Each week the Reckon Women newsletter includes a column from women in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. Click here to join the Reckon Women Facebook group.
by Tina Bausinger
I grew up working class poor. My parents moved to Springdale, Arkansas in 1980, and our house only cost around $14,000. I knew my family had less money than my peers, but it was only when a friend of mine asked to go home from a slumber party because she didn’t like my house that I truly realized how being poor made one an outsider.
My parents worked long hours to provide for us. My mother grew up in Springdale too, in the 1950s, and dropped out of school in the eighth grade. She didn’t drop out because she hated school; she quit to find a job to help my grandmother feed her nine siblings.
My dad, a high school graduate and military veteran, also worked in factories most of his life. He worked for Glad Manufacturing, which sold to Clorox, for over 20 years. That job was everything to him. When he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 57, and was told he couldn’t work anymore, a part of him died right there in the doctor’s office. He loved his job, but I believe that job killed him. Twenty years of inhaling plastic fumes and glue residue sealed to his kidneys like cement. He didn’t have a chance of beating the cancer. The tumor was nine millimeters in diameter when they found it. He died two years later.
Even though my parents worked more than forty hours a week, it wasn’t enough. Our family of five had food and a house, but just barely. Mom and Dad fought constantly. Sometimes, after work, Mom would pull up in the driveway and just sit in her truck chain-smoking. She didn’t want to come inside.
My husband and I were married months after graduation. I tried college, but was unprepared for the rigor, the cost, or the time. I dropped out. We had three kids, and we were also poor. We worked dead end jobs and never had enough.
It took me a while to decide to go back to college. I flirted with higher education for a few years before I committed. I earned my associate’s degree at a junior college, and every single day I attended, I felt out of place, until I found writing. Writing helped me feel a bit more like I was part of things.
When I transferred to a four-year university, I never quite felt that I fit in. For one thing, I was fifteen years older than most of my peers. I struggled quite a bit with assignments. I was working night shift, full-time at a hospital, and most of the time exhausted. In the back of my mind, I worried incessantly that I’d fail. I always felt like an outsider, in spite of everything. I didn’t belong.
Once, I mentioned this to one of my favorite professors. She said, “Oh, that’s called ‘Imposter Syndrome.’ It’s very real.”
I began reading everything I could find on the topic.
I ended up graduating with honors, and I was the president of our school’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society. I won awards for my writing and was published. My college featured me in their magazine. The local paper did a story on me. I was interviewed by the local news channel. I still did not feel like I belonged. I felt like a fake.
When I walked across the stage with my diploma, I felt an enormous relief. I was the first in my family to ever graduate. Until I held my diploma in my hands, I worried (just a bit) that there had been a mistake.
I began teaching right away. I realized I wanted to teach college, and that required a master’s degree.
I still remember the first time I logged onto Blackboard as a graduate student. I had no idea what anyone was talking about. I had to look up terms right and left. I felt that most of my time was spent trying to cover up my ignorance. Any moment, I thought, they will find out I don’t really know anything. Any day, everyone will see what a fraud I am. The ghost of the imposter is ever present, as much as I will it away.
I have published two books, magazine articles, poetry, and editorials. The feeling of “passing” as educated will probably never leave. It’s stamped like an internal tattoo, completely self-inflicted. In my mind’s eye, I am always the little girl in the poor neighborhood, the one in the old house that has a bit of a funny smell. I’m not ashamed of where I came from–I’m proud of my roots. But I will always be an imposter in my mind’s eye.
The more I talk to other Southern women scholars, they secretly admit the same. So, if you feel this way, too, know you’re not alone. We need to help each other see our worth, which is not easy, but necessary.
Tina Bausinger is a doctoral candidate in Higher Education Administration and Learning Technologies. Her dissertation “Southern Voices, Y’all: A Narrative Inquiry of First Generation, Working Class Women Students Originating from the Rural South” discusses rural southern women’s voices in higher education.