Never Good Enough | Sojourners

Never Good Enough

The shame of being poor can linger long after poverty is left behind.

I WAS FILLING my coffee mug at a church lunch when I was greeted by a woman with a smile I couldn’t miss nor soon forget. Her short blond hair was pulled back under a red hat. She wore an oversized black T-shirt as a dress. A few lonely teeth protruded from her lower gums when she grinned.

Speaking fast, as though we might get cut off at any moment, she reminded me that we’d met when I’d first arrived in Berkeley, several years before. She asked if I would pray for her.

“Sorry if that’s presumptuous,” she apologized.

“Not at all,” I said. “I’m sorry, but would you remind me of your name?”

“Kim. And yours?”

“Ryan.”

“What’s your last name, Ryan?”

“Pemberton.”

“Oh, a very WASP name!”

“That’s not me,” I told her abruptly. “I’m no WASP.”

What began as a prayer request soon devolved into a debate about Jesus’ divinity. In the back and forth, Kim referred to me as a WASP several more times.

“That’s not me,” I corrected her each time. “We’re not all as we look, you know.”

Driving home, my mind was stuck on my frustration with Kim and, specifically, my rejection of the label “WASP.” I am white and of Anglo-Saxon descent—mostly English. I am Protestant, even. But WASP still carries connotations of wealth—especially inherited wealth—that do not fit me.

Yet for much of my life, I would have been reassured if someone thought I was a person of means and status. Why was it urgent to me now to reveal the very thing I had spent the past three decades hiding?

Living in shame

As the oldest child in a single-parent family in the far Pacific Northwest, in a small town where dairy cows outnumber people 10-to-1 and the lone, blinking stoplight is more of a luxury than a necessity, I did my best to hide our family’s poverty.

Just off the driveway was a shed where we stored our garbage. Trash collection was another expense. Maggots tumbled out from black plastic bags when I opened the door just wide enough to heave another trash bag atop the pile. We never spoke of it.

In elementary school, I waited anxiously in line for the woman who took money for “hot lunch”—Mrs. Price, aptly named. I faked surprise when she told me, in a voice loud enough for my classmates to hear, that I had already charged too many lunches.

 

“How long are we going to have to use food stamps?” I asked on a drive home from the grocery store one afternoon. The look I received assured me I would not ask this question again.

College for me, as it is for most people, was a revelation of my identity. I was preparing for a developmental psychology lecture when I read that Head Start is a school-readiness program for children from low-income families. I had always assumed everyone went to Head Start.

My face turned red. I turned the page quickly, hoping not to be found out.

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