YOU GROW UP QUICK WHEN YOU GROW UP POOR
Being part of the poor people gang was not something I realized I was part of until I understood what was on the other side of the fence. Just remember this story is through the eyes of what a child hears and sees and not as an adult where we can make decisions based on life experiences. Children see things far different.
Back in the 70’s our family was very young and my dad had a decent-paying job in construction and my mom worked in retail for minimum wage. We were part of the working poor who made ends meet and lived pay to pay.
There was just my younger sister and I at the time and life seemed as normal as it could be as we went on family vacation to Marine Land, Niagara Falls and African Lion Safari.
Those were the good times, best memories but short-lived.
There was nothing better than going on a road trip with my family that took us to theme parks where we could go on rides, buy junk food and just be kids. It was nice to see my mom and dad smiling and happy.
In the summer my parents would bring us to the farms and we’d pick cherries, peaches, apples and pears and to be honest it was something we considered fun. It was a family affair and it brought us joy although it was taxing at times when all we wanted to do was go home after a long day of picking fruits. It was still a memory that stuck with us as valuable and fun to this day.
We weren’t jetting off overseas or to Florida to Disney but at the time we didn’t know any better that only the wealthy would assume such a role. Who could afford to do these things? Not the poor people.
Then in the 80’s the interest rates blew up where our family went from doing things together outside of the city to staying in town. We would go to the beach often for picnics, parades and gatherings at friends and relatives houses for a BBQ or birthday party.
Poor people on one side Rich on the other
Life was good as kids until we started to realize that we weren’t living the life as some of the other kids at our school. It was around the age of 8 or 9 when I realized that my family was poor.
There was no in-between in my days, it was rich, poor and tough guys and gals.
When I say poor I mean that we lived in a townhouse, old Chrysler, no savings, clothes were bought at Kmart and our parents argued about money. Dining out meant we gobbled up the special of the day at the Woolworth’s, Zellers or Kmart cafeteria.
You don’t really understand until you become a certain age I suppose. Some of you may be thinking that is far from poor but as a child we see things differently. When the kids at school who lived on the ‘good side’ of town found out where you lived you were cast into a class of your own. The poor hung out with the poor and the rich hung out with the rich.
What did that mean? How would other kids know? Kids talk, parents talk and kids listen.
That meant that the kids who had parents who were able to enter them in sports, participate in activities before and after school or had parents who were actively involved with the school made the rich side of the group.
It didn’t matter if the parents had money or not it mattered where they lived, what they looked like and how the parents interacted. Parents are no better either, being snooty just because you drive a BMW doesn’t mean a damn thing especially when you don’t own it.
Kids notice everything, they know.
The kids who were bullies in their right mind or tougher than others would fit somewhere in between all of this because neither side of the fence wanted to deal with them so it became a case of just ignoring them. I was bullied quite often for the way I looked and dressed. I was a shy girl because I didn’t get to interact socially enough with kids growing up as my parents were too busy working and I had to stay home with my sister.
Today modern childhood ends at age 12 and things are far different than they used to be back in the 70’s and 80’s which creates far more to consider as parents.
They say that girls are made to worry about their appearance and boys are pushed into “macho” behaviour at too young an age.
What’s in your box?
You know what else kids notice, what you eat for snacks and lunch. They even watch to see who has the fancy lunch bucket and whose parents uses cute little containers and packs napkins and utensils. My parents didn’t. They were too damn tired and sometimes they’d have to bring me food because I didn’t have any.
Most often it was a mess in my lunch box and things would leak, fruit was on its way out. I didn’t get raw veggies cut-up, salads, subs, hot soups or chili with homemade cookies. No, I got a peanut butter or cheese sandwich, juice and fruit more than some kids but I was always jealous of the other kids lunches that were pristine in my eyes.
Falling behind the curtains
My show was over before it began and it was up to me to either get up and do something about it or stay where I was. As I got older I found that I sunk deeper and deeper into the back of the classroom because I had nothing to offer or was too shy to speak up. My marks were horrible right through to grade 8 as I was the 50’s kid or the kid who just made it.
You become somewhat of an outsider when you feel overpowered by kids that come from homes that are free from money worries or look and act rich. I know that sounds odd because that clearly might not have been the case but it’s easy when you have parents who have credit cards they max out, a nice home that is mortgaged to the top and live the life of luxury on credit. These are the things kids don’t see unless the parents let them hear it or feel it through arguments about money.
There are also the true rich kids who come from families that do have money and it was obvious especially when the parents came to all the school events and volunteered on class trips.
I loved to sing and joined the choir where I had to wear a uniform and participate in after-school practices. Our school put on many successful musicals to which I participated in the choir but my parents never came. I could only dream that once my mom and dad could have volunteered but they were always working.
You could just tell the way some of the parents would talk as if they were smart, the way they dressed was classy and clean and how their hair, nails and teeth were kept. Their kids had all the latest clothes, sporting goods and toys to go along with it and were sporty or nerdy and not castaways. Back then even the nerds were part of the in-crowd. It was cool to be smart.
You just knew.
Your mom does what?
Some of the kids in our school had parents as teachers and again it was obvious how lucky they were. You start to crave that ‘normal life’ when you see other families displaying what you don’t have. It may not have to do with money either just a simple life free from walking on egg shells.
I remember a time when someone asked me what my mom did for work after she said that her mother was a therapist of sorts. I proudly said my mother is a janitor and works for the school board, she laughed. It wasn’t hard having my mom cleaning the school while I went to school when I was young but then it became a case of hiding that she was my mom because I was embarrassed.
