Growing Up Poor and Picking Up the Gauntlet

My dog Gabby

My book came out this summer. It’s the last traditionally published book thatI have under contract and I’m never sure if I’ll sell another one.

That’s a hard truth for me. But I’ve had a pretty amazing run and hopefully it will continue.

Last night I had all these anxiety dreams about picking the wrong test option at school and not being able to find the page that I’m supposed to be on.

It reminded me of this post about growing up poor, expectations, and helping others.

There’s no getting around that.

My mom tried really hard to pretend we weren’t poor. She tried to hide it from everyone, including my much older brother and sister who grew up 15 years earlier than me in a much nicer, working-class reality. But when I came around we were poor.

My nana stood in food lines to get us commodity cheese because my mom wouldn’t do it herself because she was too ashamed. Credit card companies and collection agencies would call constantly. I was taught early on to lie on the phone when I answered it and say my mom wasn’t home if it wasn’t my sister or one of my aunts calling.

We had a typewriter, not a word processor, not a computer. Every time I had to get clothes, I’d feel full of guilt. It didn’t help when one of my older siblings taunted me for my quirky style. Goodwill sometimes makes you have a quirky style.

In a New York Times article a few years ago, David Brooks wrote of class structure and how the upper middle class is consciously and subconsciously prevents others from upward economic mobility, writing,

“Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

David Brooks

There are class barriers that aren’t just about goods you own and how you show them off, but also certain ways of doing things.

Here are questions to ask.

Have you ever had the chance to learn to play golf? Do you listen to NPR? The right podcasts? Which food truck do you frequent? Do you have the middle-class prescribed ‘right attitude’ about things?

As a child, we would go to my wealthy uncle and aunt’s house for gatherings with their friends. Their friends were senators and doctors, people who worked for the World Health Organization, people who helped create the measles vaccine, documentary filmmakers who headed AIDS awareness efforts. I remember looking at their fancy clothes and listening to them and being both inspired and terrified. They placed napkins in their laps. They kissed people on both cheeks. They made eye contact when they talked, and they used different forks for different parts of their dinner.

They were all kind to me. That wasn’t it. But I knew that I didn’t know how to play by their rules because I had no freaking clue what those rules were.

I went to a window seat that looked out on Lake Winnipesaukee. There was a bookshelf at the end of the seat and in that bookshelf was an etiquette book full of how to eat at the table, what manners were, how to write thank-you cards, exchange greetings, and so on.

It was a beautiful summer day. All the other kids were swimming and playing tag. I was reading and memorizing and trying to learn how to be like the others.

Eventually my Aunt Maxine noticed that I was sitting there, reading.

“Carrie. What are you doing? Go out and play, Carrie,” she said.

She liked to use people’s names a lot. She also was sort of bossy in a nice way.

I was afraid of bossy, but I also loved my aunt so I said as bravely as possible, “I’m reading.”

“Don’t you want to go swim with the other children? They’re all outside getting sun, having fun.”

They were. They were splashing around in the water, doing cannonballs off the dock, or perfect dives. They had perfect bathing suits from L.L. Bean and Lands’ End, and every single one of them seemed to know how to ski, play tennis, and were learning golf.

She took the book from me and read the title. After a second, she sat down on the bench next to me. “What are you reading this for, Carrie?”

And I said, “Because I want to be better.”

“Be better! That’s ridiculous. You’re wonderful as who you are.”

“I want … I want to fit in.” I looked her right in the eyes and she got it. I knew she got it. She understood all the things that I couldn’t figure out how to say.

She handed me back the book. “I will make a deal with you. You read this for another half hour and I’ll set the kitchen timer. When it goes off, you go play with the other children and get some exercise.”

Nodding, I thought this was okay. “But I might not finish the book.”

“You can finish it after dinner and games.” She pet me on the top of the head. “I’ll bring you the timer.”

I was five.

They realized that there was a social code and a way of being that wasn’t easily accessible for me no matter how hard my mom tried. I was a poor kid in a wealthy town. I was a latchkey kid who was awkward and driven and terrified of failure. Paying for acting lessons, to play on the soccer team, to play piano were huge stretches for us. Sometimes they happened. Sometimes they didn’t.

My aunt and uncle understood my situation and my want because my uncle was the same way. He was the oldest son of a single mom. He pushed himself hard to succeed, to learn the social code of success and wealth. He went to UNH because it was the only place he could afford and he was valedictorian there, desegregating the fraternity system while he was class president. He eventually went to Harvard Law and married Maxine, a woman who had so much intellectual stock and prowess that it was just ridiculous. He ended up being the head of an international law association, head of a law firm, chairman of the board of trustees at UNH and so many other things.

My little five-year-old self was trying to do the same things as he did. Somehow. I took the first and only step I could think of taking — reading that book, trying to crack the social codes of behavior that made his friends and him so different from my mom and me.

I was in college when Uncle Dick was dying.

