I grew up in a fairly affluent suburb of Milwaukee, called Greendale, WI. It was the same suburb my mom grew up in, and despite living in the city when she was pregnant with me, her and my dad moved back into the ‘burbs after I was born. My parents knew that the schools in Greendale were some of the best in the state, and despite the cost— they found apartments in their budget, and raised my brother and I there so we could have the best opportunities possible.
We bounced around to a few apartments, but when I was in Fifth grade, we settled into a nice little townhouse in a complex of 48 individual households. They were side-by-side in 6 rows of 8. They were kinda dumpy— all brown and monotone, all overlooking a parking lot and a dumpster. But there were a lot of kids to play with, and it was within walking distance of a school.
Every day I would go to school— not realizing that some of the kids around me lived in Million dollar homes. Not noticing until 7th grade that the place we lived was much different. The thing is— none of the kids I hung around with cared. We were friends. We had radio shows to record onto cassette tapes and frogs to catch.
And then— one day in 7th grade, I called my friend to hang out and set up rides. We always hung out on the weekends. And she said “Hold on, let’s 3-way-call Sarah”, so with all three on the line, Sarah got very serious and said,
"Mary. You can’t come over. My mom says that you’re a bad influence and that your family is bad. Both our moms think so.."
I didn’t understand why. I asked, “WHY?”
And Sarah said, “My mom says that some people are meant to be friends with each other. Some people are poor and some people are not. Some people have better futures…”
I didn’t understand. The day before in school, everything was fine. Then, overnight, I was too poor to be their friend. I hung up that call and looked at my whole life like it had been a lie. I KNEW we weren’t rich, but I didn’t think we were POOR. I never thought we had a bad life. We always had enough of whatever we needed. Sure— I didn’t get my Adidas 3-stripe sandals that Christmas, and all the food in our fridge was generic, but I wasn’t unhappy.
I suddenly felt very self conscious all the time. I was embarrassed of every item of clothes I owned. I wanted to completely change myself to avoid being seen as POOR. So— I started borrowing from the SPIN Magazines and the rock music I liked. I wore darker makeup. Dyed my hair. Made new friends. I became this hybrid thing of a teenager, rebelling against everything the suburbs were, standing out as much as possible so that I wouldn’t be found out.
And the interesting thing— is that I had REALLY supportive parents. My dad took me to Hot Topic and Victor Victoria (A local hippie/freak shop) to pick out fishnet sleeves and hair dye and clunky jewelry. When we could afford it, My mom bought me platform shoes with flames going up the sides. My parents would NEVER judge my friends and make them feel less than.. And they were the supposedly "Bad Family"
In our “poor” apartment, my friends who had parents that were supposedly more affluent and “Better”, hid from their judging, stifling parents. The weird kids hung out at our house and felt safe, knew my parents, knew they wouldn’t be judged. When my parents got divorced my dad moved to the East Side of Milwaukee and I got to grow up surrounded (at least on the weekends) by culture, creativity, art shows, museums, film festivals, art film, rock shows, theatre. My world view was shaped through cultivation and support. I was allowed to be myself, and so were my friends.
I just think about the girls who shunned me because my family was poor. I feel so sad for them because one is a carbon copy of her parents— classist and awful. The other is wandering aimlessly through life, being fired from job after job, because she didn’t realize that she had to WORK to create an identity.
My life is more beautiful today because my parents made my life rich with culture and support, despite not having a lot of money. I was able to build an adult life that is comfortable, creative and joyful because I was nurtured with love and not money.