Growing up, I never realized my family was in poverty; at least, not until the seventh grade. A classmate of mine approached me and pointed out that 1.) my shirt was inside out and 2.) it was old, holy, and gross. That red YMCA hand-me-down was my favorite shirt, and I still have it. It still fits, too. As proud as I was of that shirt, I was bothered by the comment. Slowly, I started to grow self-conscious of everything: my shoes, my clothes, my home, my family, and anything else I owned. I would notice the brand of our food and the size of our television. The holes in my shoes grew more and more irritating, and the resentment towards my single mother grew. Today, I look back and realize how ungrateful I was. My mother did so much for her kids. With that, let’s delve into what those like my mother and I had to do to get by, and why we or anyone else who has had to do the same should never feel ashamed.
1. Utilize hand-me-downs and second-hand clothes
As I started my third year of college, I moved into the dorms. With me, I brought five shirts, four pairs of jeans, some undergarments, my first and only suit, and two pairs of shoes, one pair casual, the other business shoes. Now, for some ungodly reason, the casual shoes began to smell. I was (and still am) forced to wear the business shoes every day. These are the ugliest pair of brown shoes you have ever seen. A few weeks back, I was wearing these shoes and a wolf shirt that’s too big for me that I got from my mom’s ex. In the cafeteria, an acquaintance of mine approached me and—in quite the demeaning tone—pointed out that I wear that shirt every time she sees me. Discouraged and scared that others would notice what she had noticed, I set that shirt aside and haven’t worn it since. Later that day, I was tagged in a meme that read, “Tag a friend with ugly shoes.” It wasn’t a good day. The fact of the matter is, people judge you hardcore for what you wear almost everywhere you go.
That night, though, I had to reflect and recount my blessings. Sure, I got the shoes from Mardens. Sure, the shirt was a hand-me-down that probably came from Goodwill before going to my mom’s ex. And, yes, maybe people are judging me for it—but you know what? I am clothed. I am in college, fighting to succeed as a first-generation student. I owe these clothes and shoes to the loved ones around me, some of whom will never make it this far. If I have to wear ugly shoes for the rest of my life, I will do it proudly. I encourage others to do the same. Parents, I promise if you give your kids hand-me-downs, they will be grateful someday. It is one hundred percent better than nothing.
2. Skimp on Christmas
I will never forget the look on my mother’s face when she apologized to us for Christmas not being great. As angry as I was at her, this was the one time of the year I wish she wouldn’t say sorry. I didn’t want to be reminded of the fact that our Christmases weren’t rich like other people’s. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t her fault. And, somehow, she managed to get us the things we wanted—for me, that meant Yu-Gi-Oh cards and Naruto books. She also managed to get a bunch of other things, like coloring books and a bike. She did this by going through the Salvation Army. I could tell she was ashamed: there was just a sadness in her eyes that seem to be burnt into my memory.
Looking back, despite that sad look, every Christmas was warm and happy. We had family. My brother and I partook in the tradition of waking Mom up way too early for gifts. There were smiles and laughs and dinner at Grandma’s, who always managed to give us gifts as well. In the eleventh grade, my mom could not afford a thing, and I was too old for the Salvation Army. I was the only one living with her in a one bedroom apartment at the time. We ate together, and my only gift was a card my younger brother gave me, thanking me for being his brother. Even now it brings me to tears: I am so grateful for that card and dinner. Never be ashamed for a Christmas funded by the Salvation Army, laughs, and family moments. These are memories that I and many others like me will cherish forever.
3. Fall down and get back up
When I was sixteen, I moved out with my boyfriend. We went to live with people who, at the time, we thought were good friends. I was sick of being poor and seeing my mom miss rent, even though it wasn’t in her control. When living with these friends, I started drinking heavily. I did anything that would get me high. We stole alcohol from anywhere we could get it. Were it not for it being summertime, I would have skipped school. On top of all this, one of these friends was a victim of poverty as well, and as a result he became a huge kleptomaniac. So one night we got as drunk as possible—and made a huge mistake. In July, my boyfriend, my friend, and I got caught stealing air conditioners right out of buildings. I took the fall, which resulted in my needing to pay $1000 and live with my mom for six months. This is how we ended up together in that one-bedroom I mentioned earlier. She shared stories of her little crime sprees as a kid, tearing flags off of churches and other such things. We grew close, and I overcame my resentment.
I got my first job and paid my fine. My grades turned to As. I graduated and became the first in my family to attend college and get a degree. I attended a pre-law program and started to become the change I wanted to see. Even now, I attend the University of Southern Maine in an attempt to get my political science degree. The arrest was what I needed to succeed. This isn’t about my life story, though. The lesson here is this: You will make mistakes. Those in poverty are more likely to turn to crime, just like I did. Do not be ashamed of that! Stumble, make mistakes, and do what you need to do to live. Our mistakes will always be so much worse than the mistakes made by those who were privileged. Even if you are still participating in that lifestyle, I promise that one day you will come out on top if you believe in yourself.