Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Talk about Perspective (Part 1)

I have been putting off this post for a long time because I just don’t want to write it, but it stays in my head, whispering and sometimes shouting, because I know someone needs to read it.  So, despite the fact that I really don’t want to write it, here goes nothing.
I would describe myself as equal parts realist and idealist.  Depending on my mood or circumstance, one side will win out every now and then, but when it comes down to it, between having good parents and watching a lot of Oprah, I am a person who has always lives with an overarching sense of balance.  Whether it’s in my faith or politics, the way I communicate with my husband, or the way I discipline my children, I am a huge fan of compromise through mutual respect and moderation.
One of the things that keeps me traveling this course is that my parents always instilled a good sense of PERSPECTIVE.  Growing up in a working class family taught me to appreciate what little we had at times, especially in light of the families we met while doing community outreach or world missions work, families who literally had nothing.  
Perhaps what makes my situation slightly unique is that I also had exposure to the other end of the spectrum.  When I entered kindergarten at the lowest-performing elementary school in Oklahoma City (which is saying A LOT), my teacher practically drove my parents to a private school and insisted they send me there.  After the initial consultation with school officials, my parents marched right back to Mrs. Smith saying, “DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH THAT SCHOOL COSTS?”  
My dad worked at the produce warehouse for Safeway.  He was paid hourly, making what blue collar people like to call “good money,” and my mom stayed at home with me.  The only reason we weren’t “poor” is because my parents were smart enough to budget and had at the root of their financial planning a belief that being good stewards of their money (re: giving a lot of it away to people who needed it) would always land them on the right side of karma.  (As evangelical Christians, we called this “reaping what you sow,” and to this day, although I can’t explain it, I can say it ALWAYS works.)
The tuition at this private school for 1st grade was about 20% of my dad’s yearly salary.  My kindergarten teacher told my parents to have me tested to see if I would qualify for academic scholarships, which is exactly what they did.  I was accepted into 1st grade on an 80% scholarship, and my parents were convinced by Mrs. Smith that I could benefit from the private school setting enough that they found a way to sacrifice for the rest.  (Consequently, my mom started college during my kindergarten year, so my parents were shelling out cash for education all over the place, teaching me another lesson to add to my cheerful giver lesson--that education is one thing worth sacrificing for.)
So, back to this whole perspective thing.  I had seen what poverty looked like on countless occasions--the church we attended was in a pretty seedy part of town with lots of bars and strip clubs and trailer parks.  We frequently visited the families around the church, first to see if there were any immediate needs to be met--groceries, electricity bills, medical treatment--and secondly to invite them to church.  I remember vividly one family with a gaggle of freckle-faced kids, whose home smelled like urine and trash (looking back with an adult perspective, I have no doubt that all of those children were probably being physically and sexually abused).  
One Sunday morning after we had brought them groceries earlier in the week, the kids showed up for Sunday service.  The older kids had combed the younger kids’ hair and wiped them down.  Even with their best efforts, only the oldest daughter was wearing shoes, and the younger ones were in their underwear or soiled diapers.  One little boy walked straight up to the altar, mouth gaping at the preacher, eating green beans with a fork straight out of the can.  They were a part of our Sunday school class for a few weeks, and then disappeared mysteriously.  (Again, with adult perspective, their dad was probably sick of church people getting in the middle of his business.)  At the time, I was about five years old, but everything about that family has stuck with me to this day.  The little boy, his curly red hair slicked to the side in front and sticking straight up in back, munching on cold green beans continues to inform the decisions I make in my faith and politics and daily living.  It’s also the thing that makes me want to tear my hair out when my own children complain about how I won’t let them buy more toys at Walmart.
I spent eight years at my private school, thanks to my academic scholarship.  Most of my friends fell into two categories: 1) People whose moms and dads were doctors or lawyers or stockbrokers, who lived in giant houses and drove cars that cost more than the house I lived in, and 2) People whose parents were “entrepreneurs” or “venture capitalists” or some other non-descript title because really, they were so damn rich (and their families had been for so long) that they had no idea how rich they were.  These were the people whose houses I got lost in during birthday parties and who had warehouses for their cars.
I write about the spectrum of wealth because what I learned from those experiences is this: no matter how much money someone has or doesn’t have, everyone has the capacity to be happy or sad.  Also, there will always be someone who has it better than me, and there will always be someone who doesn’t have it as good as me.  THAT is perspective.
So, you may be wondering why this post would be so difficult for me to write.  Like...so she learned some things about love, life, and the pursuit of happiness. What is so difficult about that?  I’ll post the rest of the story in part 2 tomorrow.

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