Reposted from here.
It never occurred to me until recently that my parents didn’t have a lot of money.
It wasn’t that we were ever poor, per se. We always had food on the table and clothes on our back. My dad always worked full-time, and my mom almost always was working most days of the week. In fact, my parents, in what I come to realize more and more each year is amazing kindness, often were offering support to those friends of our even worse off than us– like how they bought my best friend her prom dress after her father handed her a $20 bill.
These past holidays, my boyfriend and his brother drove me back to my home town on their way back to see their family, stopping to spend the night at my family home. It is not that I wasn’t aware that we grew up differently on the surface, they in a residential suburb of a big city, in a home with a big garage and soft carpets, me in a small town and smaller home filled with random antiques and curiosities. But, still, we’d grown up with the same morals, and the same sense of needing to work for your accomplishments, so the contrast never really stood out to me.
On their continued drive, my boyfriend’s brother remarked to him that he had a newfound respect for me, seeing that I had accomplished so much coming from such a different environment. At first, this seemed a little absurd to me. My parents were always wonderfully supportive of me, always believed in me. How was I at all disadvantaged? But, with a little thought, I realized that, unlike a good chunk of my peers in graduate school, I came from a family in which no one went to graduate school. In fact, no one in my family went to college. My mother never finished high school.
This same revelation hit me again while flipping through the program of the conference I recently attended. In the first section, there were several pages dedicated to the winners of the prestigious diversity awards, an award I had never considered applying to, since, as a Caucasian heterosexual woman of European background, I had never considered myself as fitting into the category of “population typically underrepresented in graduate school”. I then noticed that “first generation college student” was also lumped into this category. I think I actually commented to my friend about how I found this odd and incongruent for me, as despite technically fitting into this category, I didn’t feel as though I matched the label of “underrepresented population”. She told me that I should give myself more credit.
The thing is, I never thought of myself as having to bear a burden to go to university (well, except for financially, as I have paid for all nine years of university without help from anyone except scholarships, grants, and some student loans). It was just something I always wanted to do, and I did it. Nothing about my parents’ lack of university diplomas felt like it slowed me down at all.
The other day, I was reminiscing with my guy about how, at around the age of 9, I had desperately wanted to go to an autograph session with one of my favourite hockey players in a city an hour away on the weekend. I had been heartbroken when my parents had flat-out refused. He asked me why they had declined, and I told them that this question had perplexed me greatly for years to come, as it seemed so out of character, and I was never really given a point blank answer.
Suddenly, I had a bit of an epiphany– they didn’t have the money to take me there. Then, all the pieces started to fall into place. The truck that was always breaking down when I was little. My mom’s telling me that if I wanted Calvin Klein jeans, she couldn’t buy me any back to school apparel. The girl who asked if I was poor because of my clothing. My sadness at not being able to participate in the summer theatre programs due to the triple-figured fees required, and the fact that, at the age of 12, I knew better than to ask. My paying rent for living at home in my first two years of college. Having to leave our rental house behind, in part because it was being torn down for subdivisions. My mom coming home, distraught, saying she’d been laid off.
The fact that I only realized this at 27, to me, testifies to me the important aspect of all this, though– that it didn’t matter at all. My parents loved me unconditionally, supported even my most ridiculous phases, and made for a beautifully memorable childhood and adolescence. On top of that, they took in troubled foster kids, and let friends live in our basement or even in a tent in our backyard in tough times. They taught my about morality, kindness, empathy and self-sufficiency. All of these are infinitely more valuable than a college fund or those designer jeans.