Hard work builds character and character produces heart. It’s back to school time and I can’t help but think of all the kids out there who have a heart like mine.
I lived with my mother until I was in the 3rd grade. The money she made from working her several part-time cashier and restaurant jobs went to providing us with the basic necessities. And when her hours would get cut or she was let go for being late, not having a babysitter, or needing to get us to an appointment, sometimes the money didn’t stretch.
When the money didn’t stretch enough for rent we couch hopped and slept in cars. When the money didn’t stretch enough for food to last through the end of the month, we dumpster-dived, lifted food from stores, and went to the food shelf. When the start of the school year would come around, we’d always get a backpack and we were never certain if we’d ever get the remaining items on our back-to-school lists.
At the start of 3rd grade, I really wanted some markers. My mother said we couldn’t afford them, so one day on the way home from school, I went to the grocery store that was a few blocks from our apartment to steal some markers. Just as I was shoving the box into my pants pocket, a store clerk yelled at me from behind and told me to get out before he called the cops. I ran home stunned and never shoplifted again.
After that school year, I began living with my grandmother. For a couple of years, one of the older ladies from our church who still had good credit would take us shopping and let my grandmother charge on her credit card what us grand-kids needed for school. My grandmother had already budgeted how much she could afford to pay back over time so we prioritized supplies and shoes over clothes—because my grandmother knew how to sew.
My grandmother worked full-time in a manufacturing plant, she worked nights at a convenience store and she maintained some side hustles to earn extra cash; and her income didn’t increase at the same rate as our living expenses and fees increased. In the summer of 7th grade, I got a job working at an in-home daycare and I made $25 a week. After that year, it became my responsibility to purchase my own items for school.
School and church were my outlets, and I enjoyed being active and using my time to become well-rounded. My grandmother supported me how she could, and everything else I wanted to do that she couldn’t financially support—sports, extracurricular activities, field trips, summer courses…it was my responsibility to pay for these things. Managing school, work and activities was always a balancing act, and I pressured myself to excel because I believe that education and hard work create pathways out of poverty.
When I started high school, I began working at the same convenience store as my grandmother. By this time, I had a permanent place on the honor roll, and I could afford my school clothes, activities fees and also contribute money to our household expenses. I saw the direct fruit of my labor because as my dependence on my grandmother lessened overtime, and my ability to contribute to living expenses increased, my grandmother was able to move to a better home, get a more reliable car, and stop working nights.
In one of my high school honors math classes, we were required to use a graphing calculator. The cost of the calculator was half of what I would have earned in a month, so I knew that I couldn’t afford to purchase it alongside every other expense. I asked my grandmother for the money and she said that she couldn’t afford it either, and it had been years since she used the credit card of her friend at church to charge things we needed, so that wasn’t an option.
I asked my math teacher if I could check out one of the calculators owned by the school and while he had compassion for my situation, it was against policy to let students take graphing calculators home. I began lamenting to friends and family about this calculator. One day, a family friend surprised me with the news that he could get me a graphing calculator. When we met up for me to retrieve it, I discovered that what he wanted in return was sex.
I thought immediately of the time I tried to shoplift the markers from the grocery store, except no one threatened to call the cops if I didn’t leave. I felt somewhere between fear and determination. I’m neither proud of nor ashamed of the decisions I made that day. I did what I had to do to get the calculator; I got an A in my math class; and I accomplished my goal of graduating from high school with honors.
Adulthood presented itself with new challenges and many more expenses. I had to figure out food, transportation, a place to live and a way to pay for everything I needed for school and for life. My grades afforded me some scholarships, I took out student loans, I worked, and I hustled—hard. I had goals of being the first person in my family to complete college and the first person in my family to get a master’s degree, and I accomplished both—giving my family, most especially my younger sisters, something else to reach for.
My church just recently sponsored a back-to-school drive. On the last day of the drive, I joined our senior minister and another community member, and together we sorted through the hundreds of dollars of items purchased by the community—including markers, calculators, staplers, glue sticks, pens, notebooks, and backpacks. I imagined the girl or boy who would receive each filled backpack. I imagined the parents who would be able to take a deep breath because of one less expense.
My heart swelled with joy in that full-circle moment. On behalf of all the kids who are going back to school prepared with the tools and resources they need—because of a donation you made, or a fundraiser that you supported, or because you sent your kid to school with a couple extra boxes of Kleenex—THANK YOU!
The road to living our dreams isn’t paved with gold; there are times when we have to make sacrifices and difficult decisions for what we want. The circumstances of people living in poverty can be unimaginable, and there are things we can do to lessen the severity of all our situations so that everyone has opportunities to accomplish goals and achieve dreams.