Worth more

Understanding the personal impact of poverty 

Supplied by Alex Jarvis

When I was in grade 10, I partnered with a girl in cooking class. She was a bit rebellious and in constant conflict with her family. She was trying to sort things out though. Kneading dough together, we chatted about what we would be doing after school that day. I mentioned that I was staying at home and studying, maybe trying out a new recipe. Nothing exciting.

She was covered in flour when she turned to me and said, “your family must be so perfect. I bet your parents are doctors or lawyers and your entire family just eats dinner quietly.”

There was no spite in her voice. She was simply vocalizing what several of my other classmates had openly speculated about. I'd heard people suggest that my parents must be well-mannered academics or professionals who earned a handsome income.

Looking back, very few people actually knew about my personal background. Because I focused so intensely on academic and extracurricular activities very little was known about my life at home.

One of my younger siblings even attended the same high school as I did in my grade 12 year, but most my classmates assumed I was an only child. 

To my classmates and teachers, I was a determined, peaceful, well-behaved student who threw herself into work. I strived to be a model student: my assignments were never late, I was head of student government and I ran several other volunteer initiatives, all while maintaining an A+ average.

What people didn’t know was that as I helped to organize the food drive at my school, my family received annual Christmas food baskets.

When donation day arrived, my mom would open our cupboards and take down some canned goods. She’d hand them to me and joke “these are just going to end up back in these cupboards when December rolls around.” Although her words were light, I knew that it hurt her to admit. I would take the cans without a word and deposit them in the donation pile. 

The truth was my mother wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer. My mother did have a successful career but a nasty divorce from my absentee father had spiraled into years of taking low-paying, unsustainable jobs and unemployment. 

My family existed in a constant mode of survival. She tried so, so hard, but it was barely possible for my unemployed mother to provide food or other necessities for three growing children. I knew that she felt a lot of shame. I knew that she was trying her best.

But it was hard. I don’t think people understand how much stress poverty places on families. Some days I would come home after a day without much food. I'd been cutting down on lunches so there would be more for my two siblings. But when dinnertime came there still wasn’t much. 

I remember one December when we ran out of propane. The propane company refused to deliver because we were unable to pay our outstanding bill (I can’t really blame them). We lived in a rickety, old, country home. It got so cold I could see my breath inside the house. Some nights, I had to do my homework with gloves. But I still managed to turn my assignments in on time.

Memories of my adolescent years are crowded with sensations of being cold, hungry, stressed and afraid. Afraid for my mother and what would happen if we couldn’t pay the bills. Scared for my future.

I never wanted to end up like this. But even then, considering how scared I was, I could never fathom how intensely frightened my mother was. How terrified she must have been — to provide for three children on her own, without an income or any support from my father. 

But she got up each morning and she continued to search for a job that would return her to the wage she earned before the divorce. I don’t know how, but she always found a way to afford some food. She’ll always be my hero for making it through each day. 

Just as my mother woke up each day to job search, I woke up and threw everything I had into school. To many, I know that I probably looked like a desperate overachiever. Some may have even called me a brownnoser. 

To them, I was wasting my time. But in my mind, I was investing in my one ticket out of poverty. I figured that I had one shot — and I couldn’t mess up. 

When the time came to apply to schools, I submitted scholarship applications to five schools. Exhausted, stressed and on the verge of an anxious breakdown I prayed that this would be the way out.

The letter came in the fall. We didn’t have much propane so I sat on our living room couch covered in at least three blankets. My mother walked in from checking the mail and put the letter on the coffee table. Queen’s University had sent me something. 

I stared at the mail for a long time. It was too early for an acceptance, so I reasoned that it must just be a follow up letter. Or, it could be about the scholarship. 

There was a lot riding on that scholarship. If I didn’t receive it, I would end up thousands of dollars in debt in order to afford school — a path I was desperately trying to escape. 

I opened the letter and cried. I couldn’t read beyond the sentence announcing that I had won a $36,000 scholarship. I sat in the living room, sobbing quietly, with the letter in my hand. 

I went into the kitchen and told my mother. She cried so hard and hugged me. It didn’t seem real. That night we called my uncle and everyone we knew. After years of hard work I had finally won my ticket out. 

Today, I sit in my apartment — the apartment I pay for all on my own, with the laptop I bought for myself and the car I now own sitting in the driveway. To others, these items may seem trivial and obvious. But to me, they are a testament to my ability to survive and to provide for myself. I came from literally nothing. But against all odds, I am here at Queen’s, where last year I earned a spot on the Dean’s List with Distinction. 

The fear is still there. Poverty changes you implicitly. I worry frequently that all of this could disappear. That one day I won’t be able to afford rent or food. There is no safety net for me; if anything goes wrong, I don’t have anyone to bail me out. 

The shame is still there too. When I’m with people and we walk by a homeless person and I hear someone say “don’t give them any money, how hard can it be to get a job?” Or, when we walk by a dingy motel and the person I’m with says, “that’s the type of motel poor people live in — it’s disgusting,” I feel a sharp pang of white hot shame. Is that what people would have said about my family?

I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to attend a university brimming with bright minds. But we also attend a campus where many students enjoy a good deal of economic privilege. 

I’m not unhappy for them, I’m not jealous, nor am I assuming that everyone is so privileged. But I hope that these students can use their privilege to help evoke some empathy and understanding. 

Maybe if we all practiced a bit of empathy, young children wouldn’t feel the need to hide their experiences with poverty, or to live a half lie. Maybe if society was more open to discussing poverty without prejudice, I wouldn’t have asked my mom to pick me up in our rusty, noisey, taped-together car around the corner from school instead of at the front doors. 

Use your privilege to spread this message: be kind to people who have financial difficulty — I can absolutely guarantee that they didn’t plan on being in that position. 

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