(owner of photo unknown)
Regardless of what type of home life a kid has, for a while at least they think that everybody lives the same way they do. If you are poor, or from the “other side of the tracks,” at some point there will be a watershed event that clears it all up for you and puts you directly in your place. It’s not a pleasant thing to find out you are "less-than" other kids. Being poor is a real eye opener. Everybody is signing up for little league and you have to lie and say you don’t like baseball, or the cub scouts, or a million other things. It’s not a fun thing to discover that other kids wear clothes that are much nicer and obviously cost more than yours do. It was a real surprise for me, to find out that all moms weren’t like mine…
I had many of these "watershed" events in my childhood and what follows is three of them. As you might have noticed (or read) by now. Kids in our family would fight outsiders for no reason at all. And none of us were the type to say “no, you hit me first!” Forget that, look at us sideways and we were throwing punches before the other kid even thought about swinging. My older brother Mike was short, but tough. I was a little taller than normal, wiry and tough. My younger brother Tim was wiry and just happy to oblige anyone that wanted to go at it. In other words, most kids knew better than to make fun of us for being poor.
One day after school I walked home with another kid. We weren’t good friends, but got along pretty well. He lived around the corner from me and asked if I wanted to stop over at his house and play for a while. His mom wasn’t home from work and he was supposed to wait, or play in the back yard until she got there.
We were just farting around, doing nothing really, when his mom got home. She opened the back door and told him to come in the house for a minute. I stayed outside, but I could clearly hear his mom yelling at him about not ever bringing that “white trash” to their house again. He was not to play with me in the neighborhood and he was not to play with me at school. I may have only been in the third or fourth grade, but I knew what white trash was. I didn’t wait for him to come back out, I left on my own. The next day at school I saw the kid and acted like nothing had happened. I knew what I was. I wanted to tell my mom, but knew better. She would give me absolutely no sympathy whatsoever and then she’d probably go kick the living hell out of that woman. Yeah, I knew….
I knew what I was. I knew it well enough to never have other kid's parents drop me off at home. It was too embarrassing. I had a pretty nice house picked out a few blocks away to be dropped off at. Sometimes I’d actually have to walk up to the front door before they’d leave. They just wouldn’t make it easy on me. One time I left something in a friend's car. They turned right around, went to that house and knocked on the door.
What a surprise for everyone. “I just dropped him off here!” “He doesn’t live here and never has!” I seem to remember some turmoil being raised at school over that one. Our house was a shack. My brother would get on one side of it and start pushing, after a very short time, he would have the entire house rocking on its foundation.
Most elementary school kids go to camp in the sixth grade (at least they did back then). The Long Beach school district has been doing it forever. Everybody goes. Well not quite everybody. They gave us several documents to take home for our parents to see and sign. One of them is a list of items that you have to take with you to camp. We didn’t have crap and my mom sure wasn’t about to buy anything for me to go to camp. I'm very sure my grandmother would have paid for it. Or one of my mom's "gentleman" friends would have. But she couldn't care less if I went to camp or not. So while all the other kids prepared to go, I didn’t. While all the other kids talked about it, I didn’t. While all the kids boarded the buses, I didn’t. I had to go sit in a class of fifth graders for the week. I was the only sixth grader in the entire school who didn’t go to camp. I knew what I was...
That year I had a funky white windbreaker for my only jacket. It had no lining at all, but I had to wear it every time it was cold. It wasn’t very efficient and was impossible to keep clean.
It’s Thursday and it’s been cold all week. The classroom is quiet and we’re supposed to be reading. The teacher asks me a question. “Mr. Tillett, why do you wear that old dirty jacket to school every day?” “Don’t you have anything else to wear?” She asked me loud enough for every single GD fifth grader in that class to hear what she said. I replied that I had others (a lie) but I didn’t want them to get ruined on the playground (another lie). There is no way that my face didn't turn bright red. I felt it get hot. I felt every kid in that room judging me. I may have only been in sixth grade, but I knew when somebody was being an asshole. And a mean asshole at that. I didn’t come back to school the next day and even though I had no other jackets, sweaters, or sweatshirts, I never wore that white piece of shit again. No matter how cold it got.
I damn sure knew what I was...