Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons
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Silent Lessons: Poverty and My Friend Sonya

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She lived just down the street from my church.  Her house was shot-gun style – front and back door lined up – and the siding was bare wood, the paint long ago lost to rain and wind.  The front porch stood on cinder blocks, a couple feet off the ground.  5121704407

Her name was Sonya, and she was a big girl – not in the euphemistic way – but in the literal way. She was very tall, and her shoulders were broad. She had short ash-blonde hair and round cheeks. She was my friend.

One day, I heard something about Sonya, about how she had been stabbed to death.  I was in 8th grade, and so hysteria swept through me on the tide of hormones.  Sonya was dead.

I told my mom, and she asked around at church. No one knew anything. No one at my church knew Sonya – she’d never been, even though I’m sure my best friend Mary and I must have asked her. Church was our primary social ground. As the pastor’s daughter, Mary lived there, and as the choir director’s daughter, I practically did.  So when we asked people to church, it was kind of like inviting people over to play, the way church should be.

But Sonya never came, and no one from church ever went to her, it seems. No one knew the story of Sonya’s life . . . or her death.

***

Now, from 25 years later, as I look back, I realize Sonya’s family was desperately poor. I know the signs of it – the unpainted house, the sheen of second-hand clothes, the averted eyes or glancing stares that come with unpainted houses and second-hand clothes. Now, I know what poverty and the judgment of poverty look like.

But I didn’t then. I didn’t know Sonya was poor. It never occurred to me to think about it. In fact, I didn’t realize that most of my classmate’s in elementary school were poor, some desperately so.  In the mountains of North Carolina, poverty is the norm for many people who have lived there for generations, but that’s something I know from sociology, from films, from adult sight.

As a kid, I didn’t care.

***

It turned out that Sonya was just fine. She hadn’t been stabbed.  I don’t know why she was missing from schools for a few days. I don’t know why that rumor got started.

But I do know that something happened to all of us then. Maybe it was precipitated by the stabbing rumor; maybe it wasn’t. But somewhere right about that time, just as our hormones started to rage and we began spending Friday nights at the high school football games.  Just as fashion and boys and acne treatment became the focus of my life, Sonya disappeared again.  This time not literally, but in just as powerful a way.

At some point, I spoke to Sonya for the very last night, and I can’t even remember that day.

But I do know why it happened – quietly, in the most definitive of ways, I quit being her friend. Then – and even now when I don’t repress the impulse – I would tell you it’s because we didn’t share the same interests – but that would be a lie.

I don’t know what Sonya’s interests were. I don’t know if she was interested in music and history like I was, or if she loved science and sports. I don’t know if she had a crush on Doug like I did or if she was more interested in Jimmy or Jennifer.  I don’t know if she would have wanted to come to the skating rink with our church youth group because I quit asking.

And I know why, too. Sonya was poor. And poor meant lesser. And poor meant uncool. And poor meant separate from me.

It’s a lesson no one ever taught me directly. But it’s one that my society taught me every day. . . . and still does.

I do have one lingering memory of Sonya. It’s a Friday night. Mary and I are in the parking lot waiting for my dad to come get us after the football game.  Sonya is walking away across the field, taking the short cut to her house.  I see her back as she walks out of the circle of golden cast from the stadium lights. I see her walk away into the dark. And I stand silently watching her walk away from me.

What were you taught about poverty and people who are poor?

Last week my friend Jennifer Luitweiler wrote a beautiful post about how we judge people who are poor.  I hope you’ll read it. It changed me.   

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Author: Andi

I am a writer, editor, and writing teacher whose most recent book, The Slaves Have Names, tells the story of the people who were enslaved on the plantation where I was raised. When I'm not working, my husband and I are working to make our small farm - God's Whisper Farm - a retreat here at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

  • http://felicemifa.wordpress.com Margaret @ Felice Mi Fa

    So many things in this story touched me! I had a classmate killed in 8th grade and remember near losing my mind over it, so your description that “hysteria swept through me on the tide of hormones” really resonated.

    When I was growing up, every time we went on a family vacation my mother would be sure to take us through one of the less well-off neighborhoods of wherever we were visiting. I don’t remember her ever announcing what she was doing, and she managed to avoid the “poor-person safari” mindset. She wanted us to see how all sorts of people lived, and that they were real people just like we were. It was a powerful example.
    Margaret @ Felice Mi Fa recently posted…A surprising reason a Jesuit Pope could be good for the Society of JesusMy Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Margaret, it sounds like your mom was wise and compassionate. . . and helped you become the same. And isn’t it amazing how those childhood deaths are so powerful for us still?

  • Brock

    You have lost alot of friends over the years. Maybe that is why you are such an awesome person.
    Yes, as a child poor did not matter and as adults it should not matter either!!

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      I think most of us have lost a lot of people by the time we’re adults, Brock. It’s part of life, I suppose. Thanks so much for thinking I’m awesome.

  • http://www.rethinkingpatientsafety.conm Lee Tilson

    Thank you for the impact of this piece. Before reading your post today, my writing followed my training in math and logic. Start with premises and facts. Proceed to a conclusion. For years, I have needed to tell a very important story about how some events changed my life. So far, there is no conclusion. Some premises are not yet discovered. The story could not be written. The absurdity of this model for writing becomes apparent as soon as it is articulated. The flaws become obvious as soon as the model is considered. So long as the model remains an unconscious assumption, the flaws are invisible. The subconscious belief prevents the story from being told.

