"Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education," by New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Land, is our "GMA" Book Club pick for November.
On the heels of "Maid," Land's new book takes readers along her journey as she finishes college and pursues her writing career.
The story follows her quest, facing obstacles at every turn, including a complex loan system, not having enough money for food and navigating judgment from professors and fellow students who don't understand the demands of attending college while living under the poverty line. Despite the challenges, Land persevered as she found a way to maneuver her situation and eventually graduated in her mid-thirties.
In clear, candid and moving prose, "Class" paints an intimate and heartbreaking portrait of motherhood as it converges and often conflicts with personal desire and professional ambition, offering a searing indictment of America's educational system and an inspiring testimony of a mother's triumph against all odds.
Read an excerpt below and get a copy of the book here.
Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education by Stephanie Land
This month, we are also teaming up with Little Free Library to give out free copies in Times Square and at 150 locations across the U.S. and Canada. Since 2009, more than 300 million books have been shared in Little Free Libraries across the world. Click here to find a copy of "CLASS" at a Little Free Library location near you.
Read along with us and join the conversation all month long on our Instagram account -- GMA Book Club and #GMABookClub.
My daughter arrived at her first day of kindergarten with a backpack full of donated supplies. Our morning had been the usual rush to get her hair brushed without too much resistance or screaming, and teeth brushed without me needing to watch, allowing me a moment to take huge gulps of hot coffee while I stared at the day planner lying open on the counter. Now Emilia reached up to hold my hand, eyes fixed on the line of buses across the field. Children ran toward the school, their new backpacks dangling from their elbows, nearly touching the freshly mowed grass. Several broke away in the direction of the large playground that was one of our favorite places to spend summer afternoons. Most of the kids slowed as they reached the asphalt behind the school, crowding together where I assumed there must be a back door to the gymnasium.
As I started to move in that direction, Emilia's small, sweaty hand clutched mine more tightly. I knelt down to look her in the eye and grinned. Emilia had been so excited about her first-day-of-school outfit that she'd worn it to bed. Her babysitter told me about it when I had arrived home at 10 p.m., exhausted after my own first day of classes for my senior year of college. I'd smiled when I saw the outfit she had chosen. It was the same one she'd worn pretty constantly lately, a brightly colored leotard I'd bought her the year before for the preschool she had attended at a gymnastics center. The stretchy material seemed to perfectly fit her determination to never stop moving.This morning she'd added a maroon zip-up hoodie with gray letters across the front that spelled GRIZ, the mascot for the University of Montana. I had rescued it from a lost-and-found. Those sweat-shirts were a dime a dozen in my town.
"You okay?" I asked, resisting the urge to rub her shoulders. She nodded in response. Most of my experience with parenting her was spent alone, so I felt like I knew my kid pretty well. Emilia wasn't the type to want hugs of reassurance. I reached up to try to push her hood down so I could gently smooth her hair. She dodged and I didn't persist, choosing instead to stand up again, watching the kids, some chasing each other and some going back and forth on swings.
Emilia had had a rough few days. She'd spent only a week with her dad this summer and said goodbye to him a few days before. The geographical distance between them had been my doing. Life in close proximity to her dad, Jamie, had become unbearably unhealthy and so I made the difficult decision two years ago to move us more than five hundred miles away to Missoula, Montana. Jamie became abusive soon after I told him that I was pregnant seven years ago, and his cruelty had escalated when I said I wasn't getting an abortion. He took every opportunity since then to tear me down with words and threats of violence, not hiding his joy over my struggles, and expressing resentment and anger for any amount of success I experienced. Our parenting agreement included a paragraph outlining that his time with our daughter was limited due to his history of domestic violence. I had stared at those words, reading them over and over. I'd fought tirelessly for his abuse to be acknowledged by the courts and I still found it hard to trust that I had finally been believed.
Jamie had promised Emilia she could come visit him for a month over the summer, but as usual, he broke as many promises as he made, and then it became my responsibility to break my kid's heart by telling her he wouldn't follow through. Instead of finding child care for that summer, he said his teenage brother (who didn't drive) could fly up and watch Emilia, or maybe his coworker's wife could help out for a few hours a day at her house all the way across town. None of his plans made any sort of logical sense. It was like he thought our kid was already in middle school instead of turning six that summer. I forced him to tell her himself that he'd shortened her visit to a week because he couldn't find a babysitter, and that she wasn't getting the new bike he'd promised her, either. He didn't call often, but before Emilia's visit all he had talked about was that he planned to teach her how to ride a bike. He promised her a pink bicycle with a basket and one of those doll size seats you can attach to the back. Emilia drew pictures of it at preschool and between the pages of notes I took in class. Her preschool teacher beamed when Emilia talked about how excited she was. I didn't have the heart to lean over to the teacher and say in a low voice that the father Emilia adored was an emotionally abusive asshole. After the disappointments at the start of her summer, I tried my best to talk up what we could do instead. That worked, or it seemed to, but she ignored the bike that a housecleaning client had handed down to me. When I asked her if she wanted to try it, she refused, adding that she never wanted to ride a bike ever in her whole life.
