I used to really care about becoming a classy broad. I honestly think that was my goal in life when I was 16, and while it helped me avoid some rituals of teenage stupidity, it also stunted my development of skills such as forming an opinion or sticking up for myself. I tried to be like Grace Kelly, the superficial image on a movie screen, not a flesh-and-blood human being.
Right around the time I graduated high school, my mom gave me a newspaper clipping that defined class. And that was it. That was my plan. I thought I had my glamorous life all mapped out, and went off to college with what was, in reality, nothing more than a vague expectation that I would get get my MRS.
Then college actually happened. I got an education, saw some of the world, and I came to certain conclusions about the concept of class. You’ll have to excuse my language here, but there really is no more honest way of saying this: I came out of college believing that the phrase “She’s such a classy lady” was really just code for “Shut the f#ck up, b*tch.”
Basically, trying to impress men with your classiness means keeping those pesky opinions to yourself. In aspiring to behave with class, we really just bow to an oppressive patriarchal system with the hopes that someone might buy us some nice jewelry. Ron Burgandy values classiness so much that he cautions an entire city to stay that way in his nightly news sign-off. That’s who wants you to be classy. Men like Ron Burgandy.
My twenties were spent making up for lost time. I worried less about make-up and more about politics; I engaged in behavior that my snotty little teenage self would have considered crass. I grew up, and I thawed out most of the frozen aspects of my former ice princess personality. I am most definitely a better person for it.
One of the annoying things about lifestyle changes is that, inevitably, you leave a vacuum in the social solar system. It honestly felt like there were girls sweeping in behind me, picking up my discarded identity and trying it on. This is a completely egotistic and paranoid way of looking at the world – I realize this. Still, when I hear Kate Middleton’s style praised as classy, I think wistfully back to my old fashion sense.
Then again, Kate Middleton never held a full-time job. Her biggest accomplishment is who she married. That wardrobe for which I am so nostalgic? Bought it with Daddy’s money.
It’s times like this that I struggle to find a foothold. I want to be sophisticated and elegant, but on my own terms, and certainly not at any cost to my independence. I think that the word class is a lot like the word irony – it’s a complicated concept that has been dumbed down so much that we’ve gotten the meaning completely wrong.
I was in full-on hater mode Tuesday night, lurking on Facebook and sneering at comments made by friends of friends. I started out angry about “these morons’ politics,” but by the time I went to bed, I might have been more upset by the fact that they look better in pictures than I do. There’s an entire beauty industry that exploits such insecurities; but sometimes, I just want to be pretty. So this concept of class came floating back to me as I tried to sleep.
It is somewhat ironic – maybe? – that I get very judgmental when I think about the concept of class, because judgmental is the direct opposite of classy. Like right now, I really want to lift a Facebook photo of trashy behavior and post it here, but that would be very unclassy. So instead, let’s watch Sarah Jessica Parker and Maggie Smith conversing about classiness… in Italian.
Yesterday morning, something brilliant happened. I got to work and, thanks to time zones and tape delays and this whole Twitter-versus-NBC Olympics coverage debacle, I wound up listening to a women’s boxing match by streaming Irish radio over the internet. (Boxing on the radio – how very 1920s of me.)
If you don’t know who Katie Taylor is, you will in a few hours. She’s a 26-year-old Irish boxing phenom; she’s the reason we have women’s boxing in the Olympics now. She was fighting in a semi-final bout when I tuned in Wednesday morning. The sound of it was nothing short of glorious; a roaring sea of Irish fans chanting and cheering over the commentators who were trying to tell me about the fight I couldn’t see.
Taylor’s opponent, Mavzuna Chorieva of Tajikistan, apparently began using some dodgy tactics in attempt to draw out Taylor. The expression “throwing shapes” isn’t uniquely Irish – we certainly use it here in the states – but I laughed out loud when I heard it on Wednesday because I had just read that phrase in the work of another Irish wordsmith. In Eoin Colfer’s seventh Artemis Fowl book, The Atlantis Complex, the luchador opponents of Butler and Juliet, aka Crazy Bear and The Jade Princess, “were busy throwing shapes in the far corner of the ring” in a situation not unlike the one I was imagining for Katie Taylor.
Then the commentator dropped another word that we use here in America but seems to take on a more magical meaning when evoked by an Irish person: class. As in “Katie’s all class.” To this listener, the word immediately conveyed the certainty that, amid the screaming crowd and crushing expectations and shape-throwing nonsense, Katie Taylor remained calm, composed, and in control. Then it all came rushing back to me.
