Today is my favorite holiday. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t give a fuck about our independence, or how wrong (or wronged) our founding fathers were. I don’t give a fuck about our founding fathers. I don’t even like the phrase “Founding Fathers,” it reminds me of that piece of shit “Birth of a Nation” notion and it gives me the heebie-jeebies. Eww. Gross. Stop it.
Today is my favorite holiday cause I like fireworks! Ahhh! They are so pretty. And yeah, maybe they represent the casting off of bombs, and the old ways of war and rebellion, but to me they mean something much more personal. To me they mean summer nights. And summer nights don’t conjure up images of war, or bombs, or even old, white fathers who were super racist and gross. Summer means popsicles, softball, street kickball under the lamppost before my mom whistled for me to come inside. Summer reminds me of cantaloupe and sweaty baseball caps with my hair pulled up tight underneath. It reminds me of backyard camping at a friend’s house, and learning to shoot hoops in the driveway, of catching lightening bugs, and talking on the telephone very late. Summertime reminds me of my childhood, the good parts, the times when I got to feel and act like I kid. The parts where I didn’t worry about things, or people, or how this whole thing would turn out. I just worried if we’d win the game, or I’d get to stay the weekend at Lee Anne’s house, or if someone would take me to a cool fireworks show on the 4th of July. Luckily for me, someone usually did.
So happy 4th of July today, y’all. May this day of freedom and independence conjure up the best of memories for you, and remind you that although this isn’t the way we thought we’d be spending our day today, it could always be worse. At least there’s such a thing as fireworks!
When I was about five years old, I desperately wanted to be a ballerina. I watched a cartoon, I can’t recall now, where a little girl was dancing with her dog. She was in a pink tutu and ballet slippers, and she was spinning around and around in a circle. My grandfather was alive at the time and living in our small apartment with us. He was fighting terminal cancer, though I didn’t know what that meant, and he was wheel-chair bound, with one arm already lost to the disease.
He sat, day in and day out, in his wheel chair, or in the big, brown chair in our living room with the wooden arms. He sat and he watched television, whatever was on, though he had his favorites, like Price is Right. My mom would cook breakfast, and lunch, and dinner for my grandpa and me. She would wheel him into the kitchen to eat. She would wheel him into the bathroom, move him from the chair to the toilet. She would bathe him. My sister and my mother would carry him up the flight of stairs from our basement apartment to get fresh air on nice days. I would watch television with him. That was my job.
The day we watched the spinning girl and her loyal dog, I jumped up and pretended to be her. I danced around my grandfather, whose toothless grin gave me the confidence to spin on my toes. He clapped his hands and told me I should be a ballerina. I agreed with a smile.
Then in the spring my grandfather died.
In the summer my neighbor said I was too fat to be a ballerina.
In the fall, we moved to a new house, I started kindergarten, and forgot about my dream.
I’ve done that from time to time. Forgotten about a dream. A goal. I’ve let people tell me what I’m capable of, and what I am not. I’ve been doing it again, as of late. Letting strangers, mostly, tell me what I am capable of and what I am not. What my limits of talent are. Where my lane is, and how I should best stay in it. We fall back into old patterns. We do what feels most comfortable. What we learned as children. How we learned to cope.
I was a welfare kid. I always knew I was a welfare kid, even when I didn’t know what it meant to be a welfare kid. The word “welfare” was casual in our house. When I was small it was whispered, but as I grew, the word gradually become part of the normal conversation. It gradually became who we were.
When I was very little I didn’t know we were poor. But I do remember being very happy every month when the check came, or the book of food stamps showed up at the door. Food stamps were my favorite. Food stamps meant we could go to the grocery store. By the end of the month all that was left in the fridge was milk, condiments, and maybe some leftover vegetables. There would be bread, tuna, Ramen Noodles, and off-brand cereal in the pantry, but nothing that I wanted to eat. Food stamps meant meat. They meant sausage gravy and real biscuits, not the scratch kind that my mom made out of flour and water at the end of the month. The lumpy kind that always managed to bake hard on top, and break off in crumbles as soon as you bit down. Food stamps meant those little packets of lunchmeat that are packed with sodium and carcinogens, but only cost nineteen cents. Food stamps meant beef to mix with Hamburger Helper, and spaghetti, and tacos. Food stamps meant off-brand cereal, but the good, chocolatey kind that came in a bag found at the bottom shelves of Food-4-Less.