Jamie, ironically, lived on Montana Street in Portland, Oregon, in a house he rented with his cousin and a couple of other people. I never knew how many roommates he had or how old they were or where my kid slept at night. This time he said he would get an air mattress for him to sleep on and give her the bed, but I doubted that happened. His preparations for her visit consisted of pulling out two bins of her clothes and toys.
A friend offered to drive me to pick up Emilia from her dad's at the end of her visit since my car wasn't reliable enough for long trips anymore. As we came to a stop in front of Jamie's house, wondering if it was the right one, he opened the front door and walked down first to hand me Emilia's backpack. I jogged across the street to meet him before he could get too close to Sylvie, who sat in the driver's seat with the window down out of curiosity. I didn't want him to smile and wave at her in an effort to charm her, which was his MO. It was another form of his gaslighting, to try to convince the people around me that he was a good guy. Without saying anything, I took the backpack from him and turned to put it on the backseat next to Emilia's booster.
"She's a little upset," he said behind me, loud enough so Sylvie could hear across the street. I didn't want to look at his face. He liked to say things like this. He liked to think Emilia didn't want to leave his house, instead of acknowledging the complexities of the situation or protecting her from concepts that were far too adult for her to understand. He liked to tell her he didn't know if he would have enough money to see her in six months. He liked to tell her that he had to give me "a lot of money" and how that made it hard for him to see her.
Emilia clung to him when he brought her out, her feet hooked together, one hand grasped around her other wrist behind his neck. He made a display of how hard she held on by raising his hands to let go. He laughed, smiling big enough to show his crooked tooth. When I reached for her, she surprised me by immediately putting her arms around my neck, her hands and feet locking together in the same way. We walked across the street like that, Jamie following a few paces before he stopped on the curb in front of his house.
"Bye, Emilia! Daddy loves you!" He said it again when she didn't respond, then I felt her chest quake with sobs, like she couldn't hold them in anymore. I walked around to the other side of the car and held her, feeling her whole body shake with every sound she made in my ear. I burst into tears along with her.
"I'm so sorry," I told her, stroking the back of her head. I didn't know what else to say.
Several minutes passed before I could get Emilia into her booster seat and buckled. When Sylvie started her car and drove off, Emilia put her hand on the window and cried out "Daddy!" over and over until it became a sort of moan.
But Jamie had already gone back inside, never noticing that we took a while to leave, never coming back out to check on her or wave goodbye. It was probably best he didn't. Her first day of kindergarten was in four days and my classes began in two. We had to switch gears whether we were ready to or not.
"Well," I said, pushing myself off the car. The kids on the playground grew in numbers as more ran over from the back of the school to join them. We'd been standing there for about five minutes, watching them chase each other and shout while they played. "I figure we should go see what they have for breakfast!"
Emilia nodded and took a step to walk across the grass with me. Her school offered a free breakfast and lunch to kids who qualified, and even had a program where they'd send home a bag of food in her backpack on Fridays. That form had been easy — just a check in a box next to a question asking if anyone in the household was on food stamps. Applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and receiving food stamps had been a complicated maze since I found out that I was pregnant. "Just" a check next to the word yes felt a little too good to be true.
Behind the large brick building I could see the door where most of the kids had funneled in. Her hand squeezed mine again when we entered the gymnasium. On the drive over, I'd had to promise several times that I would sit with her while she ate breakfast. It was a relief to see some other adults doing the same thing, awkwardly perched on the low benches attached to the four rows of tables covering half of the recently polished floor.
Emilia followed a few other kids to a line of tables that had several different breakfast options available. Some of them were in a cellophane pouch kind of thing and had been heated up that way but I couldn't tell what they were. French toast sticks possibly? I was happy to see Emilia choose a personal-size package of cereal, a small carton of milk, and a plastic cup of juice sealed with a foil lid. Next, she held the tray all by herself while she carefully approached the end of the line where a lady was accepting tickets and cash or wrote down a number a kid recited to her. She looked at Emilia and put her hand on her hip.
