I was recently reminded of an incident from my childhood which brought my class status home to me and reminded me of the fact that there were people in the world who thought that people like me were lesser and inferior simply because we happened to be poor. I’m not quite sure what brought the incident to mind, but I was amazed to find after all this time that it still caused me to seethe with anger and hurt.
As many readers know, I have vision problems, which I correct with glasses, like a pretty large percentage of the population. But when I was a very young child, they hadn’t been identified yet, in part because they were not so severe that they were obvious, and in part because my father could not afford to take me to an optometrist for a general wellness exam of the sort often recommended to parents (rest assured, had serious problems manifested, my father would have scraped the funds together). I just kind of assumed that everyone saw like I did, a common situation for young children with emerging vision problems.
At any rate, one day my father and I headed to the post boxes to collect the mail, and I got ahead of my father on the way because he stopped to talk to a friend. Thus, I reached the post boxes alone, and I accidentally brushed against a rather wealthy member of the community who was also collecting her mail when I was on my way to our box. I didn’t realize that I had brushed against her, and I also didn’t realize that I had left sand on her fancypants coat because I had sand on my shirt since my father and I had gone to the beach earlier.
“Excuse you,” she said, in a very snide, snotty tone.
I replied “what,” because I was genuinely puzzled, and wasn’t trying to be lippy or snide or any of those things.
“You got filth all over my coat,” she said, brushing angrily at the sand. “You should really look where you are going. And your hair looks like a rat’s nest. I don’t know why your father can’t take better care of you.”
To be fair, my very fine blonde hair did indeed look like a rat’s nest, because I’d been playing all day and it hadn’t been braided or put in a ponytail or something. It looked, in short, like the hair of a young child who had fun at the beach and had not yet had her hair combed out. The condition of my hair was certainly not a reflection on my father’s ability to take care of me; my father pretty much let me do my own thing with my hair, and I didn’t really care if it looked snarled now and then.
I didn’t really know how to respond, because, I mean, how do you respond to something like that when you are a little girl who has been taught that one should be reasonably respectful to adults, even when you think that they are being inappropriate or mean? If she’d been a classmate, I probably would have cocked a fist and had at it or hurled a few insults of my own, but I couldn’t. So, instead, I tried to get to our mailbox, and the rich woman blocked my way and stooped down in front of me, in as patronizing a way as possible.
“You aren’t even wearing SHOES!” she said, clearly scandalized. It’s true. I wasn’t wearing shoes. It was summer and I often went barefoot around town in the summer. And then she looked at my face and said “and what’s wrong with your EYES! White people don’t have squinty eyes like that! Is your father so stupid that he doesn’t even know you should get glasses?”
At this point I was on the verge of open mutiny, so it’s probably a good thing that my father appeared at this point. The woman proceeded to berate him about his “bratty” child and his terrible fathering, and then delivered the coup de grace: “can’t you see that your daughter needs glasses? Can’t you even afford to take her to the doctor to have her eyes examined? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
My father, to his credit, stood in a calm and relaxed fashion during this tirade, occasionally nodding and gazing very seriously into her eyes. When she finally wound down, he said: “You know, I may be poor, but I’d venture that I take better care of my child than a lot of other people, and I’m sorry that you don’t like the facts of life, but not everyone is rich. And I will not tolerate your abuse of my child simply because she lacks the advantages that many other children in this community have. That isn’t her fault, and she doesn’t deserve to be humiliated for it.”
And then he calmly pushed past her while she spluttered, took the mailbox key out of my hand, collected our mail, took me by the hand, and walked away. As we left, he said: “Just for future reference, you are under no obligation to be polite to adults who are being rude to you; you can go ahead and treat them like the children they are.”
This incident, of course, set us up for a long-running enmity with this particular person (who, when I was in high school, actually threatened to kill me, again at the post boxes, because I had the audacity to write a story for the high school newspaper in which I suggested that perhaps all was not well in Caspar). But, you know, it was worth it, because it taught me a lot of valuable lessons about people and social class. I had accepted my life as relatively normal, and this woman alerted me to the fact that other people found it abnormal and even repugnant, that other people thought it was perfectly acceptable to abuse and mock me because I lacked economic privilege.
I see the scapegoating and mockery of the poor going on in a daily level in this country, everywhere from the mass media to casual conversations. The poor are dirty and smelly and stupid. The poor are disgusting. The poor are uniform in nature. The poor are subhuman. If poor people would just work harder, they wouldn’t be poor. If poor people weren’t so bent on sucking up government benefits, maybe they could find real jobs (incidentally, we never received government benefits). The poor are disgusting and should be taken away somewhere out of sight so that nice, respectable people shouldn’t have to view them.
I might not understand how such cruelty and hatred cuts to the bone if I hadn’t grown up poor. I might not see how the poor are persistently beaten down and abused by their so-called social betters if I hadn’t, myself, been beaten down and abused by people who thought that they were better than me by virtue of having large bank accounts in their names or in the names of their parents. And I might not understand the complexity of being poor in America if I hadn’t been one of the many American children who grows up in poverty.
Luckily for me, I had an opportunity: education, and being raised in a household where education was believed to have intrinsic value. A father who taught me that you should fight back when you are tormented because of your social disadvantages, who showed me that casual cruelty should not be tolerated. Many Americans are not so fortunate.