    Your essay expresses your feelings about your past. You talk about how you feel looking at your past, and looking in a mirror. The essay’s ending question shares the mirror to engage us in self examination. Oh my God. What a wonderful essay.

    There are no conclusions, just lingering questions. It is enough for writers to ask questions and share mirrors. As we live our lives, we make choices and decisions that determine our futures long before there are any structured premises and conclusions. It is enough to share feelings, to talk about our histories, to ask questions. To help us find our paths to the future, it helps more to share feelings and ask questions. This is incredibly helpful.

    While considering this insight (yeah, it feels ridiculous to be tripping across this insight now), I glanced at a news story that asked another question: What were you doing when the Iraq War started ten years ago?

    That was when my story, the one I need to tell, began. We were in a hospital with my youngest son, who was fighting for his life. He almost died. Twice. One of the most important news stories of the decade about our invasion paled in significance to the struggle of our son. I have had to live with the fact that even at one of the best hospitals in the country, this medical malpractice lawyer was unable to protect his young son from medical errors and their consequences.

    With incredible effort, our son learned to walk again in the following months. Years of therapy to overcome his injuries produced a remarkably resilient young man. He has overcome much.

    Like other parents whose children are injured, I felt compelled to prevent others from suffering similar injuries. The roadblocks to change in healthcare are enormous.

    Andi, this essay has helped me get started. Thank you. Thank you for helping me see some terribly flawed unconscious assumptions that blocked me. Thank you.

    Was this meant to happen?

    Here’s another irony. My favorite college professor, Dan Anderson, was nicknamed “Andy.” When his death was imminent, I asked him what he wanted to do that he had never done. He wanted to be roasted, so I organized a roast and 125 former students returned to honor him with humor and love. It remains the coolest thing I will ever do. I helped a friend that I loved very much go out doing what he wanted to do most: laughing with his most treasured audience, the one to whom he had devoted his life. His students.

    Yet that honor was not enough. I had to do more. He was one of the most important people in my life. While in college, he trained all of us students to recognize and examine our assumptions, including unconscious assumptions we had been making for years. Those lessons were the most important ones I learned.

    So when we had another son, I named him “Anderson.” We call him “Andy.”

    Is it mere irony that today, I am not able to recognize and reject an unconscious assumption because of someone (or two someones in this case) whose name is pronounced “Andy”?

    Andi, forgive this explanation of my complicated internal struggles. I needed to thank you. This essay helped me remove a roadblock that has kept me stuck for ten years. I can now tell the most important story of my life so far.

    Thank you.

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Lee, I am truly honored that this post helped you see a way to write what you need to say. With all the “how to” and direct advice we see everywhere, it’s very easy for us to think we must do that in our writing as well. But as you said, we don’t. We can just tell our stories and let people draw from them. . .

      And I am thrilled to be a tiny “Andy” in the midst of the many Andy’s you have in your life. Thank you so much for reading.

      • http://www.rethinkingpatientsafety.conm Lee Tilson

        You are helping me find a path to understand my history. There is nothing tiny about that.

  • http://deuceology.wordpress.com LarryTheDeuce

    We didn’t have a lot, but there were many who had less. We were told to be nice to them, but to not be too friendly with them. The funny thing is that we had our own problems. My mom was sick during most of my adolescence. I was ashamed of it and didn’t want anyone to know. What I desperately wanted was a friend. I wonder how many friends I could have had?
    LarryTheDeuce recently posted…Classic Deuceology: What Are You Passionate About?My Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Isn’t it amazing how we separate ourselves from the very people we might need. And I know the shame of parent illness that you mention here. . . I wonder how we are taught that?

  • http://www.dianatrautwein.com Diana Trautwein

    This is beautifully said, Andi. Thank you. I am sad to say that there was a young woman in my high school who sort of terrified me. And I dodged her, frequently. It wasn’t because she was poor, although she might have been. It was because she was different. She had terrible acne, she behaved erratically and dressed strangely. And she scared me. So I ignored her. I’ve regretted that behavior ever since. Surely, she had a story of some kind. Surely, she had a soul, a spirit longing for connection. But when you’re 15 and terribly insecure about your own looks, your own life – it’s tough to crack through that and see others as whole people. They become threats of one sort or another, don’t they?
    Diana Trautwein recently posted…Scandalous, Extravagant Love — A Sermon for the 5th Sunday of LentMy Profile

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      The teenage years are brutal for most of, I think, Diana. We are so desperate to secure our place, to feel accepted even as we want to rebel . . . that we hurt one another even more. We do perceive those “other” people as threats – so wisely said. And sadly, I think some of us do not grow out of that.

  • http://www.brendayoder.com Brenda L. Yoder

    This is beautiful. I learned about poverty from my students who told me I lived a fairy tale life because they knew where I lived, “who I was” and they were my neighbors in the trailer down the road. I knew poverty I was told by a student he didn’t live in a trailer because trailers have wheels. He lived in a single-wide. I learned about poverty from a student who sore the same two shirts all week long.

    I learned more when I read Ruby Payne’s Framework of Poverty and it all made sense to me. I’ve learned more about life from my students because they are real.

    • http://www.andilit.com Andi

      Yes, Brenda, yes. My students have taught me much about poverty, about racism, about sexism, about struggle of all kinds. By far, they teach me more than I teach them. . . thank you for that reminder.