The Past, The Present, The Future

Emotions are complicated things. The way we feel about things, the way we react to things. So much of what we think and do, who we are as a person, is determined by past experiences, or past perceptions of experiences.

I grew up in a poor neighborhood. The type of neighborhood where you find yourself checking to make sure the car doors are locked as you drive through. Local media recently dubbed it “The Kill Zone”. When my parents were growing up, it was an area of large families, mainly lower middle class, some poor. Most of the “good families” moved out as soon as they could afford to do so. My parents chose to stay. The money they saved enabled them to send us to private schools, which they hoped would give us better opportunities in the future.

The neighborhood Catholic grade school was not your typical Catholic school, although the education was better than what was available at the local public school. Most of my classmates were poor. We shared books, got public school lunches, and made the best with what we had. The diocese was continually trying to shut us down. Despite being a Catholic school, we were taught comprehensive sex-ed, with emphasis on all types of birth control, by 5th grade, and continually from there. If they could get the girls graduated into high school without getting knocked up, they had succeeded. We were encouraged to stay in school until we got married, with the hope that that might mean getting a high school education. The “lucky ones” would marry a successful man, move on to a better place.

I can remember going to other schools for sporting events and being looked down upon by the other kids. “Gutter Rats” was the common phrase. I remember feeling inferior, like we were somehow less-than. Some of us had stable home lives, with hand-me-down clothes and limited luxuries. Some kids moved around a lot, and lived what my mom called the “Feast and Famine” lifestyle. Sometimes they’d have new clothes, and the newest “it” things, and other times they’d have nothing, worrying where their next meal was coming from. Other kids were just always poor, with families that never seemed to have anything, and never seemed to improve.

I remember the fear getting head lice, which was always rampant in our school. The disgust and embarrassment of seeing a cockroach. It was the ultimate sign of filth, even though every family in the neighborhood battled them. The foul smell that I always connected with being poor. I could never pinpoint what the smell was; not urine, or feces, or body odor. Maybe it was some combination of things? As an adult, I realize that poor doesn’t have a smell. Even still, the few times as an adult that I’ve smelled it in a public place, I always think of being poor. It makes me super paranoid about smells, especially given that they say you get so accustomed to a smell, that you can’t smell yourself or your home the way others do.

I saw more violence as a child than I should have, and more sex as well. I’ve seen the ravages of the most severe alcoholics, the people who can’t function without a drink. My parents tried to provide us with a stable life, despite our surroundings, and to shield us as much as possible. As the neighborhood grew worse and worse, my mom tried to emphasize what was and was not “normal”. The prostitute across the street, who would hang naked out the upstairs window and yell down to her johns? Not normal. The SWAT team with guns drawn, surrounding the drug dealer across the street’s house? Not normal.

We learned to take the side streets and alleys to get anywhere in the neighborhood. After all, the stray dogs and homeless people were less scary than the constant stream of men trying to pick you up on the main roads. We all knew whose mom was hooking, whose dad was dealing, and where the best places were to hang out and not be bothered.

The teenager that was found wrapped in a piece of carpet in the dumpster years ago? Yeah, I knew him. The mom who committed suicide? The dad who drank himself to death? I hung out with their kids. The older I get, the more people I know who have died in violent or otherwise preventable ways, and the more fearful I get of violence and the way others value human life. I’ve seen men be beaten to within an inch of their life. A few months ago someone I used to know was gunned down outside his home. The news showed video footage of 3 obviously armed, masked men approaching the house. He knew exactly what was coming; He told his girlfriend to hide in an interior closet inside their home, and calmly walked outside to meet his fate.

I know the pain of hanging out with friends one day, only to have them rob your house while you’re at school the next. I’ve learned a lot about the pain that can come from trusting people you shouldn’t. But those aren’t things I discuss, especially not here.

My parents sent us to a college prep school for high school, in a much nicer, more affluent part of town. The school was happy to accept “disadvantaged children” to help with their “diversity”. I had once gone somewhere with a classmate, and made a shortcut through town driving her home. Upon recognizing the name of a street, she immediately hid on the floorboard of the car, completely freaking out that I was trying to get us killed. I remember feeling hurt, ashamed, even somewhat angry. The neighborhood we were driving through was actually a much nicer, safer neighborhood than where I lived. None of my friends from high school ever came to our house. Very few people even knew where I lived.

There are a few people from the “old neighborhood” that I run into from time to time. The usual small talk about where we are, what we’re up to ensues, always followed by whispered admissions of the family and friends who have struggled to “make it out.” The brother with the drug addiction. The sister with multiple babies’ daddy’s, and no job. The friend who passed away, or the other who is serving time.

There are those who are poor because they fell on hard times, or due to mental or physical disability. There are those who are temporarily poor. And then there are those who have a “poor mindset”, who will never be able to overcome being poor. The problem with moving forward are the things that hold you back; The family and friends who see your ambitions as “thinking you’re better than them”, or those who resent your success. There are the fears about your abilities, and doubts about your self-worth.

My BF becomes angry when I talk about certain members of my family. “They’re taking advantage of you!” is something I here frequently. I wish that he could see them the way I do: For who they were, for who they could be. He only sees them for who they’ve become, what they do. Maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe I’d have an easier time distancing myself from “toxic” people if I could learn to simply see them as who they are right now. But my history is so intertwined with their’s, it feels like a personal blow when he talks bad about them. We’ve discussed words like “hillbilly” and “trash”, and how they make me feel. We’ve also talked about trust, and building relationships. I have serious trust issues. It’s difficult to distance myself from the people I’ve always been closest to, and to trust in something unknown.

There are times when I wear my background like a badge of honor, especially around others with similar histories. We can be happy with how far we’ve come, share in the joy of what we’ve managed to achieve. There are times when I’m embarrassed, and regret telling people details about my life. I’ll sometimes share a story about a family member with a coworker or acquaintance, usually out of frustration or utter disbelief, and later wish that I hadn’t been so open. I wonder how it changes their perception of me, knowing that I’m surrounded by such drama. Shame by association. And suddenly, I feel like less.

I’ve shared details on this blog about my family, and some of the situations that have led to my financial position. I feel it’s an important part of who I am, where I’m coming from, what I’m dealing with. At the same time, it makes me feel uneasy. What perception do people have of me? I sometimes feel like that white trash girl, trying to pretend she’s something more.

By the standards set growing up, I’ve been very successful in my life. I have a college degree. I have a career. I’ve been supporting myself my entire adult life. But I look around the personal finance blogosphere, and I realize I’m far behind many of my peers. I also realize that I’ve been holding myself back for years. I don’t take the chances that I should, because I don’t feel like I’m good enough. The position that I recently applied for? I almost didn’t. I didn’t feel I was qualified, despite the fact that I met all the required qualifications. I felt like I would be wasting their time by applying. I’ve never earned what I should, because I’ve never felt like I was worth more. I feel guilty having money set aside, knowing that I have family that are struggling to make ends meet.

I grew up in a poor neighborhood, with all the shame, humiliation, and discrimination that came with it. It helped to make me the person that I am today. But that was years ago. It’s time to let go of the past. It’s time to aspire to bigger dreams. It’s time to push to new limits. It’s time to move on.

– Cindy W.

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