When I was probably about 26 years old, one of my grandmothers asked me when I would meet a guy “so I didn’t have to go to school anymore.”
I said: “CAN YOU BELIEVE SHE JUST SAID THAT TO ME?!”
One of my grandpas said: “Doesn’t she know you only know just enough to be dangerous? You can’t quit college yet.”
But, on the real, the answer to her question: when I was 29 years old.
As you may know, I just got married about four months ago (yayyyyyy, commitment!). He and I grew up in very very different worlds, and it is still taking some getting used to on both of our parts.
On my part, I have always been both fiercely independent and also on the cusp of running out of money (except when I have literally run out of money).
As Sean has put it, he had parachutes on parachutes, for which we are both very grateful.
Parachute guy and broke, independent girl get married and have to learn the dance of how much help parachute guy can offer to broke, independent girl without one or both parties becoming resentful. I get aided by his parachutes sometimes, and I must admit it is very nice to feel somewhat secure for the first time in 29 years.
Sean was the youngest of three boys. His Dad is a Doctor, and his Mom earned a Master’s degree in guidance & counseling and taught kindergarten students for about 40 years. In other words, they were pretty much the most prepared parents to have ever existed.
Alternatively, my single Mom didn’t finish high school, had me when she was 19, and then had my two sisters soon thereafter. The woman supported three kids as a 21 year-old waitress, with no financial support from our biological father. I cannot even imagine.
Then when I was six or so, my Mom married my step-Dad and they had two more kids. If you have been counting, you understand there were a heck of a lot of kids to care for.
While Sean and I grew up in were very different households, on paper, the place where I grew up seemed to be full of families just like his.
Oldham County has and had the highest income per capita of any of the counties in lil’ ole Kentucky, and its reputation precedes it.
To that point, years ago, at work, an angry parent called in and tried to argue her kid deserved more scholarship dollars simply because he graduated in four years and “nobody does that anymore.” Already agitated from listening to her negativity and poorly argued badgering for a longggg time, I told her I had actually managed to graduate in three years, not four.
Her response was to ask where I was from. When I told her, she said, “well, to me, that explains everything.”
She assumed I had achieved a fairly exceptional accomplishment because I came from an exceptional place, and not because I am an exceptionally hard-worker. It was not very nice of her.
It is easy to assume if you come from Oldham County, you are well-off. I was an exception to the rule. Growing up there, it was not a difficult place to feel shameful and hyper-aware of being really poor, even if you weren’t really poor and were just pretty poor.
In my family, we did run out of resources like food and toilet paper at home sometimes, but pint-sized me usually chalked it up to my parents forgetting to go to the store to get what we needed (neglect) instead of them not having the money to pay for it (poverty). Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn’t, or maybe it was a little bit of both.
Whatever the true reason may have been, I often did not have what I needed.
One of the earliest memories I have from school occurred when I was somewhere between ages five and seven years old. I remember standing in the lobby of my elementary school, holding flimsy food stamps in my hands and collapsing into tears.
My Mom had told me to take food stamps to the little bookstore run by the school and ask if I could buy the required school supplies for the year with them.
My internal response: shame shame shame shame shame shame.
Like hell did baby Jessica feel like flashing paper badges to prove she was poor to people at school, who would most likely feel awkward and not be able to help. Like. hell.
I did not want to ask, because I knew school supplies were not food, and I knew my elementary school was not a grocery store. I did not know much, but I knew this plan was not especially well thought through.
When my Mom later asked me if I had picked up my school supplies, I had to tell her I had not tried because I had been too scared. I am sure the news was not well received. For better or for worse, she was never a warm fuzzy kind of Mom.
I have no idea how this story resolved or how I got school supplies that year, if I got them. I would imagine my school probably would have helped though, because my elementary school helped my family a lot when I was young.
The principals would take me home from school when I didn’t get picked up from after school field trips, and after choir practice, and when I missed the bus home. My teachers let me sleep through classes when they knew things were rough at home and could see I needed rest more than I needed to do crafts.
I deeply hated but appreciated all of it.
On this day though, there was no saving grace. It was probably the first time I was publicly confronted with being poor, and subsequently felt a lack of dignity. It is one of my earliest memories, but not one I have reflected about very often; however, the same feeling of shame for being poor is something I have carried with me for over two decades.
But also, while this memory and many like it have led me to a lot of embarrassment and shame, they have also helped to shape some of the boldest and best parts of me, too.
As much as is within my power, I do not want those who are in need (especially kids) to feel like they do not deserve dignity and respect. They do.
Whether I realized the correlation or not, the day I stood in my elementary school lobby and bawled my eyes out is likely why I have worked so hard to rally my friends and family members to help single Moms in need get school supplies for their littles each year.
It is likely why I sometimes have gone broke venmoing college students money, and why I helped one of my younger sisters with her college tuition for a while even though I could barely manage my own student loans.
It is probably why I have never taken my education for granted, and why I have worked so hard to help a few special refugees and kids from Haiti pursue their own college educations. I know how important education can be when you have next to nothing.
It is why I am perfectly comfortable giving every bit of extra I have to help others who need resources more than I do (which sometimes, maybe causes me to live irresponsibly off my credit card). I know what having no options feels like. I have felt the food-stamps in my hands and cried for having needed them.
Last but not least, it is the cause of the big embarassing argument that, against all odds, caused my husband to fall in love with me.
Oh, what a day.
I’ll tell you all about it next week.