"Do you consider yourself low class, middle class or high class?"
In 1988 I had no clue what this question meant, and more than 20 years later I'm still confused. Back then, as far as classes went, I was in Mrs. Hall's third grade at Avalon Elementary on Catalina Island. I was the only black kid in the room, the whole school, the whole town, the whole island. The class to which I belonged was the least of my worries. But for some reason my baby sitter, Eve, wanted to know how I ranked myself.
"Low class" didn't seem right because then, as now, I had a natural affinity toward superiority. That was my mother, Frances, in me. She corrected any and all bad habits. It wasn't "I'm fin'stah ga outside"; it was "I'm about to go play." It was never "there it go" when I pointed to a lost doll in the corner of my closet. It was "there it is." Your Barbie's not "going" anywhere.
Plus, I was smart, which again, according to Frances, was a natural deterrent to anything possibly low rate or lowbrow. Being smart would get me over. "You're smart; you can figure it out," she'd say if I didn't understand something I'd read or seen or heard. Those answers frustrated me so much then. Why can't you just tell me? Why do I have to figure anything out when you're right here?
I'd yell these questions in her direction using my inside voice, and she'd offer no response. Then I'd trudge over to our constantly growing stack of books and find the dictionary or the encyclopedia or the Bible and figure it out for myself. Still, I thought I knew everything there was to know about myself then, because what I didn't know, I could always figure out.
Like the whole "low class" question. No, I definitely wasn't low class.
But I knew we weren't "high class," either, because, well, that was obvious. At the time, we lived in a two-room apartment-motel with a bathroom down the hall. Across the street were the new condos where my "friend" Shonda lived. I secretly hated her because she was a shameless show-off who cheated at the games she made up. Shonda lived with her father and his girlfriend in a two-story "apartment home" with carpet and a fancy bathroom where we once found a "sponge" resting on the ledge of the tub.
Shonda, in her feigned intelligence, said it meant that her dad and this long-legged woman who was not her mother were having s-e-x. Neither one of us knew what that meant, but we assumed it was very grown-up.
Plus, I believed most of the things Shonda said because she won all our games. I cried about this fact once, when she refused to let me win some stupid contest that only she could actually win, according to the incessantly changing rulebook. When I whined to Frances about the inherent unfairness of life — including, but not limited to, Shonda's games — my mother laughed. You let her make the rules, little brown-eyed girl. Later I'd create the "I Hate Shonda Club," which touted an impressive membership of three or four, depending on our moods.
There was one other black woman, named Jeri, who lived on our floor. Her voice was scratchy and beautiful. Her boyfriend, a fisherman named John, told my mother I was going to "break hearts some day" whenever we barbecued with them on the deck that looked out onto the harbor. The Crescent Avenue Motel was an adventure to an 8-year-old.
So after much consideration, I answered "Middle class!" with my hands shooting up in the air triumphantly. Eve, my baby sitter, actually laughed at me.
To this day I'm not sure why she asked me in the first place. I worshipped Eve. She was older and therefore fantastic. She was tall with short, curly black hair. She had boobs, she cursed and she wore cutoff jean shorts everywhere. Plus, Eve knew all the older kids in town who hung out by the bench near the beach the locals called "Horny Corner." When we walked together from school, she was forced to introduce me — I felt popular by proxy.
And now that I look back on it, when Eve asked about our "class," she looked around our motel-room home in disgust and flourished her hand in the air as if to say, "This? You think this is middle class?" Why a 14-year-old would seek to embarrass an 8-year-old is beyond me. Plus, my mother was paying this girl. Her mother and Frances worked together as waitresses at Antonio's. She needed me just as much as I needed her. Maybe that made her angry. Maybe she wanted to punch me.
"I'd consider this … low class," she said with a teenage authority that made everything true. "This is like … a dump."
I thought about Eve recently when a friend suggested that I move to New York, which is out of my price range for the time being (at least the New York I want to live in now, not the one I lived in back when ramen noodles were king). He said I was "too fancy," and that made me laugh because two decades ago, I was anything but. Or maybe it just wasn't as obvious to everyone else then.
I still don't know which category I'd choose today. If Eve walked into my rented two-bedroom condo in a "transitioning" neighborhood, filled with West Elm furniture and IKEA basics, what would she say? And more important, would I care?
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.