"And what about you, young lady?"
"I . . ." I started, not knowing what to say. Maybe my forms hadn't been processed. Were we supposed to have tickets? "I filled out a form?"
"Oh," the woman said. "A free meal kid!" I will never know why she felt the need to assert this aloud to a kindergartner and anyone else within earshot. I glanced around us, my face getting hot, but Emilia didn't seem to notice anything. "What's your name, miss?" "Emilia Land," my daughter said. The woman started to write it down and paused.
"That's E-M-I-L-I-A L-A-N-D," I said, and put my hand on my daughter's back to lead her away. We sat at an empty table, like a couple of new kids. Emilia carefully peeled back the foil on the juice and the top of the plastic container of cereal, but asked for help with the milk. I tried to show her how to do it on her own, and we both laughed because I had a hard time getting it open, too. While she ate, I regretted not bringing my usual to-go cup of coffee poured into an empty jar of Adams crunchy peanut butter — a main staple in my diet since it was covered by Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) checks. "I remember my first day of kindergarten," I said softly. Emilia looked up at me. Her new haircut made her look like Ramona Quimby. (We'd just finished the series for the second time.) "This is your first day of school in Missoula, Montana! You're gonna be here all the way through high school!" I had tried to explain over the last few months why this had been such a big deal to me. That when I was a kid I had to move around a lot from Washington State to Alaska and back, and how always being the new kid made me feel shy. "You're going to make friends, maybe even today, that you'll have for the rest of your life, Emilia."
"When I go to your school?" She pointed at the "Griz" on her sweatshirt for emphasis, and I tried not to wrinkle my nose, thinking of the drunk football fans who clogged downtown bars on game days. "If that's what you want," I said. "But you have a long time to figure that out."
She picked up her tray when she was done and carried it to the back door where there were three almost-full trash cans and a table with several stacks of empty trays. After we walked out, Emilia looked at all the boys twice her size chasing each other around on the blacktop, backpacks long forgotten by the wall. She reached her arms up, and I carried her back to the side of the school where we had walked in, setting her down so she could line up with the other kids. A woman stood at the front, holding a sign with a big letter K on it, talking and laughing with the teacher standing next to her holding up a sign that had the number one. A tiny blonde girl was crying, and Emilia turned around to look at her. She made a face like she might start crying, too, but then she looked at me and I smiled as big as I could, before the other parents swarmed in closer with cameras and tissues in their hands.
Her teacher walked down the line and talked to each child, then gathered them to her like a hen does with her chicks, and bent down to tell them something the kids all seemed to like. Emilia leaned in and listened, then lined up again like she must have been told to do. She turned and waved and blew me a few kisses and I did the same, wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. I was just so damn proud of us.
Her school supplies had been donated to the gymnastics gym, and I had been so grateful someone called to offer it to us. The donation saved me not only fifty bucks, but the few hours I would have spent searching through the chaotic school supply aisles of Walmart. Instead, we'd been able to make a quick stop to pick out a backpack and some new shoes for school. I marveled for a second at the boots she'd selected herself. She was fully prepared. Well, almost. We still had a couple of weeks to get her medical records. When her school reminded me of that, it dawned on me that she hadn't been sick since we'd moved to Montana. Quite a change from when we lived in Washington, where a trip to the doctor was a monthly occurrence. All of it, all the fighting to move, arguing over visitations, and the transitions coming back home, had come to this moment. We'd done it. I'd done it. It had been my goal to get us somewhere we could live all the way through Emilia's grade-school years—all the way through high school—and here we were. We lived in a place, in a community, where we'd found support and friendship and opportunities and maybe, eventually, something like a chosen family.
Emilia turned and followed the kid in front of her into the building without looking back at me. We'd been through the hard goodbyes in day care for several years by then, and I tried not to think about those. I felt like skipping, or hopping over some kind of imaginary milestone. Another parent walked briskly past me and I almost said, I did it! before catching myself. Turning around to look at the school again, its yard littered with a couple of forgotten backpacks, I closed my eyes and breathed in and out. I wanted to pause and let the feelings wash through me before rushing home to attack an impossible mountain of homework, laundry, and calls to schedule house cleaning clients. All of this would have to get done within the precious three hours Emilia was in school, before I'd return to this spot to pick her up and hear all about her day.
From "Class" by Stephanie Land. Copyright 2023 by Stephanie Land. Reprinted by permission of One Signal/Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.