Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Beacon for Understanding—Blog Action Day 2008

Poverty can be defined in many different ways. The stories being shared across the blog community certainly attest to that. What do we need to do to prevent and correct the global crisis of poverty? I don't know. But if we each do something, it will certainly help.

For me, in my fairy-tale life, I have never personally experienced anything close to any conceivable definition of poverty. My story, instead, begins in a small town in the northern gateway of the Hudson Highlands in the 1940s, a city called Beacon, New York. The US census states that the population during that time was 12,572. My father was part of that count. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his parents, siblings and maternal Grandmother. He was/is the oldest of four children. The stories he shares about his first fifteen years in Beacon would warm the hearts of any who are privileged to be on the receiving end of his colorful narratives. They are especially fun to hear when he breaks out in his Irish brogue, mimicking his Grandfather Neil's accent. But one thing that threads through these stories is that his family was monetarily poor. Very, very poor.

The Gallaghers lived simply. Not by choice, but by circumstance. A week's worth of garbage would fill one brown paper bag. They would then bring it outside to burn it; that was their method of disposal. Dad and siblings received only a few Christmas gifts each year. It would drive my Grandma crazy when my dad would only open one gift on Christmas day, saving the others for a future date. "If I have to wait until next year, I think I'll spread these out over time." Dad's family has those made-for-movie, universal stories: each family member having only two pairs of shoes—one for Sunday, one for school; the occasional rodent or two taking up residence in the family apartment; the make-shift dinners, putting together the scraps saved from the beginning of the week; family members serving in the war; the protective nature of small groups of family and friends checking up on one another, helping out whenever needed. I've always pictured Beacon as the poor, blue-collar Mayberry.

My father's father—Grandpa Bill to me—worked as a pressman for Nabisco and a volunteer fireman during the 40s. He had an eighth-grade education. My dad tells me he was the brightest man he ever met, and very well-respected by all. He put in a hard day's work, every single day, to put food on the table. Blood, sweat and will. This comes as no surprise considering he came from a family of twenty; yes, twenty. Working hard for the good of a household community, no matter the size, was nothing new to my Grandpa. When he grew up, any money earned by a family member went into the general fund for family survival. So the first money my Grandpa could call his own was his first week's paycheck after getting married. Saying that my Grandparents had meager beginnings is obviously an understatement.

From time to time, my Grandpa Bill would parade my father around town and say, "This is my son. One day, he'll be going to college." I'm certain that the recipients of this message were hesitant; if history was any indicator, the chances were slim that college would be in my dad's future. But my Grandpa was certain. At least he acted that way. It was the message he chose to send to his son. Knowing my father the way I do, he was lucky to have the father he did. My dad was an academic, a scholar. He would've been miserable without the intellectual challenges offered in college.

The person I've grown to be, all the good and bad, has certainly been borne out of my father's childhood poverty, as strange as that may sound. But it was also borne out of the riches of his family upbringing and what he passed on to us. The two are intertwined. One of the many things I have learned from stories about my grandfather is that you earn respect by being respectful. It is a core tenet of my teaching philosophy. I have also learned that family is everything. My family always has been and always will be extremely close. There's nothing more comforting.

I recall relatively recently my father and uncle were talking, being nostalgic. While watching their combined eight children reminisce and nineteen, healthy and happy grandchildren play, they reflected on how blessed they felt. My uncle said, "You know, Bill. We done good, wouldn't you say? But there's one gift we can never give them." My dad asked, "What's that?" "The gift of poverty," my uncle said. "That's for damn sure, Bob. That's for damn sure."

Knowing their stories, growing up under their guidance, I think I understand what my uncle meant. And I'm a richer, wiser person because of it.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have often thought about the benefits of growing up poor. It is conducive towards learning important valuable lessons and I wouldn't trade the experience. But keep in mind being poor is nice as a memory when you are no longer poor, but not much fun at the time. And it is very stressful on the parents to see their kids having to do without. Those of us who grew up poor are grateful our kids'exposure was indirect.