I just finished reading the book "Prep" by Curtis Sittenfeld. It's about a middle-class teenager going to an eastern boarding school for high school. The author nailed a lot of things about being middle-class in a rich world, being insecure when everyone around seems so sure of themselves, and general teenage angst with boys and friends. One of my big gripes about the book: the protagonist played herself to be a victim for four years, and I just can't see where someone would allow that to happen. She wanted to go to boarding school, and the whole time she's there, she feels that she can't fit in, and goes to a lot of trouble to be alone. She is sad and angry most of the time, but won't allow herself to quit and go to a different school. She wants to fit in but would hate herself if she did. There's even a line towords the end about how she only feels like she looks like a boarding school kid when she's away from the school.
I don't think as a teenager I was that angsty. I related to a lot of the book--a lot of the experiences the protagonist had were the same ones I had when I went away to college--but I only wallowed in self-pity for a half of a semester. There's no way I could have done it for four years. She denied herself a lot of happiness, then was pissed off that she had been denied this happiness by others.
One scene in particular touched a nerve. Her parents visited during parents weekend for the first time during her junior year, and her feelings of shame and protection towards her parents were something I remember myself doing to my parents. When they would visit me at school, I'd want to rush them through a tour or not spend time in the dorms. My friends would see them and know they were poor, but that's not why I didn't want my folks to linger. I didn't want them to be surrounded by the wealth that I was surrounded by on a daily basis and feel less of themselves. I wanted to protect them from being humiliated and feeling what I felt when I first went away. It probably played off that I was embarrased by them, and I can't say that wasn't part of it, but mostly I never wanted them to feel out of place in a world that I felt increasingly comfortable in.
A few years ago I read a great essay in Unte Reader written by a man who had grown up blue-collar but was now white-collar. The overlying theme I remember is that there's a segment of the population that shares his conundrum: you have one foot in both worlds, and so you don't truly belong to either of them. There's guilt if you leave the blue-collar world behind and resentment if you turn your back on the white-collar world you feel you've earned. I feel this most acutely whenever I go back to my hometown to visit my parents. I wonder if that will ever change.