Poverty Made Me Ashamed and Secretive

Writing helped me shed the indignity.

by Parris Smith

I was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica.

Although we lived in an area that was considered a ghetto, our lives seemed luxurious to me. I thought our house was a castle, since it had three floors that towered over the one-story houses in the neighborhood.

School was easy. The classes weren’t that challenging, but I tried my best—always participating, maintaining good grades, and seeking new friendships.

My parents didn’t think everything was so rosy, though. They decided one of them should go to America and try to set up a better future for me, my two sisters, and my brother. So my mom left when I was 7, and we weren’t reunited in the U.S. until six years later.

The day before we left, I walked through the house trying to take everything in one last time. These days, I often think back to my room with its light pink and beige walls, pink and purple curtains, and an old Nokia TV. Sometimes I wish I didn’t take that walk; sometimes I wish I could forget how good life felt when I had my own room.

My sister came up from behind me and pried my hand away from the doorframe. We walked away with our hands tangled, crying for the memories we were leaving behind. Outside, people from my neighborhood peered over their gates as we put our final suitcases in the car and prepared to drive off.

Once we said our goodbyes to our family there, I fell into the back of the car, and the engine started. I looked back at our house and my chest tightened.

Is This Home?

The part of the house my mom rented was in St. Albans, Queens. It was nothing like my spacious, colorful house in Jamaica. I thought, Is this really my home now?

I didn’t know much about my mother’s job, except that she was a nurse for old people. After long days of work, she complained about her hour-long journey on the bus and her dream of one day getting a car. Sometimes she worried about not having enough money for her MetroCard, but she said we would always be spared by God. The more I heard this, the less I believed it. We went from living what I felt was a comfortable life to worrying about having money for a bus ride.

I felt out of place at school. When I began classes here in 7th grade, kids stared, pointed, and laughed at me. We were supposed to wear uniforms, but most of the kids did not follow that rule. I did, though, and wearing a sweater over a shirt and tie gave everyone the green light to make fun of me.

The days began to trudge by and they all felt the same. I was no longer the outgoing, popular girl I was in Jamaica. I ate lunch alone and I didn’t participate in class like I used to. Why have I gone mute? I’m not me anymore, I thought.

Do They Think I’m Poor?

It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in high school that I was finally able to crack my shell a little.

I started making new friends; some were from Jamaica. We’d talk about life on the island, telenovelas, roller skating, reading, playing the ukulele, and religion. However, even around them I was still too ashamed to share my anxiety over my mom’s financial struggles.

When my friends and I walked home from school together, I was afraid of them seeing me enter my run-down building. Thoughts would run through my head like, Are they judging me? and, Do they think I’m poor? So I’d enter through a nondescript side door.

Only on special occasions such as graduations or birthdays were we sometimes granted the honor of eating out at a restaurant. I couldn’t attend school trips, buy name-brand clothes, or take family vacations like the other kids whose families had more money than ours. This made me feel inferior.

Often, my friends asked me to hang out at the mall or the movies. I would nod and smile, knowing I would just make up an excuse that I was feeling sick or tired the next day. Then I started refusing invitations by joking that I was poor.

Whenever I said this, it stung and hit at something deeper in my mind and heart that I was not comfortable facing, because it was true. My mom could barely afford to pay rent.

Lying was scary at first, but over time it became natural and flowed through me terrifyingly easily. As time went on, my friends stopped asking me to hang out and instead I read about the fun they were having on their social media posts while I stayed home.

Finding Relief in Writing

I have a tendency to look back and compare how good life seemed in Jamaica. When I think back to my colorful room with my TV, the drab apartment where I share a bed with my sister and mother seems even worse.

Although I miss what seemed like a simple life, and we seem to be poorer here, I’ve started to realize there are positives to living in the U.S. For one, the school system is a lot better here than in Jamaica. My grades have improved because of the many academic resources available.

One of these is a program at my school called GOALS—Grab Opportunities And Learn Something—that serves as a support system for new students. After-school programming includes individual counseling, clubs, academic support, life skills lessons, college readiness programs, and more.

I began the program during my freshman year. It was mandatory for all members of the program to attend a club or activity three days per week. I chose cooking and art lessons. There, I frequently interacted with a community of students with whom I finally felt I could confidently share—and vent about—issues I hid before. Being a part of this program helped me to slowly become comfortable talking about my empty-feeling friendships.

Since I’ve gotten more open to forging deeper relationships, I appreciate teachers and staff more, especially those who show respect and love for me. They help guide me, whether that’s learning how to take care of my mental health or talking about the stresses of school. They’ve also shown me that writing can be a helpful remedy in times of distress.

Reflecting back on what life was like when I first arrived in America, I used to stay up late thinking about how much school was a pain, and how it felt as though there was no one there for me to confide in.

During one of those nights, as my mom and sister snoozed quietly next to me, I thought about being encouraged to write. I got up, found a notebook and pencil, and began to jot down what I felt about school, my living situation, and feeling silenced.

As the hours floated by, I felt a sense of relief. I wrote until my fingers cramped and then proceeded to shove the notebook into a small crack of a cupboard and finally went to sleep.

Part of why I love writing is that it is easier for me to express myself on paper. I realize now it can be another way for me to finally let go of this burden of hiding my circumstances. Even though I feel a bit like I’m still hiding behind these words, I hope my writing can help other teens in a similar situation feel that they are not alone. I hope it gives them the courage to let someone know what’s going on instead of keeping it all in. I should have done that sooner, but maybe someone else can learn from it.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Parris feel about her family’s poverty? How do these feelings cause her to act around her friends?
  2. Parris thinks fondly of Jamaica and feels nostalgic for it. How can the memory of a place be different from the reality?
  3. Parris says, “I’ve gotten more open to forging deeper relationships.” What’s beneficial about this? How does a person go about creating deeper bonds with others?
  4. Writing is very positive for Parris. Why are expressive activities like writing helpful? What other means of expression could be good for a person to engage in?

Why have I gone mute? I'm not me anymore, I thought.
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