Funny thing was that she quit that job after many years and had she of kept it she’d have a wonderful pension. It wasn’t as bad of a job as I thought it was but the stigma around cleaning for a living was terrible. I guess I should have just been thankful my mom had a job. I was, but it was hard being teased or tossed aside by kids at school. I didn’t care eventually because I knew I’d never fit in with them but I did wonder what life was like on what I considered, the other side.
Growing up fast
By the time I was 12 years old I had my own paper route which got me out of the house and doing something instead of having to go home after school. It was nice not to listen to my parents argue about something. It wasn’t every day but when money is an issue it seems to pop up quite consistently.
At the age of 13 I had started my first job working in fast food which went full-time in the summer and eventually throughout the year. I was slated for part-time during high-school but there were weeks on end where I’d get called in and go. I would never say no because I knew I’d be giving up my right to earn money.
You see when you grow up poor you grow up quick. You know how money impacts life, relationships and overall happiness when the bills are paid on time. I don’t think there was a time that I didn’t say no I couldn’t come in even if I had to walk to work and back. It would be midnight when the shop closed and I’d walk home or get a ride from a co-worker if it was offered.
My parents worked so it wasn’t something I’d bother them with especially when I was 16 or 17 years old. Crime rates back then in our city were very low and there was no real concern for walking home in the dark. It took me about 20 minutes or so to get to and from work on the back streets. I pretty much walked everyone alone.
The Other Side Wasn’t What I Thought It Was
It was at this fast food job where I thought I was understanding what life was on the other side of poor but really I was just earning money that I put in the bank for whatever I needed.
Money made me feel safe without recognizing that without my parents I’d have far more to use that money for than just savings.Looking back I realize how money impacted me from a young age and how it continues to do so right up until this day.
Thankfully I’m debt free today but there isn’t a day that doesn’t go by that I am not living a frugal lifestyle because I’m terrified of being that little kid on the wrong side of the fence again. No one wants to be part of the poor people gang.
I don’t want money worries where we don’t know whether the utilities will be turned off, whether food would be available or who would repair the house when it was falling apart. It was so embarrassing living in a house that had the roof caving in and the front steps rotting because the wood was so old. You just wanted to hide or better yourself, so I chose both.
People are People
I worked non-stop even after graduation from high-school and college and pretty much slept at home and went back to work. I didn’t have much of a social life unless it was at the gym because making money was top priority for me. Eventually I went away for college to finish my degree and came back for a short stay and was gone again. I never moved back after that.
Some might say I was free from that point but that was hardly the case. I still worked non-stop to earn money at a job that was not related to my schooling and all I did was save money. It didn’t matter if I made double the minimum wage or not in my eyes I was still poor because I didn’t own a home, wasn’t married or driving a vehicle without the floor rusting out.
You keep pushing yourself when the fear of being poor or being trapped on the dark side of the fence is holding you back. When you have the mindset I did the grass was greener on the other side and you knew it. You wanted that freedom, that family life and overall closeness that you would see others have. That’s all I ever wanted, I never got that with or without money until I got married and things changed.
My family never made it to the other side and even though my sibling and I are both successful with money we know the grass will never be greener because we’ve lived on the dark side and our family is still there. It’s hard to be happy and go on living your life when your family is suffering financially. It never matters how much money you have saved even though we know it’s very important and it will benefit us and our kids down the road.
Life would give them the start we craved as kids and the family life we wanted and perhaps they wouldn’t have this darkness cast over them like we do. That is winning for us but we still suffer the consequences of growing up poor and not being able to get out of that slump.
We grew up poor and fast because while other kids were out playing or having fun with their families doing family things we were working. Making money as a family was important even if it meant having to pay rent to help my parents make ends meet.
Seeing your parents suffer is the hardest and worst thing you can go through as a child/adult whether it be financially or through illness, even worse when it’s both. You want to help but you know that all you can do is better yourself so you don’t end up in the same place.
In a way I know that was the only message my dad wanted to give me when he sent me off to college. He said to me, “are you sure” to which I repeated, yes, yes dad I am sure. What I meant to say was, no I was scared and have no idea what I’m doing. I learned to keep my emotions in and just deal with things as they came along rather than to think about the potential consequences before-hand.
Is there really an other side?
Perhaps, but it’s up to you whether you create it or not but I can tell you from experience it’s best to stick with an open field. Today, it feels good not to worry about money but it doesn’t take away those memories of being the poor people that are in the back of my mind. The remnants of my father’s life lay strewn across his garage and parts of the family home that remind me of how hard he worked and his frugal lifestyle for our family.
I understand that I can’t change the past but I do know that whatever my mom and dad did for us they did it with love. I wouldn’t give up that side of my life for anything but I sure would have changed a few things if I could go back in time. Sometimes though, it’s too late and all you can do is hold what you want to say or do deep in your heart.
Being poor may not make you the coolest kid in school but it makes you the richest. When you grow up poor you grow up fast and understand that the grass is green whether there is a fence or not.
No one is a winner, no one is a loser. We chose to feel and live our lives the way we want but never forget we can always change direction or create options and that is the lesson my father left for me. Don’t cry for me, don’t cry for us, make a life for your family and move on.
Nobody owns you, be strong, carry on, but most of all the fence is only in your imagination. You created it by allowing it to go up. Life lessons sometimes are the hardest especially when you don’t see them until someone is gone.
Discussion: What was life like for you at school growing up? The good, the bad, the ugly.