Monday, October 6, 2014

Being the Poor Kid

Mix Bakeshop
Soy Cappuccino
Morning Roll

Scrolling through these blog titles, I don't know if I've ever explained being The Poor Kid.  I feel like I must have mentioned it along the way, but... I wasn't just poor as a kid.  I was The Poor Kid.  And I paid for it.

When I was born, my parents were married with two boys ahead of me, and owned their own fledgling businesses.  Hippie businesses, of course - health food stores, a juicing company - but job creators, nonetheless.  The American Dream, right?

And it fell apart.  My mom left while I was still in diapers.  My dad borrowed money, trying to keep the businesses afloat as business partners left and employees stole food from inventory and he paid other people to take care of us.  And finally, he had to make the decision to let it all go, because he felt it was more important to be the one to raise his own children.  The businesses went bankrupt and he filed for welfare.  This being the very early eighties, the case, initially, had to be filed under my mother's name because it was so uncommon for the father to be the caregiver.

Soon after, we had to move south to live in my grandparent's home in southern California.  Redlands.  I still have not fully made my peace with that place.  It's blazing hot and dry compared with the beautiful redwood coast of my birth.  And it was not a kind place to me.

There's a trade-off, being a poor kid in a well-off neighborhood.  You don't have to deal with many of the disadvantages that come with impoverished neighborhoods.  It was very safe, clean and well-maintained by the city.  And it had a "great school."  But you stand out among the well-groomed, healthy "rich" kids.  In hindsight, I don't know if they were even rich, or just upper middle-class.  They just seemed worlds away from where I was.

I was mixing peanut butter and jelly on a plate because we didn't have bread, while one of my neighbors is putting in a fountain.  Kind of big one, too.  Our clothes weren't always new, and they certainly weren't stylin'.  Our shoes were well-worn before we got new ones.  We didn't have a lot in the way of stuff.  We were just "without" a lot of things.  When things broke, they stayed broken.  A broken window, central air or heat.  I remember one very cold winter huddled around the lone space heater.  I used to ask my dad about financial details, what our bills were, because I was often anxious about what might get shut off next.

It's hard enough to deal with the stress of being poor, even for a kid.  Harder still to be aware of what's missing, and how close and how seemingly easy the fix is.  It's harder still to be a child hungering for a missing parent, and having the one beside you struggling to fill that need for comfort.  Especially when they are so broken, too.  I didn't understand the damage for all of us until much later.

And our financial problems were always supposedly temporary.  We were always just a month or two from off welfare.  My dad was always working on something or other.  Sometimes he worked a little under the table - he taught himself everything he could learn about computers and would repair or build them for people.  It wasn't enough to earn a living outright, and you can only make a very tiny amount or you are ineligible for assistance.  But when my father took an actual full-time job, his pay was garnished (for the money he borrowed trying to keep the businesses afloat) and he actually received less than when we were on welfare.

So, he was always working on some project or other to jump start us out of poverty.  My father is an incredibly smart person.  I have met few people in my life as smart as him, or with such a strong moral conviction.  And the fact that this intelligent man, formerly his own employer, couldn't get us out of our situation ate away at him.  I will never forget his face after getting dirty looks in the supermarket for using food stamps.  We almost never ate outright junk food, but he had deigned to buy a bottle of grapefruit soda - that had to cost all of $0.59 - and that was a moral outrage to some pious snob in the line behind him.

If he had known how long things were going to stay like that he says he would have done things differently.  But temporary things, in my life, have tended go on for years.  At least, we were safe.  We had a roof over our heads - a house, too! - some food in the fridge, and clothes on our backs.  All that really is a privilege, even if I couldn't feel it at the time.  And partly, I had a hard time feeling grateful for anything because of that "great school" we went to.

I used to say that I was teased at school.  Now, I can call it what it was: bullying.  It was relentless psychological torture.  From first grade through sixth, I got it every day.  Because I stood out.  I had the free lunch ticket and not a lot of friends.  And because it worked.  When the insults started being thrown, the struck hard, probably because I was already down.  I wasn't a whole 6 year-old.  What I needed was love and support and healing - and confidence.  What I got was contempt.

