We Have a Choice


My mother once explained
to me that we weren’t poor: we just didn’t have much money for things we didn’t need; and it was important to know the difference between a want and a need.

Unfortunately, at that time in my life, Mom and I defined need differently, and sometimes I felt poor, particularly when others treated me as if I were.

On occasion, movies were shown on Friday afternoons at Lake Shore Elementary. We’d file into the cafeteria and sit cross-legged on the floor to watch the adventures of Pinocchio or the antics of Abbot and Costello

imagesWe enjoyed the movies, but the best part of the afternoon occurred when the principal, changing the reel on the projector, ran it backward for a few minutes, causing a hubbub of hilarity

We had to pay twenty-five cents to see the movie, which was usually not a problem. But one winter Dad had been laid off, and though he managed to find a job at Rigtrup’s chicken factory, we were on an extra-tight budget. In March, when Bob, Carolyn, and I asked for money for a school movie, Mom explained she didn’t have any quarters to give us.

The next day, when my classmates lined up to go to the cafeteria, I remained in my seat. I don’t remember feeling concerned about my situation—until the teacher asked with impatience, “What do you think you’re doing, Janet?”

“I don’t have any money. Mom says we can’t afford the movie this time.”

quarterMaybe Mrs. Peterson had no idea what to do with me, or perhaps her feet hurt. She strode across the room, displeasure rippling across her face, yanked her purse from the closet, grabbed a quarter, and slammed it on her desk. “Here. Take this and get in line. Hurry up. I can’t believe your family is that penniless.”

I wish I’d refused her angry charity. I didn’t. Instead, I avoided looking at my classmates and sat quietly through a movie I didn’t see.

I don’t know how Bob and Carolyn fared when they confessed they were without movie money. We never talked about it; and I never mentioned my embarrassment to my mother.

But I learned an important lesson from Mrs. Peterson: We must choose our words carefully and be ever thoughtful about the impact they have. We can speak words that understand and support or that hurt and discourage.

We have a choice.

Have any thoughts on today’s post?
Please comment

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13 thoughts on “We Have a Choice

  1. Oh Janet. I know we have to choose our words wisely, but honestly I felt your teacher handled the situation poorly. You, at that age, were being honest and I think you didn’t have anything to be ashamed of.
    I remember when my folks divorced we went from being middle class to being poor. My Mother was a divorced woman in 1969 and we moved from New Mexico to Sparks, NV. We lived with her brother and his family. I received $50.00 from my Dad for my birthday in late August and bought clothes for school, which I promptly outgrew as I had hit my growth spurt. All we could afford was fabric and thankfully my mom and aunt sewed 3 dresses for me. I also got my first job in the lunch room so I could eat for free that year. I really don’t remember feeling ashamed at that time. It was just the way things were.

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    • You’re right, Janice, she did handle the situation poorly. I don’t remember feeling ashamed about not having the money, but rather embarrassed at the attention she drew to it. Like you, it was the way things were from time to time as I was growing up. Thank you for sharing a part of your life I wasn’t familiar with.

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  2. What a heart-breaking story! Such carelessness and insensitivity! I can imagine that you didn’t see much of the movie – you were likely living the moment over and over again.

    Of course I agree with you – we certainly do have choices. I suppose the challenge is recognizing that there are options and having the required equanimity to select the appropriate response.

    Thanks for this.

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    • Perhaps because of Mrs. Peterson, as a teacher I worked hard to maintain the required equanimity you so aptly describe, Maggie. Sometimes I failed, but had the good sense to apologize. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. This reminds of when I was a little girl and I overheard the next door neighbor tell her husband “That girl is so ornery”..I had no clue what it meant, I just knew it was bad by the tone of her voice and the sharp way she looked at me…I felt awful for months..
    PS-I was not ornery just very shy , I looked at the ground alot and frowned..
    Yes, chose words carefully like your teacher did not..

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  4. My third grade teacher, Mrs Cox would come down the aisle at lunch time and if some poor kid had smelly lunch she threw it out. I scarfed mine at recess, enduring the slap was better than being hungry all day. Sometimes she got herself a burger and chips and ate it in front of us. The town kids went home for lunch. sometimes it hurts without words. Every Christmas we got a hamper from the church- one year we got a blue tin of Date-Nut- Loaf, it sat in the cupboard for years until Ma gave it to me for the school food hamper drive, and to her dismay we got it back. My brother eventually ate it. I always had humor to get me through, being money poor was harder for my brother and sister, they cared about fitting in… My I rabbit on! Thanks for another lovely post.

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    • I wonder if your Mrs. Cox and my Mrs. Peterson were twins, separated at birth. The Date-Nut-Loaf story made me chuckle, but it was a sympathetic chuckle. I love your stories.

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  5. Thanks Janet, the Date-Nut-Loaf is one of my favorites, I still see her face and hear the swearing as Ma picked it out of the box. Yes, Mrs Cox and Mrs Peterson are likely together where bitter nasty teachers yell..wish I had been in your class, what fun.

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  6. I’ve endured many labels in my life, some have helped me hold my head high, others made me stop and reflect upon that possibility and then toss it off. I like who I am today because of the path I’ve walked, labels and all.

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