Two authors. One question. Two different responses.
How did you become aware of your economic status?
I was raised in the southwest corner of Oklahoma in the 80's and 90's. The economy of Frederick is largely based on agriculture. There was one factory in town that always seemed to be months away from shuttering its doors. For as long as I can remember, my father was an electrician for a plant in North Texas in a town called Vernon. For most of my early life, my mom was a stay at home mom. As I grew up, she began a side arts and crafts business and then became a grocery store clerk before going back to school to become a licensed practical nurse. Almost every friend I grew up with would be considered middle class.
As a child, I don't know if I understood my economic class. When school began each year, we had new clothes and shoes. We had wonderful and nutritious meals on the table each night. Each and every birthday and Christmas was filled with wonderful toys and things we didn't deserve. By almost any standard, we were spoiled kids raised by parents who knew how to work hard and stay within their means. For much of my life, my parents rented their home but I don't think it ever dawned on me to take that as a lack of prosperity. My parents also drove used cars for most of my life. Again, I don't know if I equated that to not being wealthy.
In middle school, I did become aware of my economic status by total accident. Like lots of small towns, Frederick is divided by a railroad track. Long ago, these tracks were more than a system of transportation. They were meant to segregate races. Even as a child, I would hear people call a certain side of the tracks by a name I won't repeat here. I lived on the other side of the tracks. Just from aesthetics alone, I knew my parents could afford to live in a house that was bigger than those on the other side of the tracks. As an adult, I now know and understand how institutional racism contributed to such an opportunity.
But I also know we didn't live in what people called, "Rich Town" or "Snob Hill." These were homes in a certain corner of town with perfectly manicured lawns, nice vehicles in the driveway, and kids who were all white and well dressed. As a kid, I so badly wanted my parents to live in that part of town. At the time, for me, it wasn't about the home. Rather, it was about being close to my friends. When my parents decided to move, I begged and begged for them to find a house near my friends.
For my dad, the houses in this particular neighborhood were too close together. The yards weren't big enough. He didn't see enough room for his family or his stuff. So, much to my dismay, my parents selected a home on the south side of town. It wasn't particularly close to lots of neighbors. The yard encompassed half a city block and we had plenty of room to play. Also, my dad's ever-growing piles of junk had a place. In hindsight, this was the right house for us. It would become a gathering spot for neighborhood kids and our family. Us three boys had plenty of room to roam. It was also affordable. It also allowed my parents to move from renting to owning. It was the perfect home and always will be for me.
At the time, I was disappointed. I was also confronted with the reality that my parents were not as wealthy as others. Suddenly, I noticed the differences in my clothes. I knew my selection wasn't as wide as others. Our summer vacations to nearby destinations began to make sense. The "nos" I would hear from my parents soon had a deeper meaning. For the first time in my life, I was aware of my place in the world. In the moment, it hurt. Looking back on it now, I couldn't be more grateful.
That house on 15th St. will always be our house even though my parents have since moved. I am glad I heard the word no. I am proud I didn't get everything I wanted. Watching my parents put sweat equity into every purchase and trip, instilled within me a sense of hard work and deep understanding of the value found in a dollar. As a 33-year-old man, I know my place in the universe. Yet, I know no man will define me by the amount of money in my bank account. I will be judged by how I carry myself, my intelligence, and my compassion. Becoming aware of my economic place taught me that.
Be good to each other,
I don’t remember as a child how I figured out our economic status as it actually was. I assumed we were fairly poor. That was because we did things in ways I believed were only to save money. They did exactly that, but it was sometimes for other reasons. We gathered water in buckets when it rained and used it to help water the garden. I thought that was because we were constantly reminded that water isn’t free and to turn off the hose. Perhaps that was partially true, but I also grew up in southwest Oklahoma, which is moments away from catching on fire in summer. My mom was a stay at home mom, so we did need to save money. That didn’t make us poor; it made us think about what we spent. We were not handed money like some teenagers. My parents didn’t care about the newest cool jeans, and expected us not to either. I probably resented it at some point, but I don’t recall that now.
I see economic status and disparity now like a spotlight. It’s one of the toughest things to reconcile about my job and life. While I genuinely don’t think those who are wealthy are undeserving, it’s hard to watch children in poverty suffer while so many are clueless. But they aren’t always suffering. The generosity I see from those with very little to give juxtaposed with the often selfishness of those with so much is confusing. It reminds me of a story I once heard. Wouldn’t you be so happy if someone gave you $200? Wouldn’t that make your day? Then someone else came along and gave you $20? What a letdown that would be?
Except the person who gave you $20 gave you everything they had. The other guy kept $300 more for himself.
I guess that’s what I see. And I’ve become more that way. Not that I give money away, or that I think people have to to be good. It’s about the intent behind the giving. Tonight we had an event at my school. A school in a high poverty area that people often say the “parents don’t care” or “don’t work”. But we had to have it later on a Friday so parents CAN come, because they DO work. The parents made all the food. It’s their gift. (And I love homemade Mexican food, so it was quite a gift.) It would be an insult for us to offer to pay them. And so I choose to go to family or locally owned restaurants whenever possible.
That’s my economic status. As little money as I make, which is basically public record, I can go out to eat most of the time. Many of my students have never been to a restaurant that isn’t fast food. It simply isn’t done. Granted, I do cry more as a teacher than I have in any other job—these kids will get you—but one of the most unexpected times was when I mentioned that my cousin and I like to go to Buffalo Wild Wings. A little boy told me it was his Christmas wish to go there one day.
And I thought I was grateful before.
It’s easy to simply say their parents should do better. But I’ve been broke enough that if I didn’t have the people in my life that I do, I would be that hungry. Life comes at you fast and hard and mean.
I’ve stopped saying “food insecure”. To me, that’s the very definition of political correctness. Just because it’s south Oklahoma City and not across the world doesn’t mean a person isn’t starving. I’ve come to think I’m rich. Not in a sentimental, I-have-love-and-friendship-and-health way, although I do, but because I have my own bedroom. I have TWO bedrooms. I have air conditioning and heat. I have running water and lights. I have the internet at home. I can feed myself and a dog. I have a car. I can take trips to other states and even a couple countries.
I’m almost a millionaire.