These series of posts are profoundly embarrassing to write. It’s about me being poor. In academia. With depression. And the ensuing shame that comes in tandem with this avalanche of circumstances. But I think it’s worth the risk for the greater conversation about academia and poverty. Over the next few days I will post parts II and III.
First, let’s discuss poverty.
Poverty limits long-term thinking. If your entire lifetime has been living paycheck to paycheck, immediate need to immediate need, you do not develop the imaginative skills to conceive of a future, let alone a successful, fulfilling future. My mother was alone, had three children, and a serious un-diagnosed and thus untreated mental illness. As a child we lived in tents, cabins, and shitty, rundown houses that often lacked heating, electricity, and plumbing. She had major depressive episodes and sometimes screamed in the middle of the night, for hours (we would lie in bed, fearful, until it passed). She struggled to feed and clothe us on her welfare check. The dishes would pile up for days and weeks on end, until we were eating out of old margarine containers and lids, and then pots and pans. She did try to enforce organization and chores. They never stuck. We learned that we could easily break her down, and did so regularly. (I’m sorry, mum. What a little bitch I probably was. Snarky, smart-mouthed, and manipulative from the get-go.)
We had no rules. I mean that quite literally. I cannot remember a time that I was forbidden to do something. It is easy to hide this under the guise of my mother’s apparent hippie tendencies. But the reality is, she had difficulties with parenthood. It was overwhelming to her. We, her children, developed a particular kind of constrained maturity common to kids living in unstable households.
On drugs my mother said, “I did a lot of drugs and half my friends are dead. So take that into consideration if you try them.” She was clean by the time she had kids. My father continued to use well into his fifties, and died from complications from Hepatitis C three years ago (we were estranged; he never once contributed financially). On sex my mother said discouragingly, “I hope you are in love when you lose your virginity because I sure wasn’t.” I never discussed my sexual or romantic life with my mother because from an early age she openly shared hers with me. This is not that unusual, I learned much later when I went to psychotherapy (which I highly recommend). It’s called parentification, whereby a child assumes the role of the primary caregiver. Our dynamic was not quite that reversed, but I certainly bore the brunt of my mother’s emotional turmoil, learning about her codependency viscerally far before I could put a name to the behavior.
So I became an extremely responsible adolescent, but in a skewed way. I dropped out of high school at the age of fourteen and worked as a full time nanny for about a decade.
Those homes taught me a lot. I wasn’t simply a “mother’s helper.” At that young age I ran the full activities of an active daytime household. I changed diapers and sprinted after toddlers. I read stories and played. Brought kids to school and sports games. I cooked and cleaned. Wiped tears and snot and vomit and piss and shit and blood from their constantly spewing bodies. I have heard that high-pitched scream from an unsatisfied child far too many times. It still irritates my eardrums and the back of my throat. When some asshole would make a comment about how I “probably watched soaps all day” I was deeply resentful and angry. Childcare is tough work. Good childcare is grueling. (Go thank your mothers for doing it and not strangling you.)
I took pride in my work. I enjoyed it. The parents commended me for my competency, maturity, and resourcefulness, and I liked that praise. It felt good to be thought of as responsible, smart, and capable. In retrospect, it also allowed me to witness how these children’s behavior differed from my own. They played and spoke with a freedom that was alien to me. Their daily conduct did not contain looming anxieties or pressures. Home stability allows this kind of freedom—they were at liberty to imagine any kind of future they wanted because they had the absolute (and entirely unacknowledged) confidence that their parents would take care of them. I was jealous of that.
I did eventually take high school equivalency classes due to unusual circumstances. My mother insisted that I consult a psychologist because of my truancy, where I tested at the collegiate level for language and imagination (though poorly in mathematics). Because of this, the psychologist recommended me for a scholarship at a private night school. I wish I had fully understood what that meant at the time. The name of that school—an elite one, accessible solely to the wealthy—could have propelled me into academia sooner (or another career entirely). But I was incapable of conceiving the true nature of the social boost I had received. I recognize it only now that I am in academia. In an alternate timeline, I hide my upbringing, use the name of the school to get into a posh bachelor’s program, network with the rich kids, get hooked up with a well-paying job, and am well on my way to legitimate wealth.
But that’s not how any of this works. My terrible teeth and awkward second-hand clothing choices betrayed my impoverished upbringing. I was articulate, perceptive, and just a little too honest in a way that signaled I was “not one of them.” This is still true. Though now I use it to my advantage. That kind of insight is one of the things that academia truly does reward. I mean, if you make it through. Because the other reality of poverty is: poor kids in higher education are one family crisis away from dropping out.
Here’s the real goddamn kicker that few people realize: even if you do possess the ingenuity to visualize a prosperous future, your survival instinct is so strong that it strangles that potential dream. “Do not dare to hope,” that voice says, “Lofty ideas aren’t for people like us.” Your entire experience has dictated that you will be let down, because those kinds of Good Things—you know, the good jobs and the opportunities—do not belong to you. It is not solely that you don’t have an uncle/sister/cousin that could get you a job interview and put in a good word (though this is also true), it’s that you have to re-train your hardened survival instincts to act as if those things belong to you. The impulse is to immediately shut down any thought about improving your circumstances because it’s painful to picture something better. You cannot bear that kind of disappointment. It’s not that you think you don’t deserve it, it’s that you have noticed that people who don’t deserve it get it all the time. You know that the world is unfair and unjust. Buck up. You are a hardened bitch that no one can hurt (anymore).
If you are never asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” you don’t begin the process of wanting to be anything at all. I was in my twenties before I even allowed myself to daydream about more. And I did that because I was profoundly unhappy in my secretarial jobs (one of my first depressions). The work did not challenge me in any intellectual or innovative way beyond me being “good with people,” and I was good with people because I had been a nanny. A tantrum is the same at any age, whether the person is two or sixty-two, and I could always maintain my cool and deescalate tense situations. I was also perceptive. Precarious childhood circumstances attracts dangerous characters with unsavoury motives, so when I clock someone correctly it is because that type of radar is now embedded. But this also means that I am too cautious, too guarded, and am sometimes jealous of friends for their ability to take risks, fall in love, move to another country, and be bold in ways my predisposition tells me not to be.
In order to succeed, kids from poverty have to re-learn the borders of acceptable risk. Re-programming is all the more difficult without financial stability. When you are living on the margins, where one small bad step could mean homelessness or worse, even that tiny little step towards something better seems too great. Risk-taking is a luxury that poor kids cannot easily afford.