SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2012       Personal Memory Ethnographies


Etymologist, Age Nine

We inched our way through the lines in the small, crowded building, one room to the next. Dry goods, produce, refrigerated. I stuck close behind my big brother who was pushing our mother in her wheelchair, a box in her lap that was slowly being filled. People to each side had their eyes steadily fixed on the ground. Once we had made our way through the whole place, we stepped outside into the tiny parking lot, right off a busy road. Cars sped by and it seemed like they didn’t even notice this inconsequential speck of a building, sandwiched between a car dealership and an office complex. Places for rich people. We walked to our van and I waited quietly while the box of food was loaded in the back. That’s when I saw her.

I was helping an elderly lady out to her car with a box of food at the food bank where I volunteer when I saw something interesting. A little girl, around ten years old, was standing quietly at the back of a van, looking around the parking lot. Next to her were a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair and a teenage boy, lifting a box of food into the trunk of the van. The manner of the little girl changed quickly, and she looked down at the ground and moved toward the side door of the van. I looked in the direction she had just been facing and saw another little girl who must have been the same age, standing next to a car with her family. She too was staring at the ground, half hidden behind an older man.

I thought it was a strange occurrence. What would make two children shy away from one another? Aren’t kids normally talkative and happy to see someone of their own age group? I would think especially so in a boring place like this. As I walked back into the food bank, I could again see the first girl standing at the side of the van, but now she was crying. I figured at that point the two of them must have known each other; why else would one of them have such an emotional response? But what was the emotion about? Maybe they were two friends in a fight or one of them was a bully, too scared to act up around their family. But then I considered the venue. Maybe they were sad seeing each other because of where they were. Financial problems probably aren’t something that kids share with each other about their families, but I don’t see why it would be such a trigger.

A classmate. I was instantly mortified. I wanted to sink into the ground or immediately erase both of our memories or explain it away, Oh, this isn’t for us! We’re just picking this up for my grandmother! I was ashamed of being poor. I had never felt that. Only being in fourth grade, I didn’t quite have a grasp on what it really meant to be poor. When I thought of “poor people,” the images that came to mind were the people on Jerry Springer, in its heyday in the late ‘90s. Despicable low-life's who were addicted to drugs and were awful to their children and fought with each other over sexual indiscretions – white trash, in other words. I knew my family was poor, but I also knew that we weren’t anything like those people. To me, being poor meant that other kids had cool things that we couldn’t afford and that we got all our clothes from the thrift store, while many other kids wore name brand clothes. While I didn’t particularly enjoy the fact that I didn’t have a PlayStation and had to wear ratty old sweaters and stained pants, it wasn’t a huge deal. But then our money situation got tighter.

In addition to going to discount grocery stores and buying only groceries on sale, we now had to pay for them with food stamps. In the winter, instead of going to the thrift store to buy new (used) pairs of shoes, we went to a community closet, where we were each given a pair of shoes and a coat that had been donated to charity. And then we started frequenting food banks. Because most places only allow families to receive a small amount of food once a month, we had a schedule of going to a couple different food banks to get as many groceries as possible to feed our family of five. I thought that it was kind of an odd way to live, but it never caused discomfort to me personally. But now, I was ashamed that my family had to depend on the charity of others and all of a sudden I couldn’t keep up appearances at school because now someone knew my family was struggling. Even worse, I was afraid she would view me and my family as the white trash stereotype depicted on Jerry Springer just because of our finances. Somehow not having money for food was equal to being rude, abusive, filthy, and just plain awful. Even though her family was clearly in the same situation and there was no threat of being exposed at school because I’m sure, with the speed with which she looked away, she felt the same way I did.

When I volunteer here every week, I see so many needy families come in and get food and I’m thrilled to be a part of helping them out. Food banks are a lifesaver for people who are going through rough times and there’s nothing to be ashamed of for needing help. Especially for kids! Matters of keeping a household running shouldn’t be a burden on children. I’ve never personally needed the help of a food bank, nor has my family, but I don’t think seeing a peer at one would affect me so strongly.

Not even being ten yet, I couldn’t claim to know much about the world, but in that moment I understood that there is something inherently shameful about accepting charity. About not being able to afford our way in the world. About eating other people’s leftovers and wearing clothes that other people don’t want anymore and not being able to have first pick at anything and relying on the fact that someone, somewhere in the world had to think “What about those poor, poor people?” for me to be able to have any of these things. And I realized why a lack of wealth is called being “poor,” because those who aren’t regarding us with disgust, really do just look on us with pity. Those unfortunate souls, let’s help them out. I cried the entire way home.

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