It was the January of the year I was in the 4th grade that I learned we were poor.
In 1968, four years before I was born, the State of Mississippi finally saw the writing on the wall, and despite years of dragging their feet, it became obvious they were going to be forced to integrate the public school system. And suddenly, many churches attended by white people became concerned about education and felt called to start a “Christian” school.
I mean, look at the website of virtually any private religiously affiliated school in Mississippi, and it’s amazing how many of them have origin stories in the late 1960’s. It’s almost as if education wasn’t their chief concern.
Nine years later, I started kindergarten in such a school. In our county, there were several private “Christian” schools. One was the one you went to if your daddy owned the company, and the others were the ones you went to if your daddy worked for the man who owned the company. I went to one of those.
To be fair, I never heard a word about race, pro or con, there; I had no idea I was participating, however unwillingly, in white supremacy; that the Native American brother and sister that would come to attend there were being used as tokens; that our curriculum was written by young-earth creationists who denied science. I knew none of that.
It was a small school – for example, there were 10 kids in my first-grade class. And we all knew each other, or at least our parents did, and we were all pretty much in similar economic circumstances, although that wasn’t a concept I really understood at the time. But we spent the night at each other’s houses, and some of us lived in bigger houses than others, and some of my friends had their own room and I had to share mine with my brother, and some of us drove older cars and some newer cars, but nobody thought anything about that.
There was one friend – her dad owned his company, so she went to the good private school, and they had a maid that came to their house every day and cooked supper for them, but everyone I knew thought that was pretentious, even if we didn’t know that word.
I have no idea how much this school cost to attend, but I know we didn’t make much, and I know it was a stretch, economically, to send me there. And I know it was a stretch for lots of the kids I knew – again, we were the kids of working people, and the classrooms were often cold in the winter and the textbooks shabby and the hallways dimly lit.
But it was all we knew, and we were happy. Until the middle of the 4th grade, that is. There was a boy – I have done him the favor of forgetting his name – who showed up in January of that year. His family had just moved there from the city, and he had started attending after the Christmas break.
And he was weird. And by weird, I mean, different. He wore corduroy pants – we had never seen such – but worse, he pointed out that he wore “cords” and we didn’t. Sometimes he would wear jeans, but he didn’t call them jeans. They were Levis. Our pants, the sort worn by the great unwashed, did not have names – they were just blue jeans, often purchased in the basement of Sears and Roebuck when they would have clearance sales, and purchased with extra length and cuffed multiple times, so one could grow into them.
This boy’s pants fit him just as he was.
But the worst was the shoes. We wore sneakers. Or tennis shoes. He wore Nikes. Pronounced “Neyeks”, like the plural of Mike, with a long I and a silent E. I had never seen shoes that had a name before.
“Why don’t your parents buy you Nikes?” he asked? “At my last school, all the kids wore these. Well, except the poor kids.”
I asked Dad what Nikes were. He told me I was mispronouncing it, and he explained they were shoes that athletes wore and that they were expensive.
“Well, I want some,” I told him. It was the first time I had ever asked for anything by a brand name.
He said that I already had shoes – in fact, had just gotten new shoes for Christmas – and that maybe I could get some new shoes when school started back in the fall, but under no circumstances would we be getting Nikes, because we couldn’t afford them.
It was the first time I remember wanting something somebody else had, and understanding it was off-limits to us because we didn’t have the money.
It was the first time I saw myself as different, as less than, because of money. I was one of the poor kids. I was separated from this kid – with his fancy clothes and exotic stories of city life and his name-brand shoes – by economic status, and that was the first time in my life that had ever happened, or that I understood such a thing was possible.