The Beautiful Struggle: Too broke To Learn (Part 1)

I never noticed how living in poverty affected my education until I reached college. My family was extremely poor — the free breakfast served at our public school was the first meal of the day for my siblings and me. I never worried about the cost of textbooks because although it might have been tattered, one was assigned to me, for free, by my school. For our community, these resources were a lifeline. Parents could work and rest assured that their children were being educated and fed.

My mother worked two jobs, one overnight and one in the morning, just to pay basic bills like utilities, which were always at risk of being shut off. With her added income, we still struggled financially and couldn’t afford groceries. Even if we could, my mother wouldn’t have had the time to cook. My father was physically disabled after being shot six times in a drug deal gone bad and was unable to work. Another casualty of poverty is the dissolution of healthy relationships, and as a result, my parents were constantly stressed and argued often.

Monday through Friday we knew we would be fed at school. Outside of school, our family frequented food pantries and church donation sites. I remember making up excuses in the free lunch line to get extra food, “I just love chicken fingers and tater tots! Can I have yours?”

That’s how dinner was secured.

There were days when I could hardly focus on school work, wondering if we were going to have lights when I got home. Required reading like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory only made my hunger pains worse. I imagined rich, chocolate lakes and a philanthropic hero saving me from poverty. My attention was on lunch, not literacy.

School was like a vacation for me — a distraction from reality. As in many impoverished family structures, I — the eldest girl — was helping to raise my younger sibling while my parents, who both suffered from drug addiction, did what they could to make ends meet. I was responsible for making sure my sister was fed and bathed, and that our homework was done, our clothes cleaned, and that we were both off to school on time. No matter how hard I tried, this usually meant I was late to school.

Living in poverty is consuming. When it is all you know, it will convince you that the future you seek is no better than your present situation, so why seek it?

— Jimmieka Mills

My peers and I were on an even playing field during school hours, but after school the disparity became clear. My friends’ parents would wait to pick them up, while I made the three-mile trek to my sister’s school, then the two-mile trip home. My friends would drive by with their parents and ask if we needed a ride and I would make up excuses as to why I couldn’t accept. “It’s just right down the street,” I’d say or, “this is my exercise.” The reality was that I didn’t want them to see how or where we lived. I didn’t want to have to reassure them that someone was home even though it was eight o’clock at night and the house was dark.

Although we struggled, I was extremely blessed to have surrounded myself with people who didn’t have that same experience. I craved stability and structure because my house was chaotic. There was no “dinner time,” “bed time” or homework help. I remember going to a friend’s house after school and staying for dinner. Everything on the table was separated — they had pickles in a bowl, cheese on a plate, lettuce and tomato on a platter. “Lucy doesn’t eat pickles and Katie doesn’t eat tomatoes. What do you like?” We rarely had dinner at my house, let alone had a choice in what it was or how it was prepared. In my house it was every man for himself. Their mom asked about their day and what their plans were for the following day. I had never experienced that — ever. The only time we would see our mom was when she was headed out to work in the wee hours of the morning. Anything we said was in a whisper.

I was embarrassed and ashamed to ask for help or even tell anyone the situation we were in. Poverty has a way of stripping you of your dreams and constantly reminding you of opportunities that are out of your reach.

Living in poverty is consuming. When it is all you know, it will convince you that the future you seek is no better than your present situation, so why seek it? It is not that people living in poverty have accepted that situation, but when you’re living in it, you can’t see a way of escaping it because you’re too busy just trying to survive. I knew there was a better life, one where you didn’t have to worry about where the next meal was coming from or where you would sleep that night, but I had no idea how to get to that place.

Part two: The chance encounter that would define my future.