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
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.”
Maybe 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.
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