Today is Blog Action Day 2008, which is when a bloggers around the world focus on one issue with the hope of attracting attention to it and, maybe, changing it. This year’s topic is poverty and few topics in this world or the next get my attention and raise my ire more than poverty. I’ve been there and done that.
Let me start by clarifying that last statement. I’ve done poverty, lived in poverty, BUT, my poverty and the poverty this post will focus on is “American Style” poverty. What that means is I’ve never lived in a garbage dump scrounging rotten fruit for food like a pack of children I have pictures of in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I’ve never walked down a street naked because I literally did not own any clothes like some of the children my former pastor saw on the streets of Mumbai, India. In America, our HOMELESS, the bottom of the economic ladder, are STILL exponentially wealthier than MILLIONS of people across this world. Poverty “American Style” is a dream to MILLIONS of Indians, Chinese, Latin Americans, Aboriginal Australians, Africans, and countless, countless others in the Third World. Let’s keep everything in perspective.
Having said that, the knowledge that others in the world are far more miserable than you is ice cold comfort to a five year old child whose father has abandoned him and whose mother is desparately trying to keep herself and her son fiscally afloat with a tenth grade education, a textile plant job, $125 a week salary, and $20 per month child support. That was me in 1977. I’ve endured lights being cut off, phones being cut off, and groceries being one bag with bread and peanut butter. I still love peanut butter to this day, but I will not touch ketchup. If you ever eat a ketchup sandwich on stale bread, not because you want to but because you have to, you might develop a similar loathing.
From the time I was in K5 until the summer between my eighth and ninth grade years, we moved all over Hell and half of Georgia (technically, it was South Carolina, but it doesn’t sound the same). We lived with my dad’s parents (hey ladies, how many of you would live with your EX-INLAWS?), my mom’s dad, my mom’s cousin, some family down in Columbia . . . we just sort of bounced all over. Finally, my dad’s parents decided I needed a stable place to live so the summer before I started high school, they bought us a 1964 Fleetwood Special mobile home.
Nota Bene: I’ve lived 95% of my life in a trailer. Please remember that if you are around me at a conference and decide to make a remark about “trailer trash.” We TT don’t appreciate those who don’t know what it means to be TT calling us TT.
Anyway, the place was a palace to us. It was 15’x50′. No heat, no central air. We had a window unit and a kerosene heater that we couldn’t use because me and Mama both had asthma. I remember more than one January morning contemplating if I really wanted to get out from under the covers in my bedroom when I could see my breath and make a dash for the unheated bathroom. I’ve got a jillion stories about that place and those times, but I’ll save them and try to keep this post on target.
Poverty is a crippler. For example, people look at you differently once you get labeled white trash. I was in all honors courses in high school, graduated second in my class, was a National Merit Semi-Finalist, had a measured 140 IQ, made a 1380 on the SAT when that score actually meant something, blah, blah, blah . . . I was a smart kid. Still, I remember being treated a little differently because I was almost always the poorest person in the honors classes. I also remember my AP English teacher glaring at me the night of graduation and saying, “You don’t deserve HALF the honors you’ve gotten! You’re trailer trash and you’ll never amount to anything.”
Pardon my French, but she was damn near right.
I was the first person in my family, both sides, to graduate high school with 12 grades. Everyone else in my AP classes kept getting letters from colleges. They had everything planned out. Several were legacies at this school or that university. Everyone kept asking me where I was going. I told them I was going to work after Senior Week at the beach, if I survived Senior Week (again, a story for another time). I had no idea how to apply to college, how to pay for college, or why I needed college. I didn’t understand the mindset. It wasn’t that Mama didn’t value my education — she did. She was, and is, insanely proud of me. She was just too busy keeping a roof over my head and food in my stomach to worry about a college fund.
So, twenty years later I have an AA, a BA, and an MLIS. I work in education. I drive a Honda Element. I still live in a trailer. Not a double wide either. See, here’s the thing, and before you criticize me, email me and I’ll tell you stories I don’t have time or space to tell here, a part of me never left that 15×50 unheated trailer. If I ever get to meet Ruby Payne in person, I swear I want to walk up to her and kiss her right square on the mouth because the books she wrote for professional development are like my life story. Case in point, no savings. People from poverty don’t save, they spend. If you save it, it may get gone.
That’s a hard mindset to break. I still haven’t really broken it. I still have an extreme dislike for people I perceive as “being rich” or “acting rich.” I am very uncomfortable in ritzy social settings because I have no idea which fork to use and I feel everyone is watching me. Growing up, we used one fork for every course . . . the beans and the franks . . . and more times than not it was plastic. I will never consider a job at a school that serves an upper class population. I’ve been looked down on my whole life; why the blazes do I want some kid’s lawyer daddy and doctor mama looking down their nose at me at a parent Open House?
I’m not proud of my impoverished roots (although I am damn proud of my mama for keeping us going when she could have left me with my grandparents and gone out and had a life . . . my mama was a fine looking woman) but I can’t get away from them no matter how hard I try. Part of me goes to work every day with the sole purpose of proving that teacher on graduation night wrong.
Look, I’ll try and wrap this up as best I can. I shouldn’t have even tried posting about this topic because it is way to raw and viscerally emotional for me to deal with outside my therapist’s office. But since I have, here’s my point: it is extremely hard for a child who doesn’t know what, if anything he’s going to eat for supper, or where he’s going to lay his head, to give a tiny little damn about your pretty planned collection, your shiny computers, or your “book learnin'”. A girl who has to keep house and her three younger siblings while her mother works (or parties, you never know) is going to be a Child Left Behind no matter WHAT the godforsaken federal law says. You can’t expect a child who has to act like an adult, basically BE an adult, to settle down and do what you say just because you’re older than him or her.
Final thought . . . poverty is brutal, even “American Style” poverty. Thousands of your kids are living in that brutal poverty RIGHT NOW. If the economy tanks worse, even more kids will be there. Homeless and hopeless is a Hell of a way to live for anyone, but it’s almost insurmountable for a child.
Yeah, I got out . . . or did I?
Once again . . . poverty is BRUTAL and ALL CONSUMING and ALL AROUND YOU.
What are you going to do about it? Yes, you, reading this blog entry.
Congress won’t do spit, the President either. NO CALVARY IS COMING for these children.
What are you going to do about it?