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.”