“Do we know any poor people?”
We were driving home from school recently when my 12-year-old daughter asked me that question. It was dismal spring day in Michigan, and the gray sky spat halfheartedly, unsure whether to snow or rain. I flicked the windshield wipers back on as her words registered. A minute ago, we’d been talking about a science test, a tae kwon do lesson. Where had this question come from? She sat beside me in the passenger seat, chewing her fingernails as she awaited my answer. In the back seat, her two younger sisters suddenly quieted their conversation. There was nowhere to hide.
My grip tightened on the wheel. “Well, yeah, of course. I mean … hmmm,” I floundered, trying to sound flippant while my mind raced. Names of friends and family members who’d lost jobs, even homes, during the 2008 recession drifted through my head. But they’d all bounced back, cushioned by college degrees or family assistance. I considered a few extended family members who struggled month to month below the poverty line, but they lived in different states, far from our bubble.
Before I managed an answer, even a bad one, we were home. “Never mind,” mumbled my interrogator as she headed upstairs to do her homework. My younger daughters flitted off to play with LEGO sets in the family room, leaving me to sift through the wreckage of the day in the kitchen: muddy boots, half-eaten lunches, crumpled homework pages. The moment passed, and life resumed its brisk clip. But I felt like something big had just transpired — like I’d been given an important pop quiz, and had failed miserably.
Of the thousands, maybe millions, of questions my three girls had asked over the years, none had ever thrown me like this one. Our town wasn’t exactly a bastion of diversity, but we did know people from almost every ethnicity, sexual orientation and political bent. Though my husband and I were both products of public K-12 education, we’d chosen to send our daughters to a small, independent school where a panoply of kids existed side by side in harmony. My daughters learned early on that Aiden had two mommies, Yasmin had one mommy and no daddy, our neighbors Lloyd and Charles were married, Mila and Alex were adopted from different countries, Evan was transgender, and that those things were possible — ordinary even — because families come in all shapes and sizes.
But did we know any poor people?
* * *
I grew up on a cattle farm in a rural Tennessee town so far removed from Nashville it could hardly be called a suburb. The demographics haven’t changed much since I graduated over 20 years ago: Today, 47 percent of the students in my old high school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Back then, my friends’ houses ranged from simple ranch homes to trailers to what I now understand were housing projects. The edge of poverty was an accepted baseline in my town, and your family’s income bracket held no sway over your status at school; in fact, if you didn’t watch out, you’d get harassed for living too far above that edge. (My mother called this type of bullying “reverse snobbery.”) While my own family wasn’t rich, we were comfortable enough, and the fact we lived on a farm gave me just enough street cred to squeak by unbothered.
After high school, I accepted a partial scholarship to a tony private school, a small and liberally-arted college three hours away, though it may as well have been in a different country. My next-door neighbors in the dorm were roommates and longtime school friends named Kelly and Lucia. They hailed from the Dallas suburb of Highland Park, one of the wealthiest enclaves in Texas, if not the nation. Kelly was lovely, scrub-faced and freckled, with shiny, strawberry blonde hair. Unlike the heavily made-up girls of my high school, she only took her hair out of a ponytail and put on lipstick for semi-formals, and I hardly recognized her the first time I saw her at one. While most of the girls had on sale-rack cocktail dresses from the mall, Kelly wore a black cashmere sweater atop tailored, beige silk pants. I’d seen women dress like that in the movies, but I had no idea my dressing like that was even an option.
Raised by European parents, Lucia was our hall’s very own Fellini muse, with a Gen X twist. She lined her top lid with a cat-eyed swoop of black eyeliner, and dressed in a daily uniform of black turtleneck, ripped jeans, and Doc Marten boots. (She didn’t own a pair of shorts. When summer came, I asked her why she wore jeans every day in the sweltering Southern heat, why she never wore shorts. She looked at me with pity and replied, “Because they’re ugly.”)
The college was located in a midsize Southern city that was predominantly African-American, and this was eye-opening for the pair, I learned one afternoon as I languished between classes in their dorm room, smoking cigarettes and procrastinating with other stragglers from our hall. One of our hallmates observed that it was weird our school’s student body was so white, considering the surrounding city was anything but. At that moment, Lucia casually dropped the bomb that she’d never met a black person in her hometown. No, that can’t be, we all gasped. How is that possible? She shrugged, not exactly embarrassed, just stating a fact.
“There were no black kids at your school?” I gaped.
“No,” she huffed. “Maybe a few Mexicans, but definitely no blacks.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said, and I didn’t. I couldn’t. I turned to gauge Kelly’s reaction to her friend’s ridiculous assertion. She had been sitting quietly on the windowsill throughout the conversation, looking out over the ancient evergreens, the imposing Gothic architecture that surrounded us. She took a long, thoughtful drag off her cigarette before she stubbed it out.
“It’s true,” she said. “I never saw one there either.”
Even with my narrow, 18-year-old worldview, I knew there was something morally wrong about the truth Lucia had revealed, and I especially know it now that I have a deeper understanding of Highland Park’s long history of racist urban planning and school redistricting. There had been no African-American homeowners allowed in the district, period, until a wealthy mortgage broker purchased a home on a prominent boulevard in 2003, an event so significant it made the local Park Cities People newspaper. Under the headline “Area’s First Black Family Welcomed,” the article began, “Guess who’s coming to dinner — and staying for a while?” It’s no wonder why people in the surrounding city of Dallas refer to Highland Park as “the Bubble,” noted reporter Josh Harkinson in a 2011 Mother Jones article.
Lucia left college after our freshman year and moved back to Highland Park, which meant that Kelly needed a new roommate. She chose me — a coup, I felt, as if I had passed some kind of test. I was a quick study. The fall of my sophomore year, I returned to college with a simpler, muted wardrobe, a more natural hairstyle, and my own pair of black Doc Martens.