The Irish love the word class. They express approval by saying “that’s class” or “pure class” or “it was class.” I knew this. I must have forgotten sometime in the last eight years, but the boxing commentary reminded me.
When I worked at Charlie Byrne’s, I was really into Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor mysteries because the stories are set in Galway, with many a recognizable locale, including Charlie Bryne’s bookshop. Ken Bruen himself would often come into the shop. The manager, Vinny, is a character in the novels, and his speaking parts become more and more frequent as the series goes on.
Vinny is certainly the face of the bookshop; I’ve even heard some people call him Charlie, just assuming that it’s his name on the sign. Charlie himself only appears once in stories, and it’s an accurate portrayal of the dynamic he and Vinny have in the shop. For his part, Ken Bruen was paying attention to Charlie’s behind-the-scenes persona, and I remember gushing about this passage to one of my co-workers:
[Tommy Kennedy is the narrator’s bookish mentor, a librarian who romanticizes the original Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris.]
Charlie Byrne’s comes close to Tommy’s ideal. Some years before, I’d been lurking in the crime section. A student had a beautiful American edition of Walt Whitman. He was peering at the price. Charlie, passing, said,
“Take it with you.”
“I haven’t enough.”
“Ary, settle it some other time.”
Handed him The Collected Robert Frost, adding,
“You’ll want this, too.”
– Ken Bruen, The Killing of the Tinkers, page 33
To me, it seems like the Irish use class mostly as a noun. A lot of the slang dictionaries I’m looking at are saying it’s an adjective, as in “that movie was class” or “top class performance,” but I hear it more as the answer to an unasked question: You want to know how to define class? There. That’s class.
How does Katie Taylor react to someone throwing shapes in the ring? She’s all class. Pure class.
What are you observing about the human condition when you watch a bookstore owner bestowing books on someone seeking knowledge? Class.
When curiosity got the best of me, I googled “advice columnist define class” and immediately came across Ann Landers’s What is Class? Oddly enough, the first link I clicked on was a woman asking the same question that had sent me to the Google machine in the first place: My mother once gave me a clipping about class; where can I find it again?
I guess the question of class is a common factor for many mother-daughter relationships. A major theme in the book Gone with the Wind – much more so than the movie – is how Scarlett O’Hara wants to be classy like her mother, but the high spirit she inherited from her Irish father prevents her from becoming the lady she wishes she could be.
And to be honest, it was the mothers on Facebook who prompted my little hateration spree Tuesday night. I’m 30 years old, and many mothers of the girls I went to high school with are on Facebook. I read their posts (and their politics), and I remember a time when these were the people I wanted to impress. These were the arbiters of taste who passed judgment on me, the ones I wanted to find me classy.
Now they seemed so small and petty, their opinions outdated and their whole lives representative of a time when women had fewer options. I guess I got angry at myself for ever giving them power over me, but I quickly projected that anger on to them.
I passed judgment. I judged them for judging me. I wasn’t being classy in the true sense of the word, and because my opponents were little more than profile pictures on a social media site, they appeared classy in the superficial sense of the word. I was out-classed. So I decided to attack the word class, with jazzy footwork and ineffectual jabs, until Katie Taylor stepped into the ring to defend it.
Scarlett O’Hara’s Irishness might have kept her from becoming a “classy lady,” but I don’t think it stopped her from having class. She delivered babies and cared for the sick – just like her mother – but she also stood up to yankees and carpetbaggers and people who thought a woman couldn’t run a business. If anything, her Irish blood made her a stronger contender in an emerging new society; she faced challenges her mother never had to.
The Ann Landers column deserves another read-through, because we tend to simplify the word class into inaccurate little sound bites or Pinterest photos of classy-looking ladies. In reality, it’s a much more complex idea:
Class never runs scared. It is sure-footed and confident in the knowledge that you can meet life head on and handle whatever comes along.
Jacob had it. Esau didn’t. Symbolically, we can look to Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel. Those who have class have wrestled with their own personal angel and won a victory that marks them thereafter.
Class never makes excuses. It takes its lumps and learns from past mistakes.
Class is considerate of others. It knows that good manners are nothing more than a series of small sacrifices.
Class bespeaks an aristocracy that has nothing to do with ancestors or money. The most affluent blueblood can be totally without class while the descendant of a Welsh miner may ooze class from every pore.
Class never tries to build itself up by tearing others down. Class is already up and need not strive to look better by making others look worse.
Class can “walk with kings and keep its virtue and talk with crowds and keep the common touch.” Everyone is comfortable with the person who has class because he is comfortable with himself.
If you have class you don’t need much of anything else. If you don’t have it, no matter what else you have, it doesn’t make much difference.
-Ann Landers Encyclopedia