New School Chronicles: What Poverty Smells Like

After growing up poor, you have a particular type of respect for your parents’ ability to keep that vital bit of information from you. I grew up dirt poor; seriously, I think at one point our household income might have been less than $18,000. Raised by my grandparents, I remember that they often didn’t have to file taxes because they didn’t make enough. But there was always money for essentials and some extras. True, I envied what my more affluent peers had, but my grandmother always told me that I could do whatever I set my mind to.

Years later, I guess that one of the things I set my mind to was getting the hell out of poverty. I had an unbelievable network of folks (Black and White, mostly White, actually), that had an unwavering support in my potential. More, they helped me reach that potential in myriad ways: small gifts, jobs, connections.

When I taught in the city, I always made a conscious decision to live in the neighborhood where I taught. That’s meant living within a mile of one of the poorest areas of Boston. Recently, I moved to another part of the city. Before, though I lived in that poor area, I lived on particular street that was middle class (some parts even upper middle class). So, I could straddle two worlds: walk to my school and then turn the corner on the way home and think I was in the suburbs. Now, though, I live in an area where I don’t have that escape. I live in a food desert (well, there is a Save-A-Lot), where liquor stores outnumber any other stores, high immigrant population, significant areas of crime (because I obsess about crime stats)…and my street is quiet and tree-lined, but this time, it’s not enough.

Where I live reminds me, too uncomfortably, about being poor. I don’t like such reminders.

And now I have this interesting moment wherein I’m always quick to acknowledge someone else’s privilege, but I best acknowledge my own. See, I’m moving out. After one month, I’m moving BACK to my old, middle class neighborhood because I want to live around people with similar “middle class values.” I do not like the way my apartment smells–a blend of despair, mold, diminishing dreams–the litter that’s everywhere, the sadness that lingers as I walk to the bus stop.

I am privileged. I have savings. I can move. I have friends who are willing to put me up while I’m in between places. I have a choice. I am Black and middle class and I have privilege.

I’ve run into a number of former students (ALWAYS) in my new location. They are all surprised that I live over here, some even ask me if I am “okay” for making such a choice. But THEY live here. This neighborhood is their daily reality, this neighborhood is the place where they grew up, where their families still reside.

They do not necessarily see it as hopeless, and I shouldn’t, either. Some do, but some don’t. Every kid’s experience is different.

But with privilege comes responsibility. I have a choice, after all: I could move back to the old neighborhood, think of this one-month stint as an “adventure” and keep living my relatively comfortable life. Or, I could act on this new information and use it to have a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be Black and Brown and poor as a young person today. I could start being much more responsible for advocating for initiatives that directly benefit these kids. I could understand–I mean, REALLY understand— that just because you’re Black and Brown and poor does not mean you are stupid or have no potential.

I could…

In the last week, I’ve been able to articulate why I have been so uncomfortable in my present situation. I do not want to be reminded of being poor. That is my privilege. Yes, I’m a Black woman, but I’m highly educated and I have the options to choose my life. As someone with that privilege, it’s my responsibility to use that privilege to make the lives of the kids I teach who don’t have that privilege better.

It just is.

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