I’m actually not sure how my mom got the book of food stamps, she just had them on the first of the month. They were probably mailed to us, or maybe she had to go to the welfare office to get them. That’s what we called the office that was housed in the white, concrete slab building on the corner of Delaware and Esplanade, across from the riverfront. We called it the welfare office, but its official name was the Kansas Department of Children and Family Services. Today that building sits in the same space, with a fresh coat of paint, remolded from the inside out, and can be rented for various occasions; weddings, reunions, art galas, and piano recitals. I can’t imagine what it must look like inside, but I’m sure it is better than the orange and green walls that housed screaming, cranky children and sad, overworked mothers for many years.
The food stamps, I am fairly sure, were mailed to us. This was back when food stamps were actually a book of “Food Coupons” with the likeness of our forefathers, in various colors representative of their value. They looked like Monopoly money to me, though they were much more valuable.
My sister and I would argue about who could hold the book in the checkout line, and she usually won because she was older and more mature. As she got older though, she didn’t want to hold them anymore. She also didn’t want to go to the grocery store with us anymore. She didn’t want people to see her standing there, her mother painstakingly pulling out the right amount from the book, holding the edge, as to not rip them, and tearing down the perforated side.
If my sister had to come, either to keep me occupied or to help carry the groceries home back before we had a car, she would leave us at checkout and go sit on the benches just outside Food-4-Less while my mom checked out, and I bagged the groceries. If there was any food stamps left, my mom would tell me that I could buy a candy bar, and she would tell me to pick something out for my sister. This always made me mad. After all, she wasn’t helping bag the groceries.
Sometimes, my mom would tear a $1 coupon out of the book and hand it to me when we walked into the store. I would get to buy a five-pack of gum at the beginning of the grocery trip! Then she would hand my sister one too. My sister would roll her eyes and walk away. I would follow close behind, until she would shove me into a checkout line away from her. We had to checkout at different registers. I was always excited by this. There I was, just five years old and checking out at the grocery store. Buying my own gum, with my own food stamp. It was years before I realized what I was actually doing. Food Stamps came in $1, $5, $10, and $20 increments. So if your change was less than $1, you were given back change in actual cash. So, if you purchased a food item with a $1 coupon, the cashier had to give you back the change. When I paid 11 cents for my five-pack of Fruit Stripe, the cashier would hand me back eighty-nine cents. I would take that eighty-nine cents back to my mother. She would combine that with my sister’s eighty-nine cents and she would use that money, actual real money, to buy a pack of toilet paper and a bottle of shampoo. Or maybe a box laundry soap, or, at certain times of the year, a gift for someone.
The older I got the more I understood what my teenage sister had been feeling in those days. In fact, the older I got, the more I understood about a lot of things. I understood why every six months we would have to go the welfare office and sit in uncomfortable chairs for hours, until my mother’s name was called. I understood why my mother would remind me to tell them that I didn’t know who my father was. Of course, I didn’t know who my father was. I had heard his name a few times before, when he would call the house and my mother would hang up the phone in tears. I knew that I had a father. I also knew that he was married to someone who was not my mother, but I never asked. The welfare lady would want to know though, she would want to know if I knew who my father was, and if my father was giving us money. No, he wasn’t. He never did give us money, not to my knowledge. Though sometimes I laid awake in bed and cried, hoping that my father would give us money.
My mother always did her best, it was all she knew, having been a single mother of four. She worked when she could, doing odd jobs that could be paid under the table. Bartending, daycare, taking care of senior citizens, cleaning houses, places she could bring me before I was in school. When I was in school she got a “real” job, housekeeping, and by the time I was in third grade she was making minimum wage: $4.00 an hour. The older I got the more I understood the sadness and anger that she carried with her. It wasn’t from being left with four children to raise alone, it was from the fact that she needed help, government help, to care from them.
The older I got, the more I understood. I understood what being a welfare kid meant. The older I got the more I understood how you were treated if you were a welfare kid. How society labeled a welfare kid. The free lunches at school, the waved fees at enrollment, the bags of free commodities twice a year, that you had to wait in long lines to get, in the cold of January and the heat of August. Even when my mother worked full-time, still we had assistance, and I am glad for it. She is glad for it. Somewhere along the line my sister became glad for it too. Because most people who are on welfare, who get help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the current name for the Food Stamp program), who get Medicare or Medicaid, who live from social security checks, or help from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program, most of these people do not want the help they get. They need the help they get in order to provide for their children.
People don’t know that, though. People don’t know what it is like to live in apartments too small for you, or to walk through the lunchline in middle school with a bright yellow punch card in order to get your lunch. Most people don’t know the particular shame associated with it. The guilt that follows you around, even when you find yourself very far from those days.
