I just want to go on record that, despite what the kids at school called me, we were not “white trash”. We were “poor-but-proud”. As near as I can tell, the main difference between the two categories had to do with the fact that we owned land. In any event, when I was a child we had very little money.
Up through the fourth grade that wasn’t all that big a deal. After all, all of my friends were in the same boat. In the small, church-based segregation academy I attended until the end of the fourth grade, I was very unaware of fashion. We just wore jeans and shirts – nobody wore Levis. Well, except that one kid. But anyway.
But in the fifth grade, the closing of that school meant I had to go to the consolidated public elementary school. No one at East Tate Elementary wore jeans from the dollar store. All their jeans had names on them – Lee, Levis, Wrangler. And the shoes…no longer could you just wear plain old sneakers. Now there was Nike, and Puma, and Adidas, and Kangaroos (they had a pocket!). And all of those things cost money.
Money we did not have.
I begged my mom to buy me a pair of Levis.
“Just one pair,” I would say. “I will wash them every night.”
But no. Every August we would buy five pairs of cheap jeans that were that horrible, very uncool dark indigo blue color. And we would buy them a size too big, so I could grow into them because we both knew there would be no buying new ones until next August.
But I continued to beg and ask.
One particular Saturday, Mom had been out hitting yard sales and thrift stores, and she came home with a glint in her eye. Held aloft in her hands was a pair of button fly Levi Jeans. Sure, they were slightly faded, but that only added to the appeal.
Monday, I put them on, proud of my new station in life. I strutted when I got off that school bus!
I made it till the second recess, after 4th period. That was when one beloved Child of God informed me that, unlike his Levi jeans, mine had a white patch on the right rear pocket. In other words, they were “girl” jeans.
Oh no. Dear God, no.
As I write this 40 years later I still feel the anguish and shame that went through me as he and his friends stood around me, pointing and chanting. “Girl’s jeans, girl’s jeans. Hugh’s wearing girl jeans. ”
They called me names I had never heard before that called my sexuality into question – words I would look up in the dictionary that night when I got home. I was in fifth grade – what I knew about sexuality was confined to the neighbor’s dog that had gotten to our hound when she was in heat.
I raced into the bathroom, where I hid the rest of recess. I untucked my shirt, hoping to cover the offending label. But my hiding it made it worse, and for the rest of the day, the kids rode me without mercy. Through the remaining classes, people looked at me and giggled, pointing at me. And if I got up to sharpen my pencil, displaying the offensive tag, the laughter was so loud the teacher had to tell everyone to be quiet.
When I got home that day, after the longest bus ride ever, I hid those jeans in the bottom of my closet so I would not accidentally wear them ever again.
It was only a few days before Mom noticed they were out of the rotation. She tormented me to no end that I just “had” to have a pair of Levis, and there she went, spending her hard-earned money on Levis, and did I wear them? No sir, I did not.
In the cold, rational light of 2022, I wish that 10-year-old Hugh had been stronger. I wish someone had told him that clothes were not gendered. I wish the teachers had stood up for him.
But, as Dad used to say, if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.
I have talked to other people who grew up poor, and they sometimes say things like, “We didn’t know we were poor.” By the time I was 10, I knew we were poor. The kids at the public school never tired of telling me.
But I knew that Mom had bought me those jeans because she loved me. I knew that she hunted the places we could afford to find them and that the money she spent on them was money that should have gone to groceries, or stuff for the baby, or any number of things. I knew that her buying me those jeans was my mom’s way of saying “You matter to me. Your happiness matters to me. You are worth the trouble I am going to to try to make this thing you want, happen. ” And because I knew all of that, there was no way on God’s green earth I was going to tell her she bought the wrong thing and caused me ridicule.
That was the last time she bought me a name-brand anything. I would not wear a pair of Levis again until I was 16 and working after school at the grocery store and could buy them myself.
And I have still never told her why I quit wearing that pair of jeans. I would have rather had her think me ungrateful than for her to feel shame or to know she caused me to suffer. Ten-year-old me did not want her to think her love for me was, in any way, flawed.
And I still don’t.