I was a child with control issues. There are few things you ever get the chance to be in charge of as a kid, and being poor only makes this more true. I could get good grades and ace every test, but the kid whose parents had a color printer would always win the Young Author contest. I could try out for cheerleading, but the girls whose parents paid for cheer camp would always make the team. I was in gifted classes, but I was the only person in gifted classes who was also on free lunch, and everyone knew it. Every week, on Tuesday and Thursday, I boarded a bus that took me away from my mostly Black and mostly poor schoolmates, to a mostly white upper middle class school. It was here that I learned to hate my circumstances — to be ashamed of being on free lunch.
“It means you’re poor,” I can remember a boy whose dad was a surgeon telling me. “If you’re poor, it means your family doesn’t work hard. If your parents worked harder, then you wouldn’t be on free lunch.”
We were children, and I assume he did not hear the cruelty in his words. He thought he was only stating a fact, but it felt like he’d slapped my face and marked me. Surely this was something he’d heard or learned from his parents, but his parents didn’t know my mother. My mother was not perfect — she got angry a lot, and I hated that — but she was not lazy. She worked full-time as a confinement officer at our local sheriff’s department. She regularly picked up extra shifts. She shuttled me and my siblings back and forth to activities, doctor’s appointments, and visits with our friends and family all week. On weekends, she led all four of her complaining children in a deep clean of our house and yard. My mother was constantly in motion, always doing something that needed to get done, yet never catching up. She couldn’t: We lived paycheck to paycheck, and the gap between the two checks was always perilous. A surprise bill could quickly change the condition of our entire home from stable to terrifying.
After that day, I refused to sit with the other “gifted” kids at lunch. I’d wanted to scream at that boy that my mother worked hard. I believed she did, but I realized I didn’t know how to prove it was true. I saw her working, but I never actually saw much money. I had no idea where it went, or how she spent it. My grandmother was always going on and on about people who spent their money on “the wrong things.” Was that what my mother was doing with the money she made? Spending it on the wrong things? Was that why I was on free lunch? The suspicion began to take root in my mind that maybe he was onto something. Perhaps my mother working hard wasn’t enough. Maybe she just needed to make better decisions.
Remember those plastic boxes made specifically for holding notecards? I had a black one, something a teacher had given me at the end of the previous school year. She was going to throw it away when I asked her if I could have it. She also threw in an unopened stack of white notecards. The box and the notecards represented possibility to me. I didn’t know what I should write on them, but I knew it should be important, something that I would be able to look back on as an adult to help guide me. That’s how I decided to start documenting my mother’s parenting failures. The main one: our poverty.
That’s right. When I was 11, I kept a box full of moments, a written record of all the times I thought my mom was being a bad mom for being poor. When I felt as if she treated me or my siblings unfairly I wrote it down. Same for when she yelled at us, hit us, promised us things she couldn’t afford, or said she would do something and then didn’t follow through. Not enough food in the refrigerator? Jot it down. Didn’t get school pictures because we couldn’t afford them? Write that down, too. I told myself I would keep these notecards my entire life, so when I eventually had to make decisions about how to be a good mom to my own children, I could avoid the worst possible scenarios. I would be able to crack the code and ascend from poverty, so my children would never suffer the way I felt like I was being made to suffer. That was the plan.
It was a bad plan.
This time in my life is something I reflect on often, especially when I read critiques that the circumstances of people like my mother — poor people — are simply a product of bad choices or moral failings. Forty-nine percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Sixty-one percent of people in this country don’t have the recommended six months of living expenses saved in case of emergency. That means that most people in this country are just a car accident or huge medical bill away from financial ruin. And I would wager that most of them still believe a homeless or impoverished person just isn’t doing enough to help themselves.
I was one of those people, even if I was just a kid. I got on that bus twice a week, and when I got to that fancy school, I believed that they knew more than me about what it meant to be a hardworking person. How else would they have everything while my mother, my siblings, and I had so little? The thing is, that boy, his parents, and the other kids at that school, they had no idea what poverty actually looked like. They did not see what I saw. I saw the mothers and fathers on my block wake up every single day and go to work, then come home to not enough food in their bowls. They did not drive fancy cars, and the vehicles they did have broke down often. They sat around card tables playing spades, sharing cheap liquor, laughing, and talking about their next plan for getting the hell out. They took pride in the work they did, though they were never paid enough for that work. But they did their best. I saw it all. And over time, I saw it in my own home. I saw it in my mother.
My mother, who had suffered from loss: loss of her time and her dreams of having children who would want for nothing. This was not the life she had planned. She wanted a family with a mother and a father. She wanted children who took dance classes and karate lessons, who learned to play musical instruments. She wanted a good and steady job that would help her provide that life. What she got was a husband who ended up in prison, an underpaying government job, four beautiful, strange children, and a string of disappointing romantic prospects.
My mother was poor and imperfect, but she wasn’t poor because she was imperfect. I could not prove she was a hard worker by showing you something we owned, but I could tell you about hearing her sob after she had to ask me to forgo Christmas presents so my siblings could have something on the holiday morning. This was not something she chose.
It only took a month before I threw away all of the notecards about my mother. I didn’t want to hurt her. I couldn’t prove it by paying for my own lunch, but I knew she worked hard. Didn’t I watch her get up and go to her job every day? Didn’t I see how tired she was when she got home? Yes, sometimes the heat was turned off, and things got broken and couldn’t be replaced. But she showed up, and kept showing up. She did her best. I believed that. I still do.
My mother wanted more for her life. She did everything right until her circumstances outran her opportunities. I’m no longer poor. I can buy notecards whenever I want, but I’ve shifted to writing in a journal. Every day for the past three months, I wake up and record my thoughts on who I am, what I see, and what kind of person I want to be. Here’s what I understand now that I didn't as that gifted kid on free lunch: Most people fear poverty, and if they don't, they're just being foolish.
It is exhausting and unpleasant, and if you're like me, you need to control things because that fear is truly terrifying. But judging the poor — or pretending that simple rules of logic apply to something often determined by blind luck — makes all of us less human. And while empathy won't solve the problem, it's a start. Respecting impoverished people and their work ethic, and listening to their voices when it comes to understanding what's broken in our economy — that's how we will help people like my mom. Children surely won't understand the unfairness built into our society and economy, but adults should know better.
Their complicated stories could easily be our complicated stories. It's as simple as that. And no one deserves to be put in a box.