My father was a National Merit Scholar, with an uncle who offered to pay his way to Harvey Mudd, free and clear. Dad took his scholarship to an agricultural program and dropped out after only two years. I can understand. I skipped two grades in elementary school and stood in the top ten percent of my college class–but if the Dean hadn’t refused to sign the paperwork, I, too, would be a college drop-out.
There are a lot of reasons why my dad and I didn’t succeed in college, but I can name one of them: growing up poor. Class isn’t an issue my university knew how to address, and neither do most Americans. Money difficulty is supposed to be a short-term problem, something that enters people’s lives and then gets swept away by a better job and dose of public assistance. But it doesn’t work that way. When you grow up in poverty, it leaves fingerprints on you that never wash off.
Some memories of my childhood are indelible: the wonderful texture of the paper they used to print food stamps on, back when food stamps came in little coupon books and each increment was printed in its own color. The taste of government cheese, salty and waxy and melty and gooier than any cheese I’ve eaten since. The humiliation I felt when the dentist looked at my crooked, horrible teeth and said to his assistant, uncaring if I heard: “What a waste.” The shame I felt when my dad came to school events and showed his toothless smile, or the sadness for my mother, who often covered her mouth to hide the gaps and the dark spots in hers. The heavy weight in my gut when I learned that driver’s ed was no longer free.
I still don’t know how to drive. I didn’t want my parents to pay the $120 fee when I was a senior, and by the time I went to college, I had more pressing things to worry about, like holding down four or more part-time jobs and trying to make the dean’s list so I could keep my scholarship. In college, my stomach always hurt. I knew how to study and work hard, but I didn’t know how to fit in. There was a cachet of belonging that other students had that I could never quite manage. Other students held themselves in some taller fashion, spoke in a way that sounded somehow smarter. Each year it grew worse. I couldn’t stand to open my mouth in my philosophy classes because I knew no matter what I said it would sound coarse and stupid.
I don’t know how or why I thought this. I had already exorcised the words “crick” and “pin” and “fleg” and “beg” from my vocabulary (that’s “creek,” “pen,” “flag,” and “bag,” if you’re not from rural Oregon), so I should have sounded fine. I felt the same way when my daughter started school, and I had to stand with the other parents picking up their kids. We rented an apartment on the edge of a good neighborhood, and the other parents were all doctors, college professors, small business owners. They all looked so comfortable and relaxed as they talked with the other parents or fiddled with their smart phones. I made the best of it by burying myself in a book from the library.
I am much more comfortable at my daughter’s new school. People in our neighborhood are working class, maybe poorer. I don’t know this for sure, I just guess–it’s a Title I school, and most of the kids are on the free or reduced lunch program. But even if I didn’t know the stats, I’d *know*. The people treat me differently. I’m one of them.
I have a hard time explicating the difference between classes, but I can identify people of different classes on sight. I’m sure most people can. And the unfortunate thing about living in America is that there is a deep sense of shame associated with being lower class. If you are poor, there is a sense that it is your fault. That you’re not working hard enough to get ahead, that you are lazy, that you waste your time and your money on worthless shit. People always try not to hold it against the children of poor parents, but when you’re one of those kids, you see pity in their eyes, and it sticks to you like one of those price tags with the incredible adhesive.
Because of my husband, who was raised solidly middle class, I have a middle class lifestyle. We don’t have much money, but we aren’t on food stamps. In a month or two, we’ll actually have insurance. It seems like a lot to me, which I think is a legacy of living poor all my life. You learn not to expect much. You have a hard time asking for more.
I think about the way growing up poor damaged me and my relatives. There is something about poverty that can break things inside you, that can make you sabotage your best efforts to get ahead, that sets you up to fall behind. I am a smart woman, but I don’t know what it is or how to fix it. And I’m a *white* woman at that. I only have one deck stacked against me. If I was a person of color, things would be so much harder. To get out of poverty, especially if you are a person of color, is very, very difficult.
But the thing about getting out of poverty is that it never gets out of you. It stays inside, a heavy hand on your heart that squeezes every time you hear a joke about trailer trash. It squeezes every time you go to a job interview. It squeezes every time you go to a store and you worry for one tiny fraction of a second–for no reason, just because it’s what you do–that your debit card will be declined.
I will be poor white trash until the day I die. And no matter how hard I try to ignore that or be proud of my accomplishments, I will always be–just a little, just one tiny nearly unmeasurable bit–ashamed of myself and my family.
How can I not be? I’m an American.