The first time I ever took a friend back home with me during college, she told me I lived in the ghetto.
My family is not well-off, but we are not poor. I do not, in fact, live in the ghetto. I have had many things I did not need – toys, electronics, an excess of clothes. I have never gone hungry.
However, money has been a constant source of anxiety for me from a young age. I was born to a young couple that works harder and loves deeper than anyone else I have ever known, but who never had the chance to attend college. I grew up with my eyes drifting to the right and left, always sneaking a peek at the riches held by my friends.
Initially, I did not fully appreciate the sacrifices my parents made to see me happy and saturated in undue materialism. Homes with tire swings and treehouses in the backyard were a perpetual fantasy for me, a lower middle class kid who spent her childhood in too-small apartment units and, for a number of years, couch-surfing in extended family members’ homes.
Somehow, even through the roughest patches for our family, my parents have always managed to make their lives about other people. I have memories of waking up at 4 a.m. to stand in long lines with my parents at Wal-Mart during Black Friday so we could get toys for impoverished children while they were on sale. My dad has never hesitated to give money to family or friends, even if it means rearranging his own budget to do so. Sacrifice for others in the midst of personal suffering has been an unspoken family mantra for as long as I can remember.
We moved into our first house the summer before my freshman year of high school. I do not believe there was ever a child more grateful for a mailbox on the curb.
I remember helping my dad hammer the metal mailbox post into the ground during one of our first days in the new house. He was a meticulous man, determined to adjust and readjust the post until it was exactly perpendicular to the ground. Seeing as how it was already dusk and I was highly agitated by the thick Houston humidity, I quickly grew annoyed by his diligence. When we finished, he made me run inside to get my mom. Then the three of us stood in the street, marveling at the reflective street numbers so perfectly adhered to the side of the pole. I was still annoyed.
I wish I had taken more care to observe that simple, but well-deserved, milestone with my parents. I understand, now, that my dad’s perfectionism was a manifestation of the pride he held for his home and all the work he had put into our family up to that point.
I have never been more aware of my financial status than I am now, as a college student. The latest and greatest in cars, clothes and technology are forever flashing before my eyes, a constant reminder that I will almost always be a step or two behind the majority. I would be lying if I said I never feel shame because I have to work to keep the lights on in my apartment, or because I carry an unending anxiety about maintaining my GPA so I do not lose any financial aid.
Although my socioeconomic status has been a source of great frustration and comparison in my life, I have the ability to love beyond net worth and see that people are valuable simply because they exist. Unfortunately, this is a challenge for some of the students I have encountered. Given the opportunity to change my life, I do not think I would. I would not add any more money to my name than I have been granted, because every penny or lack thereof has contributed to the relational wealth of my life.
Ever since I was a child, I have watched my parents work jobs they hate so we could eat and have iPhones and occasionally go to the movies. But I have also witnessed two of the world’s most benevolent creatures go above and beyond to eliminate the suffering of those around them, however they were able to, no matter what it cost.
This is one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned, and no amount of money in the world could teach it better than my hard-working family.
That being said, I would still love a tire swing. There’s a huge tree in front of my house – it may not be too late to ask my dad to put one up.