I was an outsider at my junior high school. Why was I ashamed of my family’s poverty?
When my family lost its small business and home in Philadelphia and was forced to move to Brooklyn to live with one of my mother’s sister, I was in the middle of the last term of the sixth grade. What school to go to? My cousins said that I should go to Winthrop Junior High School (P.S. 232) in lower middle-class East Flatbush rather than the closer-by working class Brownsville school (P.S. 156). But I was not in the East Flatbush school district so we came up with an address that would put me in the Winthrop district. So that’s where I went under false cover and walked the considerable distance to the school.
That winter was very cold. One day the assistant principal spied me entering the school, frozen, wearing little outerwear. He took me to a closet and gave me a lined jacket and food ticket (the predecessor of food stamps today) that I could use in the school cafeteria at lunch time. My great self-imposed task was how to hide the food tickets so that the other much better-off students could not see that I was so poor as to have to use them. I developed maneuvers of siding up to the cashier and sliding the ticket to her, covering up by pulling my coat over what I was doing.
I certainly did not feel part of the middle class ambiance of the other students.
How did I develop this sense of shame about my family’s need for assistance at the age of 10 or 11? I don’t know, though my economic and cultural differences from the better-off students were very apparent to me, although I was very unsophisticated.
I think this memory comes back to me nowadays because of the current renewed attack on poor people as self-inflictors who would not need any public aid if they would only live “right.”
I can relate to this, sort of. I went to a Catholic elementary school, and then onto an all-girls Catholic high school. I chose the high school I went to because my best friends from my 1-8 school were all going there. My mother made it clear that, if I wanted to go to that Catholic high school, the tuition of which was more than my parents could afford, I’d have to get a job and pay for it all myself. So, I did. I got my first job when I was 13 years old, working illegally in a restaurant (you had to be 14 to get a work permit). Then, when I was 14, and had entered the high school of my choice, I’d secured a work permit, and worked 2 jobs to cover the cost of my tuition, books, fees and transportation (I even bought my uniform!). I worked in the cafeteria during lunch in exchange for a reduced tuition rate; all the other students could enjoy their lunch, while I spent mine working, eating on the fly. Then, after school on weeknights, I worked as a nurses aid (no need for STNA classes or certification back then) at a nursing home, caring for the severely mentally retarded and otherwise disabled youngsters, changing their diapers, giving them bed baths, feeding them meals, taking their vitals, from about 3 pm until 9 pm (they allowed we students to leave work at 9, instead of the customary 11, in order that we’d get home at a reasonable hour on school nights). I rode the bus home, where I’d do my homework late into the night. On weekends and during the summer months, I worked from 3 pm to 11 pm at that nursing home, to cover the cost of that education. None of my classmates had to work a job and pay their own tuition, as I had to, to my knowledge. But I don’t resent them for it. The experience saw me grow much more mature much sooner than my peers; instilled in me a sense of responsibility, independence, and satisfaction; and built in me character that my more affluent classmates would not achieve until much later in life, if at all. I think my having had to struggle made me a better person than I would otherwise have turned out to be. I have a great deal of empathy for others who struggle, for example, than many of my more affluent peers; and I don’t know that I would have ever developed that deep sense of empathy for the poor, meek, lowly and downtrodden–and the conviction that we are all our brothers (and sisters) keepers–had I not first walked a mile in their (our) moccasins.
Enn Ell says
I, too, grew up in poverty and could not afford to buy lunch at school, or make a lunch to bring to school. In order to receive a “free lunch” I was required to help serve the other students their lunches, then I could eat after they had all been served. Is it really a “free lunch” when you’re forced to serve those who are better off then you before you are allowed to participate? All it did was show the others who were the poor kids–and encouraged ostracism, because the poor kids couldn’t join the teams due to being unable to purchase the uniforms, or pay the fee for joining.
I makes me sick to think that 50 years later, we seem to not have learned anything. It continues to this day. Poor people are victimized by the people in power when they say that we CHOOSE this life. How can they say that about an 8 year old child?
I grew up in a lower class tenant house with lots of neighbors. My mother washed clothes for money, and my father worked as a mechanic. I was the light of my humble neighborhood, I was the only one who had graduated from high school. Not just a regular high school, it was a very expensive private school that I was able to attend through a scholarship offered by the school, and my parents working extra hard. I never told anyone in my school that I was poor, and was there thanks to a scholarship. . It was hard, I lied and made everyone believe I was just as wealthy as them. I never invited my parent to my school with the excuse that they traveled a lot. . When I finished high school I didn’t know what University to attend, because the best one for my major was too expensive for my parents. One day one of my professors offered to help pay for my college expenses if I promised to have the best grades, and work for his law firm after I graduated. My parents were very reluctant, but I convinced them that the professors intents were of good nature. After a couple of years, but still in college I had managed to become very close to the professor and his sister who had lost there parents years before. I loved everything about there lifestyle, there home, and most of all. . . there money. I knew my beauty and charm had caught up to the professor, and I knew he was dyeing for me. One day I convinced the professors sister, who had become like a sister to me, that my parents hit and mistreated. . which were lies. She believed me and invited me to live at there house, I of course accept, I had ambition to leave that poverty. Right before graduating he confessed his feeling to me, and I acted like I had no idea. I LIED and told him I felt the same way, I knew this was my ticket. We agreed to wait till I graduated to become a formal couple, I quickly broke up with my boyfriend that I had loved my whole life, but he too lived in my neighborhood. I was tired of being poor and knew I had to do something to leave my past behind. I married the professor. . Without love. Years later he started to have financial troubles. He lost a major part of his fortune, at that point I had fallen deeply in love with him. Despite the love I felt, I promised myself I would never be poor again, and I would humiliate myself In anyway. I was always a diamond in the rough, but with education and work I polished. . We had lost our house, but my husbands sister’s fiancé, who was a multimillionaire, bought our house to save it. Over some time I seduce him and we became lovers, again I made a man believe I was in love. . Everything got out of control. My husband and sister felt betrayed and wanted nothing to do with me. My ‘lover’ had put the house under my name as an early wedding gift. . I felt powerful and accomplished. When his mother found out everything we had done, she threated to take his money that he would inherit. I once again tricked him into putting everything under my name so his mother wouldn’t disinherit him. I sold everything and I had everything I ever wanted . . Except love. I had disowned my parents years before, because I felt they made me vulnerable to ridiculous. I had lost my husband, and all my neighborhood friends. I called of the wedding with my lover. . Because I only wanted, his money. I begged my husband to forgive me, but he never did. Now I am no longer the poor young girl full of love, living in a poor neighborhood. . Now i’m a lonely, wealthy woman living in her home that she always wanted. There’s not a moment in my life that I don’t regret all I did. .
I always thought ambition was good, but I found out only in moderation.