futon in my clothes- then wake up and do it all over again.
He was being ridiculous for thinking a twenty-one-year-old would seriously commit to some guy in his mid-thirties who’d been three credits away from a psychology degree for half a decade and worked as a waiter.
“You know, sad music is kind of nice to listen to sometimes. It keeps you company.”
“You keep me company,” he said.
Emilia sat perfectly still at the ballet, mesmerized while she watched people twirl and dance onstage. In Washington, close to Travis’s place, a dance studio had offered scholarships and I had enrolled her for the spring season when Emilia was three. Rehearsals where the instructors let the parents watch were always my favorite, because I was right there in the room, witnessing her raise her arms with all the other little girls. After we moved out of Travis’s place and to a neighboring town, the drive back and forth wore us down, and Emilia barely wanted to perform in the final show. I couldn’t find a closer studio that offered scholarships, so she stopped, and I always felt bad about that. I knew that watching this would renew her dreams of being in The Nutcracker, and maybe that was part of the gift for me. I wanted her to dream, and have something to feel passionate about. I just hoped I could find a way to afford supporting that passion.
I gave her a half grin, trying not to let tears well in my eyes. I wanted to tell her how monumental she’d been that semester, yet at the time it was more of a vague feeling and one I couldn’t put into words. Generosity usually felt that way to me, like a scratch that satisfied an itch I didn’t know the source of. I wouldn’t be able to fully comprehend how much that meeting in her office affected me for several years.
Whenever she returned from a trip to her dad’s, my kid wasn’t the same as the one who’d left me just a week or so before. Maybe that was a huge part of my moping: anticipating the return. At six years old, she couldn’t articulate the rage she felt. Emilia has never been the type to tell me everything that happened in one sitting. I got snippets, like puzzle pieces, that I’d have to parse in order to figure out the bigger picture. This time, though, her rage was apparent. She yelled.