I’ve had a particular scene in my head for over a week now.
When I was in grade one, I remember during recess watching the girls in my class playing in the playground. I don’t remember the game they were playing, but it looked like so much fun and I really wanted to join in. I approached the girls and asked them if I could play too.
“No you can’t play with us!” I was told. I was so confused. I hadn’t been turned away like that before.
“How come?” I asked.
“We only let girls play with us if they have a headband. We all have headbands. You don’t have a headband, so you can’t play with us.”
Again, I was confused. I was being turned away because I didn’t follow the current fashion trend? Mind you this was in grade one; we were all 5 and 6 years old. And my classmates were already joining cliques and using fashion trends and false ideals of beauty to determine whether you were worthy to play with them.
I grew up poor, wearing hand me downs and discount clothes my mom would pick out for me. She even knitted some sweaters and skirts for me to wear. Even if I asked my mom to get me a hair band accessory so I could fit in with my classmates, she probably wouldn’t even have the money. Even at the age of six I understood that, so I never even asked.
Quite simply, my social status was determining my place in society. I was being told I didn’t belong and was not allowed to enjoy myself, because I lacked the money or proper resources. I was inferior to the other girls, so I was not allowed to play with them.
That role stuck throughout my 8 years of elementary school. I was ostracized and bullied by my classmates all throughout, and for other reasons beyond my not having a hair band. I was a chubby girl, without a fashion sense (since it was my mom who dressed me, and I mostly wore donated hand me downs, there wasn’t much I could do about it). I was also really smart in school and I was teased for it relentlessly. I never fit in. By the time I was in 8th grade, at 13, I was already experiencing suicidal thoughts.
The first time I ever fit in anywhere, was when I finally started High School. I was a stranger in a new group of people who didn’t know me, or that I wasn’t cool enough to play with the other kids back in grade one. I was wearing my high school uniform, and so was everyone else. Uniforms were great equalizers; to this day I love the concept. My classmates actually judged me on my personal character instead of what I wore, or how much money I had. I remember knowing what it was like to smile, and having a permanent smile, for the first time in eight years.
My point with this story is that from a very young age I learned what it was like to be ostracized, shunned, and turned away for something that wasn’t even my fault. I learned what it was like to have a “social standing”, and that how rich or poor you are will determine the opportunities that will be presented to you in life. No matter how hard I worked at school or how great my grades were, I was still miserable and was never happy. And no matter how much I worked at making friends or getting along with my classmates, all I managed was to do was give those same classmates new opportunities to humiliate and hurt me.
Yes, this all happened a long time ago. And it took well over a decade to get over those eight years of trauma. But I am not trying to incite pity with this story. I am not a victim. That experience really shaped who I grew up to be, the adult I have become. The self confidence I have grew out of the struggles I’ve had with my inferiority complex from those days.
One of the most significant results from having those experiences as a child was that it equipped me with a heightened sense of empathy and compassion for others. When I see others suffering I see myself. Perhaps deep down rooted into my subconscious my love for social services and helping others stems from the living hell I experienced those 8 years of elementary school.
I’m so passionate about social inequality because I so often see the root of so much that is wrong with our society, the actual cause of poverty, as that of human beings ostracizing other human beings over things that are outside their control. Things like the colour of their skin, the families they are born into, their social standing, how attractive they are or not based on the social constructs of what is perceived to be “beautiful”, whether or not they have a disability, or money, or education.
We may have done away with the concept of “aristocracy”, in that the only way to be of a higher social standing is to be born into it. Or have we? Our current society, our democracy, is based on the principal that all people are the same, and should have access to the same opportunities as everyone else to better themselves, the idea that upward social mobility is possible if you work hard enough.
In reality, the aristocracy is still alive and doing well. Today we call them the 1%, the wealthiest. The families you are born into and how much money they have is a huge indicator of how successful you will be as an adult. The more resources a family has, the more they can spend on a child’s health and education, the better chance they have of surviving in this tough economic climate. And obviously, those who are born into families with resources are offered far more opportunities than those who aren’t. Countless and countless of studies prove this.
