Growing up in generational poverty, my family experienced many difficulties. Sometimes those difficulties became sources of shame, especially when they were pointed out and judged by people from middle class. Challenges like getting organized in small, cluttered spaces and supervising children closely were especially difficult and sometimes led to a “flexible” interpretation of the truth. Entertainment was often the only thing we had to balance the stress of living in the tyranny of the moment, and sometimes even that wasn’t enough.
Josephine was more excited than I had ever seen her. Panting as she rushed through the front door, she had obviously run all the way home from school. “My teacher and principal are coming to visit!” she stammered as she threw her books down.
“When?” Momma was clearly alarmed.
“Right now!” Josephine looked worried and excited both at once.
“Quick! Clean up!” Momma said, gathering arms full of clothing, toys, and miscellaneous clutter and tossing the items underneath the bed that she and Daddy slept in. The bed that us girls slept in was folded up in the corner, so we couldn’t hide anything beneath it, and the sofa and footstool took up the rest of the space in that room. The only room left was the kitchen, and we couldn’t hide anything in there. But we had everything looking pretty good just before we heard the knock on the door.
Momma paused at the door to straighten her shoulder-length, reddish-brown hair and her cotton dress before she opened the screen and forced a smile. The dress she was wearing used to be pretty, but now I could barely see the flowers that were once printed on it in bright colors.
Josephine rushed to the door and attempted an introduction. “This is my teacher, and this is my principal, and I don’t know this lady.” The principal took his rich-man’s hat off and held it in his hands while he and the others walked to the sofa and took a seat.
The teacher and principal said the lady with them was a social worker. The teacher, who held her head high in the air, was short—even shorter than Momma, who was barely five feet tall. The social worker wore a dark blue suit that had shiny spots on it in the shape of the bottom of an iron. They all talked about the good job Josephine was doing in school. Then the teacher said, “Mrs. Harnett, we played a game in school today during which all the children had to take off their shoes. Josephine’s feet were extremely dirty looking. She said she played in the mud this morning before putting on her socks. We thought you might want to know this.” All three visitors stared at Mom, waiting for a response.
“Why don’t you kids go outside and play,” Mom said to Amy, Josephine, and me.
Once outside, I slid behind the bush in the front yard. This had become my special hiding place when things were strange or scary. While there I liked to use sticks to make bridges for the ants to walk from one leaf to another. When one was almost across, I would blow the stick bridge up with small rocks that I pretended were Nazi missiles, just like in the stories Daddy told.
After what seemed like hours, the screen door opened and the three visitors walked out and stepped off the porch. They were so close to me as they walked past that I could have reached out and hit their toes. That’s what I wanted to do, but I knew I would be in really big trouble if I did that.
“I wonder how old she is,” I heard a man’s voice say.
That must be the principal talking, I told myself.
“She’s awfully young to have three children,” one of the women answered. “I’ll check the records tomorrow.”
“Maybe that explains why the children look so uncared for,” a different woman’s voice said as they got into the car. “I’ll stay on top of it.” Then they drove away slowly.
“That principal man was huge!” I said to Momma as soon as Josephine, Amy, and I were back inside. “How tall is Daddy?” I asked her.
“He’s five-four—short for a man,” Mom answered without looking in my direction.
“Daddy’s not short!” No one responded to my protest.
In fact, Momma didn’t even hear me. She was standing silently with her head tilted, looking at Josephine. Finally, she started talking very softly to her.
“You did a wonderful job, Josephine, telling your teacher that you played in the mud this morning. You are so smart. If people like that think I’m not taking care of you, they’ll take you and your sisters away from me, and I’ll never see you again. Preacher Jackson says it happens to poor people all the time. You don’t want that to happen to us, do you?”
“No-o-o,” Josephine dragged the word out as long as she could, then added, “I’ll never let them see my feet again.”
Mom looked sad all evening, so I did my silly contortionist routine to make her laugh. My routine usually worked better than it did that night, but Mom at least smiled a little bit when I scratched my ear with my big toe. I couldn’t make her laugh though, no matter how hard I tried.
Bethanie Tucker is author of Tucker Signing Strategies for Reading and coauthor of Understanding and Engaging Under-Resourced College Students, among other titles. She is an aha! Process national consultant training on the programs she created, plus A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Research-Based Strategies, and others. Keep an eye on the aha! Process blog to find out what happens next in Tucker’s memoir series “Many Bridges to Cross.”