Class mobility and growing up poor

One of my favorite books is Lies My Teacher Told Me.  It’s about how history textbooks, in attempting to present the picture of American history as a happy, rosy journey, actually make it seem boring and actually leave out the most teachable points.

It’s a good book.

My favorite chapter – and this chapter is far too short – deals with classism.  The author argues that there is a system set up against the poor that keeps them poor.  It is inescapable, he claims, and calling America a meritocracy does a disservice to those with less.

As a PF blogger, I can’t agree completely.  Obviously, there are inequalities in education or internship opportunities (can’t take an unpaid inernship if you need money), but there are too many stories about people working their way up, saving millions of dollars on $8/hour, for me to believe that the system is impenetrable and absolute.  (Of course, the author doesn’t claim that it is.)

I grew up poor.

My parents married and had children very young.  This was not planned.  My father worked as a draftsman, and my mother stayed at home with us.  They ran up their credit card bills just to buy us food.  I still remember when I was about 10 and I went to the grocery store with my mother.  I slipped some candy into the cart without her seeing.  When we got back to the car, as she was filling in her checkbook (yes, people still used checks back then!), she cursed because she had gone over the account balance by less than $2.  I never told anyone about this before.

I don’t think my sisters and I ever fully realized we were poor.  My parents had a row house (bought with a down payment loan from an aunt; without her, I’m sure the ridiculous interest rates – nearly 20% – would have destroyed any hope of them buying a house) with a back porch and a small yard.  We were a few blocks from my grandparents house.  Most of the time, we enjoyed sharing a bedroom (between three of us!), as bedtime became just another playtime.  Peanut-butter-and-jelly dinners to save money weren’t horrible, we thought it was a treat!  We played a lot of pretend games (“The back porch is a tree house/ship/firehouse!”).  It was around this time that my dad went to college to get an engineering degree.  A few semesters in, he started having seizures, and they also found a lump on his neck.  It was a scary time, and I’m still not sure how my parents managed.  If we had peanut butter sandwiches for dinner or ate at Grandmom and Grandpop’s more often, my sisters and I were mostly oblivious.  We lived in a poor town, so we weren’t the only ones wearing worn hand-me-downs.

Eventually my dad finished school, and he’s the reason my sisters and I are all engineers.  My mom was able to go back to school as well.  I’m happy to report that they’re doing great.  I’m thankful that they were able to give us a normal childhood, and that they pushed us hard in school and helped support us during our college years so we could finish our degrees.

My money journey is not nearly so exciting.  I think I’ll save that one for later.

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2 Responses

  1. Will add the book to my list of books to read. Which I have made about zero progress on.

    Thank you for sharing this. Kids are pretty innocent, they don’t always see the money trouble until they are older (if the parents do it right, that is!), which is a blessing.

    I think if you grow up poor, but with smart and supportive parents, and have some talent yourself, you do have a good chance of being successful. But then you think about these kids who grow up in really bad areas with no good influences, no options, no support… and you just wonder how they would ever have a fighting chance.

  2. @SP: Ha! I had a grand plan of reading & rereading the “classics.” My goal was to do 12 this year. How many have I done? Zero. I have managed to read some awesome trashy novels though!

    Despite everything when I was growing up, I think I was really lucky that I had parents who knew the value of education. My dad’s family members always worked at blue collar jobs, and he didn’t get any support when he wanted to go further in school. I have a lot of respect for him because of that! I’m not sure if I would have trusted in myself enough to do that…

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