That fall, Kelly invited me to her debutante ball at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, an opulent, moneyed event hosted by Ross Perot. I told my mother I needed a new dress for the occasion, and she took me shopping at an upscale department store in Nashville, where we bought an ankle-length navy velvet dress with a babydoll waist, the style that season. I usually stayed with Kelly on my visits, but her parents’ house was packed with guests in town for the gala, so I was sent to Lucia’s smaller, cottage-style home a mile away, on a street actually named Lover’s Lane. Lucia’s mother was slightly frumpy if still pretty, fair-haired and doe-eyed with the kind of warming British accent that evokes tea and comfort. She and Lucia’s father were technically separated, though they appeared to get along swimmingly. He showed up for lunch one afternoon during my stay, tanned from the tropics with silver-white hair, dressed in a casually rumpled linen suit and Italian loafers, worn without socks. Lucia’s mother made us salad, which we ate together, al fresco in the backyard.
Though Lucia’s home was more modest than Kelly’s stately, antique-filled colonial, her mother had decorated everything in the loveliest European fabrics and wallcoverings I’d ever seen. I can still recall the weight of the sunny, yellow linen duvet I slept under in the guest room, how I traced the swirl of the patterned blooms with my finger, the same blooms on the valance above my head. When I awoke in the morning and went into the kitchen, I found her mother had brought us glistening croissants from a European bakery, and artfully arranged them under a domed glass plate atop their marbled countertop.
That morning, she’d made appointments for us to have our hair and makeup done at a ritzy Dallas salon, and had covered our expenses in advance, even left extra on our tab so we could treat ourselves to some of the products. That night, I watched the glittering parade of ivory-gowned debutantes from the balcony, holding my breath along with the crowd as each girl swooped her forehead to the floor like a swan. I felt like Cinderella at the ball, even if my Nashville babydoll dress was no match for the sparkling waves of tulle and sequins rippling throughout the orchestra.
My own mother never gave a damn about home decor; she’d much rather spend her days mowing the grass or burrowing into a novel than shopping for linens. But Lucia’s parents showed me there was another way to live. Yes, it was a way that involved money, that much was true, but it was also a matter of aesthetics, a care for one’s surroundings, a plate of lightly dressed salad greens for lunch in the garden as opposed to a ham sandwich at the counter. My weekend at their home made an imprint on me that remains today, like a water ring on a table I can see when the light hits it just so.
I’ve mostly lost touch with Lucia, and know through mutual friends that her parents have both since passed away, but sometimes I wonder if their tastes continue to guide me. When I choose my own daughters’ duvets, or bake quick breads to place under my own domed glass plate, I cannot help but think of that perfect jewelry box of a cottage on Lover’s Lane.
You can’t blame me for striving. My parents sent me to the tony college so I could see a world outside of our town’s prosaic crosshatch of churches, strip malls, gas stations and cemeteries. When I was 16, I suggested to my mother that maybe I could go to an academically average state school nearby, where I knew many of my high school friends would end up. “No, you will not,” she snapped, and I knew better than to bring it up again. In retrospect, my parents may have wanted to provide me with some upwardly mobile friends in this superficial world, a possible plan that succeeded whether they intended it or not: after college, Kelly and I moved to Boston, where we remained roommates, and there I met my husband.
Throughout those early years, I had tried to fit in, adapt to my surroundings as a matter of social survival. At times, I had sought to transcend my own life, a very American goal. But when my daughter asked me that question — Do we know any poor people? — I saw how I might have adapted a little too well over the years.
* * *
When I was a girl, my mother revealed to me that my father had been “scarred” by a childhood spent in dire poverty in West Texas, at the tail end of the Dust Bowl. I’ll never forget that word, “scarred.” It made me forever see my father as different, as damaged. Thereafter I sought evidence of his scars, and sometimes they would surface, when I saw how conspicuous he felt at parties, or when he’d occasionally drink too much at dinner and an anger would bubble up out of a deep place inside him I had no access to. As a man, he built country homes with more bathrooms than necessary, as a way to overcompensate for the years he spent growing up with no toilet or running water. My mother also told me — he would never speak of such a shame — that school kids made fun of him and his siblings for smelling bad, for coming to school unbathed. My father’s parents were too busy working in the cotton fields to remedy this problem, and so my father’s oldest brother took it upon himself to wake up earlier each morning in order to wash his five younger siblings under the cold garden hose before school.
Even putting this on the page now makes me feel like I’m revealing a humiliating family secret, and brings tears of shame and pity to my own eyes, as if I, too, bear the scars of my father’s poverty. I see in these words that maybe, in some small way, I do.
Growing up with a father and friends scarred by poverty was at times sad or disturbing, but mostly accepted, poverty being a common ingredient in our rural community. Those connections informed my life, my writing, my humanity. But when I had my own daughters, I wanted to protect them in a way I had not been — by moving to a sleepy Michigan town that resembled a Norman Rockwell painting, and by sending them to an independent school. It’s a good school, a place where fistfights don’t blow up the hallways like IEDs, where girls don’t routinely lose their virginity in middle school, and where teachers don’t just punch a clock, but nurture and inspire. Such are the benefits of class, and of money.
But I realized the moment my daughter asked me that question — Do we know any poor people? — that my intention had been partially misguided. I had been raising my children in a bubble; not one as glamorous, or as haunted by racism, as Highland Park, but a bubble all the same. And just as I knew there was something morally wrong about Lucia’s admission that lazy day in Williford Hall, I can’t shake the feeling there’s also something morally wrong about the decisions I’ve made, the ones that led my child to ask that question.
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