I am sitting here in two pairs of pants, two shirts, a sweater with the hood up, a shawl wrapped around my legs, a pair of wool fingerless gloves on, with a fuzzy blanket wrapped snuggly around my shoulders. Our thermostat is set to 20 (Celsius, about 68 F), and we have all the heat going into the tiniest room in the house – our office. The door is closed to keep the heat in. We have just learned that our house has no insulation. Apparently, the fire department came out to check the heat loss in these houses, and the heat simply pours out of them. Even the University recognizes them to be of “poor quality and design” and plans to tear them down in the next few years to build better housing. But strangely, we love our little house.
We live at the south end of Oxford, nestled between Iffley and Rose Hill. Iffley is a delightful 11th century village that meanders slowly along the Isis and across the docks. Rose Hill is a tidy little estate housing area built in two stages – 1930′s to rehouse the poor living in Jericho, and further in the 1960′s to house the factory workers at the local auto plant. When we first moved here, we thought nothing of popping out the Rose Hill gate to the bus at the Oval. However, shortly after arriving, we learned that many of the graduate students would rather take the long walk along the (often flooded) tow path into town than walk through the housing estate. Apparently, in the 80′s and 90′s, there were some troubles in the area. Youths would ding-dong-dash with firecrackers in our little housing area. Cars were sometimes set alight in the Rose Hill neighborhood. The cops were always in the area. Etc., etc., etc. Eventually, the huge and imposing gate system was installed around the graduate student housing area.
I tried not to look too skeptical when we were told this. It sounded so familiar, and i, so far, have loved my morning walks with the scores of elementary kids to the Oval where their school and my bus is. Besides, i quietly doubted that a group of well-educated graduate students and their families would seriously avoid the neighborhood.
And then we went to the social club in the Rose Hill Community Center. We’re a little far from town. There is one pub out the back gate in Iffley (that looks cozy and has board games and a roaring fireplace), but other than that, there isn’t anything else for about a mile from our home. Except the Rose Hill Community Center. We heard music and wandered in to see what was going on. We discovered the most wonderful social club. We paid our annual membership dues and got to meeting people.
I was struck by a single statement that night. The bar tender, a wonderful woman about to travel to Australia to visit her daughter and grandchildren said, “People up there are afraid of us.” She looked away a little as she said it, down at the floor to her right. Apparently, we were told, no one from the graduate student housing has ever joined the social club. What was most striking was the deep sadness with which we were told that, and i was left wondering what it must be like, what it must feel like to recognize that people are afraid of you – to be able to articulate it so freely.
What i kept asking myself is, “Afraid of ‘what,’ exactly?” The families that take their children to the Rose Hill elementary school on the Oval? The lively community events that seem to be happening at least four times a week at the Community Centre? Rose Hill is such an active and involved community that when the City of Oxford tried to build a new Community Centre away from the Oval, there was enough of an uproar that new plans were made to keep the Community Center nearby. The 90′s were nearly 15 years ago, and none of the graduate students in this housing have been here that long (i should hope!) – and even the grounds keeper has only been here 7 years.
But then i began to notice – everyone in our housing area leaves by the back gate – out to where there are no buses. Even the mothers with prams head out the back gate to take the long way to the Sainsbury megastore. There’s a shortcut down an alley way in Rose Hill. It’s not a ten minute walk. It’s a 25 minute walk through Iffley. Am i reading too much into it? Was the bartender?
I have nothing pithy or quippy or particularly academic to say about this. But i do wonder, as i sit here bundled in four layers in the only warm room in our tiny little house, what, exactly, is class, and why does it matter so much? I am still in a constant state of awe and wonder that we have the privilege (the absolutely, accidental, wholly unexpected privilege) of getting advanced degrees. Jason is still floored, at times, by the fact that he is in Oxford. We have never once stopped being grateful, never once stopped recognizing that we have landed some great fortune. I know we’re not the only broke graduate students in this housing area – this house is so inexpensive and so very far away from Oxford that i can only guess that everyone else is in as dire straits as we are. So why the separation? What is it really that drives this wedge – however real or imagined – between these two communities that sit right on top of one another? And how do we dislodge it?