Poverty is a Great Teacher


I had a poster in my classroom:   'Embrace your poverty—it is a great teacher.'   Students often asked what it meant.   In their middle class homes, most had no idea what real poverty is.   Sometimes they had to 'wait until payday' or save their own money to buy what they wanted, but most had food, housing, even cars, and had never done without any necessity.   Ah…life in America!

We have so much stuff and so many conveniences now.   I have been amazed at all the rental storage places available.   When we moved here in 1967 the only place we could store our few hand-me-downs and refinished furniture until we found a home to rent was in a warehouse.

Bill and I were born at the end of the Depression and the beginning of WWII.   He grew up without a mother, without a phone, and without indoor plumbing. He lived with relatives, until he was six.   Then his oldest sister left the military to come home and care for him and his brother who was four years older and who had had polio.

We both walked to school as did all the kids, except the farm kids—some of them had an old car, and some boarded and roomed in town during the week.

I was raised by grandparents in an immaculately clean home with good food, pets, and a coal furnace stoked by grandpa every morning.   I was well cared for and lacked for nothing important.   I well remember the time Grandpa proudly showed me the passbook for his savings account—-he had managed to save $300 and considered himself well-off.  He and grandma were out working and supporting themselves by age 13.

My grandparents never owned a car and some of my happy memories are walking 6-7 blocks to go grocery shopping with grandpa or Christmas shopping with grandma, then chatting as we carried our purchases home.     One of my favorite memories is carrying a small spruce home on a starry night as snow gently fell, and I anticipated the wonderful Christmas food we would soon share with family.

People not willing to take honest work were frowned upon.   I babysat and saved my money.   Bill was sweeping the newspaper office by the age of 11.   He did farm work all summer for board and room only.   In college, he worked three jobs.  The FDR New Deal programs saved many families as the boys in CCC camps were paid $30 a month, but had to send $25 of that home.   Bill's oldest brother was in the CCC's, then in the Army.  He was present at the invasion of Normandy and arrived in Paris the day after Liberation.  He was fortunate to go to college on the GI bill.

My mother felt fortunate to find a job in the Works Progress Administration, and my father, who was too old for military service, was employed by Wage and Hour.   His parents were immigrants from Sweden, but his brother served as a major with General Paton in North Africa and Italy.   They remained grateful for the opportunities in America and to FDR's New Deal all of their lives.  There were times my father and his brothers had only oatmeal for supper and wore patched clothes to school.

My grandmother told me patches were no shame, but dirt was.   Work and thrift were honorable.  Sloth was shameful.

Neither Bill nor I felt poor.   We had food, shelter, and clean clothes.   No matter how difficult the Depression was, or the rationing during WWII, Grandma often expressed gratitude that they always had food and soap and 'Never took Relief.'   I suspect everyone our age was reminded not to waste food, to be grateful for the food we had, and to 'think of the starving Chinese children.'

My poster was correct.   Poverty is a Great Teacher!

We were rich with hope and energy.   We learned by observing: how to build our own home, grow a garden and can our produce.    Grandma advised me to take advanced math and science classes as I could learn cooking, sewing, and cleaning from her.     I learned basic carpentry, animal care, and gardening from grandpa.  Bill and I had the opportunities to go to college that our parents did not have.  He benefitted from having served in the Army.

We learned from people who had little riches, but who had hope that the future would be better for their children and for America.

I feel sorry for kids today who have everything given to them:   cars, clothes, trips, electronic devices even plastic surgeries.   Sadly, many do not have the gifts of earning for themselves or fixing up or 'making do.'     Too many have too much too easily and are deprived of independence, learning, and accomplishments.    Perhaps saddest of all"those who have lots of stuff are deprived of a sense of gratitude.