In her book, My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home, Amber Hollibaugh, a queer activist and self-proclaimed “poor-white-trash,” shares a story about a year she attended a prestigious boarding school on an academic scholarship. In the short essay “The Gap She Fostered,” Hollibaugh writes about feeling “different and stupid seeming” (163) among the wealthy and academically elite students at the boarding school, whose resources, experiences, and pedigrees she did not share. Her parents were seemingly supportive. They had built her a makeshift office with a desk and bookshelves, and had framed maps from her journeys and placed them on her bedroom walls as a way to recognize her achievements. One day, Hollibaugh came home to find the books she had brought back from her year at boarding school sprawled around her room, her mother among them. Crying, her mother asked, “How can you read them, understand them, if I can’t? How can you still be my daughter and have these on your walls?” (165). The traumatic divide that this moment symbolized for Hollibaugh continued to haunt her as an adult. “I have never put together an office,” she admits, “when I haven’t fought against this sense of betraying my family.”
A couple of months after graduating with my master’s degree, I received the bound copy of my thesis. At this point, as many of us know, the pomp and circumstance of completion (if there had even been any) had certainly long faded, so that the delivery of the thesis felt like nothing more than a pleasant little anachronism. Nevertheless, with my tome in tow, I took a drive to my parents’ house in Wynne, a small town in the Arkansas Delta about an hour west of Memphis where I had been living and going to school. I caught my mother pulling out of the drive on her way to run errands. When she rolled down her window to greet me, I shoved the nondescript black rectangle at her and, like a child, insisted, “Look, Ma!” She held the book for a moment, smiled weakly, and mumbled something polite. I wanted her to read the inscription, but when I suggested that she open the book, she said, “Oh, I’ll look at it later. It’s not like I could understand a word of it, anyway.”
I stumbled upon Hollibaugh’s essay several years later, near the end of my doctoral course work. It was the first time that someone had articulated the kind of experience that comes with being an academic from a rural, working class family. Like Hollibaugh, I stumbled into a world that no one had prepared me for. I am forever the remedial academic who is never quite as well-read, prepared, and resourceful as my colleagues. Nevertheless, that education has distinguished me in other ways. My family is at once proud of my accomplishments and alienated by them; supportive of my activism and passion, but at the same time confused by the ideas I champion and the differences that they create between us. When we think of marginalization, we often focus on the relationship between margin and center—power and the powerless. I thought that I recognized well my own personal relationship with the aspects of my identity that were formulated in those margins of identity, as well as the privileges that I had been granted by my proximity to the center, to power. What I had not thought about, until that moment, was what happens in those spaces in between privilege and marginalization. That moment, standing beside my mother’s truck, I moved into this space between the margins of working-class rurality and the privileges afforded me by my education in an urban institution. This was, in fact, the moment when “liminality”—that nebulous term I had once loved to sprinkle recklessly into my term papers—became concrete.
I teach at a small college that services a primarily rural area. I often talk with students who are facing experiences much like Hollibaugh’s, bargaining their obligations against the resistances their family and friends have to the demands of their college education. Like Hollibaugh I “went away” to school, but most of the students I teach don’t leave their communities like we did. They seek opportunities and successes at their local colleges and universities. At first wide-eyed and idealistic, they have to create spaces for their new thoughts and ideas in their own homes and communities. Because my students are often commuting from even smaller towns to our college, I can imagine this only gives them time to second-guess themselves, their decisions, their ideas. When I think of my own experience in contrast to theirs—about how I was given a space and an independence with which to pursue my ideas, how deeply privileged I was by virtue of circumstance and by the loving support of my family—I wonder if my experience would had been different had I lived at home while I went to school. If I, like Hollibaugh, had tried to make a space for myself in a place I no longer quite belonged.
As I sit talking with students who are facing opposition from family members and friends, who are both defensive and confused about the distance that their loved one’s education is creating between them, I give the students courage and hope that these are distances and divides that can be traversed. But I must admit that it sometimes feels a bit disingenuous to give my students that hope. My family and I are close, but it is still a challenge to locate shared experiences and common grounds. I struggle with how to (or whether to) identify and address those resistances my students may be facing in the very support systems they look to when the college itself becomes become overwhelming and alienating—how to be respectful of their (our) experiences while also encouraging them to keep going. How can I prepare students for ambivalent responsibility of being not quite a part of something, but not quite separate from something else? I, too, feel like I am forever in transition—en route—lingering in that liminal space just in between Memphis and Wynne, and, like many of my students, perpetually lingering between who I was and who I will be.
Anna M. Esquivel, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of English
Jackson State Community College
Hollibaugh, Amber. “Femme Fables: The Gap She Fostered.” My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. 161-165. Print.