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Stephanie Land at Endicott: ‘Your Story is Priceless’

Stephanie Land
In a moving talk sponsored by the Tadler Center for the Humanities, author Stephanie Land discussed her bestselling memoirs Maid and Class, which chronicle the experience of being poor in America.
By: Sarah Sweeney

There’s a hidden epidemic on school campuses everywhere, including Endicott. It’s a struggle with food insecurity and access to basic needs—even homelessness.

In a meeting with staff and faculty last year, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Brandi Johnson discussed this epidemic’s impact on Gulls, and that’s when Distinguished Professor of English Charlotte Gordon got the idea for who she should host as the next speaker at Endicott’s Tadler Center for the Humanities.

Gordon, who serves as Director of the Tadler Center, welcomed that speaker—author Stephanie Land—to Endicott on April 11. Land’s visit comes on the heels on a “life-changing” $250,000 gift to the Tadler Center that will help Gordon tap further into her network, expand programming, and bring even more high-profile literary luminaries and provocative thinkers to campus.

“I invited Stephanie to talk to us today because of her two powerful memoirs, which detail her struggles and triumphs as a single mom living below the poverty line while trying to get a college degree,” said Gordon.

Stephanie Land

Land, who is the author of memoirs Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education and Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive—the latter of which became the popular Netflix series of the same name—delivered a moving talk to a packed Klebanoff Auditorium crowd chronicling her struggle with food and housing insecurity while working as a house cleaner making $9 an hour.

Land was a nontraditional student by all means. Though she had briefly attended community college out of high school, it wasn’t until Land was in her 30s that she enrolled at the University of Montana to study creative writing in an attempt to build the writing career that she believed could lift her family out of poverty.

In nonfiction workshops, she floored her young classmates by delivering personal writing about the realities of her life as a house cleaner: “Here I was outing myself as this exhausted and mildly panicked single mom who was in her 30s and who lived in poverty, and they had all written about their year abroad,” said Land.

While her classmates were gallivanting around the world, Land had spent her 20s escaping an abusive relationship while raising a child, living on food stamps and a house cleaner’s wage.

“I wasn’t paid very much,” she said. “After taxes and other expenses, that came to be about six bucks an hour. My job was mainly to leave evidence that I had been in my client’s home. I folded toilet paper into little triangles at the end, and I made lines in carpets with my vacuum. But I was careful to never leave any footprints. Because as far as leaving evidence that I, a human being, had been walking around in their home, that was almost forbidden. Only the work, the end product, could be visible, but I walked around in their house like some kind of nameless ghost.”

An introvert, Land enjoyed being in the houses alone and studying the idiosyncrasies of the clients whose homes she was tasked with perfecting.

One of the homes she dubbed the “clown house” because the “staircase to the top floor was lined with these paintings of clowns for some reason,” explained Land. “On both sides of the stairwell. And as I walked upstairs to clean, I had to duck and force myself to not look at the eyes in the paintings because I was convinced if I watched them as I walked by, they would follow me.”

Another house Land called “the porn house—for reasons you can imagine,” she said. Land worked in that home every other Wednesday for three years, but the woman of the house never bothered to learn Land’s name.

The invisibility of being poor, coupled with the constant fear of wondering if Land would make it through the week with enough—enough food, enough electricity, enough money, enough juice in the car—festered into a trauma with which she still grapples.

“I didn’t realize how much trauma that I was still holding on to because the government had denied me food stamps, because I couldn’t fulfill my work requirements as a full-time college student,” Land said. “I’m still realizing that I have a lot of triggers just from living in fear every single day.”

One thing Land didn’t have to worry about was her writing. In Land’s nonfiction class, her professor, David Gates, called her writing “solid gold.” She kept plugging away at the essay about cleaning homes, including the clown and porn houses, and eventually submitted it to a literary magazine where it was immediately accepted for publication.

When that essay went live online, it soon went viral. Letters to Land poured in—including from an eager literary agent who inquired whether she had a book in progress. She didn’t, but lied, and quickly banged out a few chapters. Eleven months later, she had a book deal.

“I had written an essay about a job where I was paid very little, to not leave any footprints, and now I have the opportunity to write a book where people could walk around in my shoes,” Land said.

Land said her books have started a movement toward empathy and compassion and that has given her purpose. Now, her favorite part of her job is speaking to students across the country.

She encouraged Gulls to attend office hours—“Your professors want to help you,” she said, adding, “also, they’re actually really nice”—and she told students to think of themselves as experts already.

“Based on your personal lived experience, you have expertise to offer other people simply because of the filter through which you see the world around you,” she said. “Your professors, the head of the department, they can all learn from you.”

After years of treading carefully to not leave any footprints in the carpets she so meticulously vacuumed, Land has cemented her place in the literary world and made quite the impression at Endicott.  

“I hope for you all that during your time at this school, you will not only share your stories but have an opportunity to listen to others,” she said. “I hope those opportunities cause you to walk away from your time here seeing the footprints that you left, the marks that you made, and that you are filled with more knowledge than can ever be proposed on a syllabus. I hope you learn above anything else that your story is priceless.”