Pissy Pants, Pleather Shoes and Perceptions of Poverty

We’ve had unseasonably warm weather this February. Last week the skies were blue, a few flowers braved an attempt at bloom (for which they were summarily punished when another cold snap ran through these parts) and the sun has washed everything in its glow. My spirit could not help but be positively affected.


So I quite congenial when I skipped up to the front desk at my kids’ school to drop off a check – a fortune in field study fees for my youngest. The school’s admin was of equal sunny disposition and we soon found ourselves cackling over absolutely nothing. Joy was everywhere… Which is why I firmly believe the DEVIL reared his ugly head in that moment and took it upon himself to try his hand at casting a pall all over it. De debil don’t like it when folks is full of joy nah.

A woman I had only seen in the school’s hallways in passing was accompanying Stone to the front desk. As usual, the laces of his shoes were untied, he had a blank look on his face and he was following said woman dutifully. She turned around to beckon him behind the receptionist’s desk.

“Hi, Mommy.”

“Hey, buddy.”

The woman – whom I soon discovered was the school counselor – looked at me in surprise.

“Oh! Are you mom? I was just about to call you!”

I confirmed that I was indeed ‘mom’, and asked if anything was wrong with my son.

“Who, Stone? Oh noooo…he’s fine. But I do need to talk to you. Could you follow me into my office?”

I raked through my memory cache to see if I had violated any of the school’s laws and came up empty. I had no choice but to follow her and wait for her to reveal what so secret that it required discussing in the privacy of her office. She offered me a seat and pulled out a chair opposite mine before taking a deep breath. I felt like I was on an episode of Intervention. Something terrible must’ve happened!

“I was sitting in Stone’s classroom reading to them and I noticed his shoes…”

I smiled and chuckled to myself. I had bought Stone a pair of black boots that he wore for every occasion: to the park, to the playground, to church, to school, in the rain, in the mud… He’d worn them so exclusively that the soles had come apart and the “man-made leather upper” that covered them had begun to peel.

“Yes. Those are his favorite pair. He has others but he –“

She cut me off in mid-sentence. Each of us was talking in tandem, and not truly to each other so I didn’t consider the action rude until I paused to listen to what she was saying.

“…and I also noticed that he smelled like pee. I just happened to be sitting next to him, which is why I could smell it. So I wanted to ask – is everything all right at home?”

I froze and replayed the words in my head.

Is everything all right at home?

Did this heifer just insinuate that we… Oh heeeeck no!

My lips formed a tight line as I attempted to smile. “Yes. Everything is fine at home. These just happen to be Stone’s favorite pair of shoes.”

“Right. But you see the soles are coming apart and –“

I snorted. I couldn’t help it. The absurdity of this conversation was almost more than I could bear.

“I just bought them in December!”

She raised her eyes in surprise. “Oh. Really?”

At that point, consciously or not, I crossed my legs to draw her attention to my fairly new pair of Dolce Vitas, adjusted my wool blend sweater at the cuff and twirled my Awo for MAKSI earrings before informing her that I had just ordered my son a pair of shoes online 3 days prior and we were simply waiting for them to arrive.

“He has wide feet, so it’s not easy to find shoes that fit him right off the rack.”

She smiled benevolently in retort. I met her gaze studying her for a moment before making a divinely inspired query of my own.

“Well, since I’m in here, perhaps you can help me with something… or at least direct me to someone who can. Next Thursday will be Stone’s last day in school, so I’ll need to know how to un-enroll him.”

“Oh really? Why?!”

“We’re moving.”

Now her interest was piqued, prompting to her ask, “Where to?”

I name the country.

Now her interest has morphed into shock.

“Did you or your husband get a job there?”

“No,” I replied simply. “Actually, my husband started his own company in 2014 and it was profitable in the first year. We made the decision to take the opportunity to live abroad.”

Her shock turns to amazement… or admiration (who could really tell?), and she begins to launch into this long monologue about how she lived and taught in Dubai for a year, how her daughter hated the idea at first, and how she didn’t want to come back to the States when the year was up. She told me how this move – and the exposure – was going to be so great for my kids. I nodded cordially.

“Thank you again for bringing Stone’s shoes to my attention, but please assure his teacher that he will have a new pair no later than Monday.”

“Ohhhh, you’re welcome. And don’t worry about it!” She flicked her wrist, as though swatting away a sour memory. “I have a brother who is rough on his shoes too. Ugh! You should see his sneakers!”

And just like that, my son went from a nigger charity case to a little boy who was just particularly fond of one pair of shoes.

I rose to leave, thanking her again for her concern, to which she replied that she didn’t mean any offense. It’s just that some people really are in need, you know?

“Some parents just don’t take that call well.” She rolled her neck as she mimicked a disgruntled parent on the other end of the phone.

This chick was on some other stuff.

When my husband came home later that night, I forgot to tell him what had transpired at the school, so I recounted the event to him the next morning as he was helping Stone get dressed. Stone had gone in search of his beloved black boots and was out of earshot when Marshall blew up. I hadn’t seen him that mad in a long, long time.

“That is SO insulting!” he raged. He raised his voice an octave as he impersonated the counselor. “ ‘So are you poor? You Negroes need help buying clothes?’ I’m so mad! And YOU keep spending $60 on kids’ shoes that are just expensive, but not of good quality!”

(I’ll spare you all the details of my response to that assertion.)

Honestly, I was surprised by his fury. I didn’t understand what he was so mad about. I suppose it is because I have actually been poor before. I know what it’s like to go to school without a uniform, or with busted shoes not because of overuse, but because my parents actually couldn’t afford to get me new accessories. Even as I child I was quite aware of this, and to spare them the embarrassment and myself the disappointment, I rarely asked for new things and learned to make do with what I had. I believe the reason that the ragged state of Stone’s shoes didn’t bother him is because he has full confidence that they can be replaced at any time. Poverty is not a part of his reality.

However, my husband didn’t see it that way at all. The very perception that we were poor was an affront to his dignity, particularly since he works so hard to provide for his family. That said, he drove out to Walmart – the only store that was open that early in the morning – and put his son in a new pair of shoes before dropping him off at school. He stomped into the house with a scowl on his face.

“Did you bring his boots back?” I asked. “I wanted to take a picture of them for the blog.”

“I threw them away,” he snapped.

“But I need a picture!”

“Well then you can go to the garbage can in front of Walmart and get a picture there. I’m sure they’re still in there.”

I thought he was overeating and being to sensitive, until I got called back up to the school on Monday…