Hav­ing ‘class’ is about how you act, not what you own

The Kansas City Star - - Opinion - BY GINA BARRECA The Hart­ford Courant

Un­like the char­ac­ter of Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby,” my voice is not full of money. My voice is full of traf­fic.

But it’s also full of laugh­ter, wise­cracks and emo­tion.

I have no class. Every­body who knows me would agree, the only dif­fer­ence be­ing that some apol­o­gize, sotto voce, on my be­half, while others yell it from the rooftops in de­light.

Class is like sex­ual mod­esty: Only some­body with­out it can talk about it in public. That’s why I’m your girl.

I learned how class was traditiona­lly de­fined by watch­ing old movies and read­ing books. I went to an Ivy League school on a schol­ar­ship and went to Cam­bridge Univer­sity on a fel­low­ship. All of this means I can do a ter­rific im­i­ta­tion of a mid-At­lantic ac­cent and speak flu­ently in what used to be re­ferred to as Re­ceived Stan­dard English. But I can only do it for a cou­ple of min­utes, be­cause af­ter that I ex­pect Henry Hig­gins to an­nounce, “By Ge­orge, I think she’s got it!”

The voice and ac­cent are im­por­tant in­di­ca­tors of class, I dis­cov­ered when I got to col­lege, be­cause no­body is sup­posed to rec­og­nize where you came from.

You aren’t meant to have come from any­where once you’ve ar­rived. You must give the im­pres­sion that you have al­ways been. Ev­ery­thing about you must ap­pear “comme il faut,” which trans­lates from French, more or less, into “this is how it’s done.” Your fam­ily mem­bers and their sta­tus must ap­pear to have been awarded by des­tiny and not to have wrested or stolen from the sweat of others or from the earth it­self.

It would be a mis­take to con­fuse class with cash. Those who in­her­ited in­flu­ence, power and money ap­pear to have been awarded their po­si­tion in life. The rest of us are still striv­ing to make it.

Ap­par­ently, the only thing worse than not be­ing born with class is try­ing to get some. That’s be­cause try­ing to do any­thing is frowned upon by those in po­si­tions of real priv­i­lege, since it in­volves ex­pend­ing ef­fort, dis­play­ing am­bi­tion and ac­cept­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of fail­ure.

So let’s think about it: How do you de­fine “class,” then? The ground rules are that we’re not sim­ply talk­ing about where you’ve been plopped down eco­nom­i­cally. Those who come with prop­erty, gold and stock op­tions trail­ing be­hind them do not nec­es­sar­ily have class. One of my fa­vorite writ­ers, Dorothy Parker, pointed out,

“If you want to know what God thinks about money, just look at the peo­ple he gave it to.” She did not mean that as a com­pli­ment.

If your pri­mary ac­com­plish­ment is be­ing able to trace your lin­eage back to the Nor­man Con­quest, you should be re­minded that ev­ery hu­man be­ing comes from a long line of an­ces­tors. The fact that a per­son’s fam­ily came to Amer­ica in 1620 makes her no more im­pres­sive than some­body whose fam­ily came to Amer­ica at 2:15 p.m. yes­ter­day, and it al­most cer­tainly makes her sto­ries less in­ter­est­ing.

If class isn’t be­ing sur­rounded by trap­pings of priv­i­lege se­cured by mem­ber­ship to Amer­i­can — or any other — aris­toc­racy, what be­hav­iors be­stow a per­son with class?

Class is ac­cept­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity — be­cause your de­ci­sions have been thought­ful, care­ful and con­sid­er­ate. Class is in­tegrity — be­cause the var­i­ous parts of your life fit to­gether in a pat­tern that you’ve de­signed, and there’s no need to pre­tend you’re some­thing you’re not.

You don’t switch out per­son­al­i­ties, af­fects or man­ners de­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances. You make the ease, the dig­nity and the self-re­spect of those around you your first con­cern. You clean up af­ter your­self, lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally, un­der­stand­ing that if you don’t do it, some­body else will be left with your mess.

Class doesn’t whine, doesn’t gos­sip, doesn’t sneer and never looks down. Class looks you in the eye and sees you and ac­knowl­edges you.

In a house of true class, you are al­ways wel­come. Even if your voice sounds like traf­fic.

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