We had all gathered for one last Thanksgiving. There were tons of people there, the same kind of brilliant, world-changing people that were there when I was five and when I was ten and when I was fifteen. My mother and my nana were barely able to sit still because they were so overwhelmed with Dick’s impending death. They’d have to leave the room every time someone mentioned his name.

During dinner, Maxine called them into his bedroom with her. They stayed for about two minutes and left sobbing.

“He’s too tired,” Maxine said at the threshold of the hallway that led to those bedrooms. “He needed them to go.”

But then, a minute later, she called for me. “Dick wants to see you, Carrie.”

I remember pointing at my chest. “Me?”

“Yes.”

“He’s not too tired?”

“No,” she said. “Not for you.”

There was a bit of a murmur at the table because Uncle Dick wasn’t really calling for anyone to come see him. He was barely holding on.

She ushered me into a back bedroom that wasn’t their normal place to sleep. The wooden walls were dark because the shades were drawn. There was only one bedside light on. My uncle was thin and his breathing was so heavy. It seemed like there were a million blankets layered on top of him.

He met my eyes as I came to his bed and sat on the edge of it, ignoring the chair.

“Everyone sits in the chair,” he rasped out.

“I wanted to be close to you.” I grabbed his hand.

“Nobody wants to be close to death.”

“You aren’t death. You’re my uncle.”

The weight of his hand in mine seemed like nothing and everything all at once. I think he might have fallen asleep, but I sat there thinking about how beautiful he was, how elegant, how he challenged systems of injustice one at a time as best he could, how he taught himself Japanese, how to play the organ, how to be wealthy, how to fit in with an entire class of successful people that he wasn’t born into, and how he and Maxine both tried to lift other people up into that class with them.

He opened his eyes. “Carrie, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Will you pick it up?”

There was only one answer.

“Yes,” I told him. “Yes.”

It was the last thing he said to me. He fell asleep again. We left for home. I left for college. And since then, I have spent years trying to figure out how to make my words to my uncle not be a lie. How to meet the challenge of his life so well lived.

And I know I’m not doing enough. This David Brooks article reminds me of that. It’s hard to motivate other people. Sometimes it’s hard to even motivate myself.

I have a friend who recently said to me, “You do so much volunteering. I don’t. I can’t. I’m a selfish person. I want to make money.”

And I didn’t know what to say.

I still don’t.

I have only succeeded as much as I have because people were willing to let me read a book, to be examples of goodness, to give me the opportunity to interact with senators, opera singers, doctors who have saved thousands of lives.

Humiliation and exclusion are not what we should aspire to. Inclusion and praise are not things to be afraid of giving to other people. Enjoying other people’s successes and happiness doesn’t make you any less likely to succeed.

The gauntlet is about being unafraid and allowing other people into your life, your heart, your communities.

Aunt Maxine and Uncle Dick told me throughout my childhood that intelligence was a privilege that I was born with. It could be cultivated and expanded on, but what was the most important thing was finding a way (or many ways) of using that privilege (intelligence, class, race, gender, being physically fit, and so on) and using it to better other people’s lives, your own life, the world, not in a way that makes you a hero but in a way that makes you a friend.

Yes, we need to take care of ourselves (thus being selfish), but we also need to not live in bubbles — to see where our language and our rules, our so-called ‘cultural norms’ can be a code that even five-year-olds realize doesn’t include them.

I don’t know how to fix this, but I know we all have to try. I was so lucky to have an Uncle Dick and Aunt Maxine. Not everyone is. And when you feel excluded because of economic, racial, gender, religious codes? How can you not hurt?

Part of why I am so freaked out about this book is because I’m afraid nobody will like it, that nobody will understand the lower middle-class place I write from, that nobody cares about gauntlets. And also because I’m afraid that nobody will buy it and I’ll have to find a new way to earn a living.

Because just like when I was little, I still need to deal with money and economics and how to survive as a writer/artist person in a world where that isn’t the easiest thing.

But also I’m afraid that I won’t ever do enough, that I’m not trying hard enough. Or that it’s like the nightmare I had last night and I picked the wrong test. And I’m running out of time and it’s too late to start over.

I’ve tried to pick up the gauntlet by being friends, writing books, and I’ve even tried to be a politician. I’ve tried by how I raised my daughter. It doesn’t feel like enough.

Part of why I’m in Rotary International, and even why I decided to be the volunteer public image chair for a huge part of Canada and the United States is because this organization of 1.2 million people is picking up the gauntlet, over and over again. From helping to eradicate polio (one vaccine and one fundraiser at a time) to building a local playground or a creating a book festival, Rotary grabs that gauntlet. The only difference is, they do it together.

How are you picking up the gauntlet? How do you feel excluded? Included? I’d love to know.

I’m over here on the internet and so is more of my writing and my books and podcast, Dogs are Smarter Than People. I’m also a writing coach.

And every day, my animals pick up the gauntlet and share inspiring bits on Twitter.

I’m an internationally bestselling and New York Times bestselling author, writing coach, podcaster, speaker, human, & editor.

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