It’s been years now since I’ve slowly torn out a $1 food coupon, careful not to rip the edges. Even longer since I felt the elation of pushing a fresh stick of Fruit Stripe into my mouth, while I hummed a song and cheerfully followed my mother around Food-4-Less, ignorant to the shame that darkened her bright eyes.
When I was in eighth grade I had this wonderful English teacher. Her name was Mrs. Barker. She was short, moderately stylish, and had thick silver hair. She wore bangles on her wrist. She said things like, “But, alas”. She mixed high art with witty Oscar Wilde quotes. She made me read “The Giver”. She made me understand the inherent battle between good and evil. In short, she had an impact. Which made it all the worse the day she ultimately disappointed me. On the last day of middle school, we were celebrating our accomplishment with a small ceremony. It was the first time I remember feeling like I truly accomplished something. Middle school is tough. But it’s even worse for a meek, chubby girl, who had braces and acne. But that day I was beaming with the many awards and accolades I had walked away from the ceremony with, including a prestigious writing award from Mrs. Barker herself. As I approached her and a small circle of my teachers I heard her say that for the first time in years, she was so happy to be getting rid of a group of kids. She went on to explain my class’ rude behaviors, our lack of common sense, even our inability to understand common themes in her classroom. I was crushed. I mean, in hindsight, I could have pinpointed the kids she was referring to, and I wasn’t one of them, but at that moment, we were all one. Having just thrown our invisible caps to the sky.
I’ve come to know that it’s simply part of the human condition that we should become ultimately disappointed by those we admire. Generally speaking, those are the people who possess a quality about them that we wish we had. Whether it is their talent, their ability to command a room, or their wicked sense of humor, we have all admired someone else in our lives and hoped for a portion of that “thing” in which they possess. The trouble comes, however, when we fail to see their flaws as well.
I think that is what is happening, for example, with our president. At the risk of making this post political, I will just say that if you think hard enough you can see why so many poor, uneducated people are drawn to him. They see in him what they wish for themselves. They see in him their American dream. Even if his policies do not benefit them, they can hold onto those seemingly tangible promises he dangles in front of them. Of course, as we know now, that sort of idolization has real world consequences. My idolation of Mrs. Barker was just a childhood crush of sorts. Luckily, she wasn’t in charge of the nuclear codes.
But it isn’t something we grow out of. I often encounter grown men and women idolizing action heroes, comic book villains, video game characters, even just regular old movie stars and the like. We all generally have those people we look up to and wish we could steal a bit of that thing, whatever it is, that makes them special; and that’s okay and pretty normal, as long as we recognize that every every single human being, has flaws. Yes, even the ones you admire. Because if you lose sight of that, there will undeniably come a day when you will be just as crushed as I was.
Mrs. Barker had flaws. For one, she spoke without regard to her surroundings (see above story), she also tended to shun away from helping the kids who may have needed her love and attention the most. She could have made a huge impact on a lot of kids that year, instead she focused her attention on the ones of us who “had it” or who “got it”. As far as teachers go, I have met much better ones since her, but I didn’t really grasp the impact this all had on me.
However, recently I discovered that admiration is an emotion that we feel for people who possess a skill or talent, while elevation is an emotion we place on those we think are morally righteous, and sometimes it is the same thing. That is to say, we often assume that because the person we admire is exceptional at something, they are also virtuous. That is what gets us into trouble.
I remember hearing stories about the famed baseball player George Brett when I was a kid. George Brett was one of the best players in the league and a true treasure to Kansas City, and he still is if you ask a lot of people. But over the years stories have surfaced about his drinking, his drug use, and more notably the way he treats his fans, even children, often times refusing an autograph a ball or take a photo with them. I’m sure it is crushing for a child to see this famous, once-talented player that they admire, refuse to shake their hand. Although he is skillful and talented, his moral compass is lacking. Yet for many years young boys (and some girls!) have tried their best to be like George Brett on the field. Their admiration of his skill has caused them to work harder, which is great. But their elevation of him as a moral compass was often times severely disappointing.
And yet, we just don’t learn. We get crushed time and again by the people we admire, but we still keep going. We keep finding new people to admire, we keep trying to better ourselves after their image. I think that is okay. I think. As long as we remember two important things: People are bound to disappoint us, and you are the only one who can make changes in your life, positive and/or negative.
It also might be a good reminder to know that, whether or not you want to be, you are probably someone’s role model. And little eyes (or big, adult eyes) are watching you. So don’t disappoint them.
PS… I forgive you Mrs. Barker. You just didn’t know.
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