The biggest marker on a person’s success is how much education they have. And the way post secondary education is set up, more of a business than an institution of self improvement and learning, the whole system is rigged so only those who have more money and access to resources are able to get a higher education. There is very little room at the post secondary level to accommodate for those with barriers or lack of money and resources. Sure, all the expensive pretty brochures say otherwise, but once you actually try to access higher education, the experience tells quite a different story.
So why the sudden resurgence of my childhood the past week?
Why have I been so obsessed with this one memory of a group of girls telling me I wasn’t allowed to play with them because I wasn’t wearing a hair band?
Monday last week I got letters from Ryerson University, rejecting my application to the Advanced Standing Bachelor of Social Work Program. The same program known throughout the country for its outstanding principles of Anti-Oppression, deemed my Career and Work Counselling Diploma as unfit to qualify me for the Advanced Program, because it’s not the Social Service Worker Diploma. Even though my CWC program is offered by George Brown College’s School of Community and Social Work. Even though graduates of CWC can work as social service workers, as I have for 3 years, and social service workers can work as employment counsellors.
In fact, I have been working in social service worker roles because there are no entry level positions in Employment Counselling. Many job postings for employment counselling now ask for at least 3 years experience, and a Bachelor’s of Social Work, even though my Diploma provides all the skills necessary to do the job. I’ve been shut out of doing the work that I love and studied so hard, took out school loans in order to do, because I don’t have a BSW.
My last job, as an Intake Worker, didn’t get renewed because my employers wanted to hire someone with more credentials to replace me. So I spent all of last week training the new Intake Worker, one who is a Social Worker and has her BSW.
So I applied to get my BSW, thinking myself eligible for an advanced program because I had work experience and a college diploma, and I was turned away. I was told to apply for first year BSW, and go to University the full 4 years, full time.
The news was so disappointing to me. Once again I felt like that little girl who was too poor to own a hair band so she could play with her classmates. Once again I am being shut out.
Four Years of University are not only very expensive, but I’m 31 years old, have to worry about paying my rent because I don’t live with my parents, I don’t have a spouse to support me, and I need to work. Also, with all my health problems, I doubt I can do a full time course load. Which means it will take me much longer than the 4 years to complete the program, especially if I am working and doing school part time. Will I be stuck in school until I am 40 years old? When do I get to actually start my life, and actually have the career I want?
I also figured out that the Advance Standing Part Time program only opens up 20 spots, and hundreds of students apply. With that much demand for a more streamlined, fast track, part time program to accommodate for different student needs, why is the University only opening up 20 spots? Why aren’t more Universities offering more part time programs, or offering more credit for work experience and college diplomas? The answer is obvious: money.
For a program notorious for its anti-oppressive ideals, the school itself is no different than every other University in North America: money hungry and therefore oppressive in nature.
I want to finish my story however, of me as a little girl cast aside and told I could not play. I actually went home and looked through all my drawers and knick knacks and gifts relatives had given me over the years. And what do I find? A hair band! I still remember how it looked, a thin transparent plastic head piece and a tiny bow at the top that was red with white polka dots. It reminded me of Minnie Mouse. I forgot which relative gave it to me, but it did not matter, I could now play with my classmates!
So I went to school the next day with my hair band, and proudly wore it on my head at recess. Again I approached the girls and asked them if I could play with them.
And guess what? I was turned away again. “The hair band was just an excuse. We just don’t want to play with you.” I was told.
It was at that point I realized that I didn’t belong, and never would. Not with those girls, not at that school. Years later I think back, and I am glad I didn’t belong. Most of those girls grew up to become woman I wouldn’t really like anyway. And I made many new friends in high school and beyond that had great personalities and appreciated me for who I was, not how much money I had in the bank, or how I looked or what stuff I owned.
And my hope is that one day I will find a job that will let me advance in my career, and employers who will value what I have to offer, and maybe even a school who cares more about my experience and how passionate I am about Social Work enough to want to take me on as their student.