It wasn't just from the kids at school, either.  This was the Reagan era and shaming the poor was in the air.  Even one of my teachers made the remark in class that poor people, homeless people, really wanted to be that way and they could help themselves if they actually wanted to.  They just wanted a hand-out.

I'm amazed her head didn't spontaneously combust under my red hot glare.

I don't remember the first time I thought about suicide, but it was well before that incident.  That was 5th grade - it was way before that.  Second grade, maybe?  I'm kind of glad no one was talking about cutting back then, because that would have been in my brain and I'm not sure I wouldn't have experimented with it.  But I never did go through with it, the times I held a knife to my little wrist.  Partly, I was afraid of pain, but mostly I thought, "I'm not going to let those fuckers win."

Yep, I even had a potty mouth back then when I was eight.

My parents, of course, had no idea things were that bad.  No one did.  Because kids don't tell.  They don't know the words to express the darkness they're feeling, nor do they know exactly what to ask for.  After all, everybody gets "teased."  It's not like I was being "bullied" - no one was beating me up.  Not physically.  And like I said, I was the Poor Kid.  I deserved it, didn't I?

All those days I stayed home sick, I wasn't trying to dodge a math test.  I was worn out from the stress of having to go to school and put myself through wringer every damn day.  I really could make myself sick from it.  And putting myself through that crucible changed someone who loves learning into someone who hates the institution that could offer it.

But fifth grade was also a turn-around year.  First, my principle bully (who had no idea, years later, why on earth I "hated" him) was not in my class, for the first time since first grade.  But more importantly, a group of moms started coming into class every so often to talk about self-esteem.  They acted out skits, gave us techniques that I still use today.  And I was not too old to love Harmony Bear.  I hope they know, wherever they are today, how much they radically improved my whole life.

But still, so much damage was already done.  My formative years were not healthy ones.  I've come a long, long way from then, but when your foundation is so unsteady, it takes a lot more just to be okay.  Still, I don't hate those kids now - not even my old bully.  They were just kids.  It was just happenstance that they were well-off and I was not.  If things had gone differently with my parents, I could have been among them.  (Although, that might have meant being raised in an unhappy, dysfunctional marriage, which does its own damage... who knows?).

The parents of those mean kids (some of my classmates were really sweet, by the way) failed them as much as people think my parents failed me because they didn't teach me how to "shake it off" when I was teased.  My parents didn't know that I was in a psychological crisis.  Their parents didn't know their darlings were contributing to it.  Apparently, the kids didn't know it, either.  It's difficult to teach lessons you don't know you need to teach.

The first step is acknowledging the behavior for what it is.  We've come a long way on that front.  But there's still resistance out there.  There are people who think stopping the kind of behavior I was subjected to is tantamount to coddling.  And that's making us a nation of wusses, too weak, too fragile to handle the harsh realities of life.  That really is not the problem we face today.  It was the harsh realities of life that made me vulnerable to the abuse.  And, really, how resilient is a 6 year-old supposed to be? ...a 7 year-old? ...8 year-old? ...9 year-old? ...10 year-old? ...11 year-old? ...12 year-old?

The persistence of it is what causes the deep, lasting damage, and what distinguishes it as bullying, not banter or occasional teasing among peers.  It is also that it takes place between people who are not fully peers - jock to nerd, homophobe to queer, snob to ramenista, to employ a few stereotypes...

Obviously, I read an article that explains that all much better, but, of course, I'm not going to link to it because I'm already more than an hour over my parking limit.

Let me just say, before I post yet another unedited blog (sorry- I'll edit it for the book - yes, that is still happening - no, really), and before I collect another parking ticket... my experience as the Poor Kid infuses my understanding and empathy for the Outsider, but it doesn't make me vindictive.  Nor does it keep me from being able to see facts that may be presented from the other side of the discussion.  If they are facts.  But we have spent so long demagoguing the poor that we have a long way to go to even be in the same conversation.  As difficult as it was to live poor, and we were on welfare years longer than most people are, but I still had it way easier than most.  And I have the painful privilege of an understanding of the consequences of social policies that other people who have not been poor just cannot have.

Unless they listen.  I'll listen too.

And it's time to go.

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