I’m eight years old and they pass out a flyer at school for a local soccer team. I’ve always wanted to be on a team and soccer seems fun. On my way out of the classroom, I throw the flyer away. I know there’s no point in asking to join. We can’t afford it.
I’m nine years old. A boy in my class throws a rock and it hits me in the face, breaking my glasses. I cry, both because it hurts and because I know my parents will be angry. Glasses are expensive and I dread having to tell my mom that I need a new pair.
I’m 10 years old and all I want in the world is to have a friend and to not feel like the social outcast that I am. The cool girls have Guess jeans, Esprit bags, and wear Keds. I have a homemade book bag, cheap jeans, and generic shoes that I hope people will think are Keds, but they never do. The day after Christmas, a popular girl calls me to ask what presents I got. She’s clearly making a list. I make up presents so my list seems longer. I lie and say I got an Esprit bag. When I go back to school, I have to make up a story about why I’m still carrying the same old book bag. One day we find a used Esprit bag at a second hand store and my mom buys it for me. I can’t wait to carry my things to school in it the next day. During class, one of the cool girls notices the bag and with a crinkle of her nose says it looks dirty.
I’m 13 years old and I’m on the free and reduced lunch plan at school. I’m glad to have hot lunch at school but when I wait in line, I worry about who is standing behind me because soon they’ll know for sure that I’m poor.
I’m 14 years old and it is my first day of high school. I’m not on free and reduced lunch yet this year. That day I bring an orange and a bag of air popped popcorn for lunch, because that was all we had in the house. I eat my popcorn slowly and tell people that I’m on a diet. My friends eat french fries and burritos and my stomach growls.
I’m 14 years old and I have one pair of shoes. They are shiny black loafers and they don’t match the peach shorts and tank top my mom made for me. I wear them because I have no choice and I smile and nod when a girl in my class says “wow, you must really love those shoes! You wear them every day!” I beg my mom to take me to Wal-mart so I can buy a pair of plain white tennis shoes with my babysitting money. She does but they don’t have my size. I buy the wrong size just so I can wear something else to school the next day.
I’m 16 years old and I’m asking my best friend to borrow .60 cents again so I can get a bag of chips at lunch. I try not to think about the fact that I “borrow” money from her almost every day. I don’t think either of us expects that I’ll ever pay her back.
I’m 17 years old and I’ve just found out that my parents have withdrawn money from my savings account so they can make the house payment. Months worth of saving babysitting and part-time job money for college is gone in an instant.
I’m 38 years old and I’m writing this from the cozy basement of the cozy house on the nice block where I live. I’m going to go to the grocery store in a little bit where I can buy whatever we need to get us through the week. My children have never been hungry. We choose their backpacks based on what looks sturdy and what colors and characters they like best. My kids don’t get everything they want and there are some things that I’d like that are financially out of reach for us, but we have enough. We have more than enough. We are lucky. I am grateful. I’m always aware that things can go sideways so I keep an eye on our budget and hope I can put some money in savings next paycheck.
I read the news and see that there are people who think that we shouldn’t be funding programs like free and reduced lunch because there’s “no demonstrable evidence” that it helps kids do better in school. The meanness of this takes my breath away. The idea that we shouldn’t feed hungry children because they are HUNGRY CHILDREN unless we can “prove” that it “works” is profoundly cruel.
(on a side note, do you know why you can’t prove that free and reduced lunch “works”? Because you can’t ethically do a study that would prove that. Proving it works would require giving lunch to some hungry kids and denying lunch to some other hungry kids and then seeing if there is a difference in their outcomes. No researcher would be allowed to do this because it is a HORRIBLE THING TO DO.)
Being a poor kid means dealing with shame and fear and, yes, sometimes hunger. That there are adults who want to make that experience worse makes just makes me so very angry.