The Harder I Work The Luckier I Get

Not that I expected there to be a part 2 to yesterday’s post but some of your comments got me thinking (a dangerous thing, for sure!)

As TKW pointed out, even though we were now living the big life, frugality was still ingrained in my parents minds. We went from a tiny bungalow in a working class neighborhood to a large 5 bedroom ranch house on an acre lot. Our new subdivision had homes with circular driveways, large ponds, and impeccable landscaping. It was quite a leap for us. I remember thinking we lived in the country (we didn’t) because our mailbox was on fancy post down at street level. The mail truck drove to each home. No more walking mailman sticking our mail in a tiny box to the right of the doorbell.

Maybe it’s genetic (I’m Scot-Irish, like Mel!) or maybe the early example my parents provided made an impression but my shame about the imitation Sir Jac jacket didn’t last long. I let the twitters at school die down, started wearing my beloved jacket again and guessed that all was forgotten. We were now known as “new money.” It was as if  ‘all was well with the world’ now that we had been rightfully labeled.

I’d like to think growing up where I did didn’t change me for the worse. I took some amazing things from my childhood to make me who I am today but there are some attitudes I held I’m not proud of. I remember once in college, talking on the phone to my sister at length. She had a few scholarship offers to some major universities and she needed advice. After I hung up the phone my roommate (who grew up in inner-city Detroit and was the first to attend college in her family) said, “Oh! Your sister is going to college?” with a genuine smile and excitement in her voice. I snootily replied, “Is she going to college? No – WHERE is she going to college.”

And by now, my parents attitudes had changed. It was now important to them that we date only the boys from “good” (financially well off) families. When I told them my plans of majoring in education they scoffed, “Well, you better marry well. You’ll never make any money in THAT profession.” My father (who I adored) actually said, “Why in the world would you want to teach? You’re so bright. You know what they say, Those who can – do. Those who can’t – teach.” It was the first time I had ever heard that horrid phrase. I was crushed.

It took moving away from my home state and traveling 1500 miles across the country to cause a major shift in my attitude. 

Driving through West Virginia I saw a shack that looked like it could blow over with the right puff of wind. I wistfully began imagining what it would have looked like when someone lived there. Flowers outside the front stoop, fresh paint on the shutters, no trash littering the yard. Then, to my surprise, a man appeared at the doorway. Shirtless, holding a beer, scratching his belly. A TV was on inside. I was stunned that someone could be living there. That it could possibly have running water and electricity.

In Savannah, while on my way to work one day, I drove past a row of townhouses downtown. Every other one was boarded up. Gang graffiti decorated some of the boards holding it together. I was stuck at a light when out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman emerge from one of the buildings, clutching her handbag, dressed beautifully in a pale pink suit, ivory silk blouse, well-worn but tasteful leather pumps. She raced to catch the bus that was stopped just ahead of me.

People actually live this way? Their dwellings could hardly be called homes. I realized even in my family’s poorest of times, when all of us crammed into one bedroom – we were rich.

I ended up teaching at a small private high school. I loved it. I made a modest salary. And that was OK with me. But the way I was treated by some of the parents was horrible. Less than. Below. It was like an amazing social experiment to me – observing these people who lived the way I was raised, but they didn’t know. I felt like a spy on a covert operation. I was just a teacher, aspiring to be just like them, they imagined. I attended a charity fundraiser and happened to be standing next to a parent from our school. We were looking over some of the silent auction items and I made an observation about the quality of a beautiful sweater set, complete with jeweled collar. She turned to me, stunned, and said, “That’s quite observant for someone on a teacher’s salary!”

My daughter went to the same school. One day, she came home and said, “Mommy? Are we poor?” Of course not, I told her. Why do you say that? She said, “Because we only have one TV.” I explained to her that we chose to only have one TV. We chose to live where we did. We loved what we did for a living – excess money is not important. What is important is doing what you love, having good health and a safe, warm place to lay your head at night. It was in that moment that I made sure we started volunteering at the local soup kitchen more regularly so my daughter could see what “poor” truly was.

I’m not sure a 6-yr-old cared about my explanation and soup kitchen example. She was more impressed with the nannies, TV in every room, and gorgeous homes that her friends lived in.

My husband works in health care. He practices Chinese Medicine (yes, I know, voodoo to some of you). I giggle when I hear some of your impressions out there, “He’s not a real doctor.” No, not in the Western sense. And we’ll certainly never live the lifestyle of a Western trained surgeon. But we live a very comfortable life. And I can afford to stay home with my children, which I love being able to do. And my kids can have music lessons and play on sports teams and attend private school.

I’ve ridden the financial roller coaster at various times in my life. And I used to feel guilty whenever I noticed that I was among “the haves.” I used to call myself blessed or lucky. But I am no more blessed or lucky than the man scratching his gut on the porch of that shack. Even being lucky is relative. My parents worked hard to provide the best they could for us. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am. My husband works very hard to afford the things we can afford. 

Samuel Goldwyn once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” We’ve worked hard to get where we are today. And hopefully, our example will encourage our children to do the same.

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13 Comments

Filed under How We Roll, Observations

13 responses to “The Harder I Work The Luckier I Get

  1. It’s crazy how poorly some people regard teachers. And sad. And I HATE that quote about teachers, too. Grrrr.

  2. Another great post, Jane. You beautifully articulated that internal struggle of guilt most of us feel when we see those who don’t have the simple necessities of life. I think it is even more difficult for those who have actually been labeled the “have not” at some point in life. Whether one has or has not, the riches are truly those deep within us. Unfortuanately, society is always going to judge on materialism. What I’m enjoying about the cyber world is that we do look beyond social barriers and are learning from one another.

  3. I always thought that the US was a much more egalitarian society than the UK (where once upon a time the class system did reign supreme). Reading yesterday and today about some of the attitiudes you’ve encountered it seems not. Some of these people need a jolly good poke in the eye.

    Your last two paras really ring true for me. I too have been on both sides of the spectrum and I get kind of fed up with socialist dogma over here that paints us now (momentarily, and perhaps all too fleetingly ‘comfortable’) as ‘fat cats’. We are where we are because of certain sacrifices, a whole lot of hard work and a huge amount of responsibilty to those we employ. And yes, as the parent of older ‘children’ (because both my girls are now in their 20s) I can almost guarantee that your good example will encourage your children to do the same.

  4. That quote about teachers (my husband and I are both teachers) makes my skin crawl. No one would be anywhere without teachers.

    Great part II!!

  5. Wow, just caught up on yesterday’s post Jane. I wanted to throttle those boys! What a horrible attitude for kids to have.
    Some people ask me about living on Martha’s Vineyard, what’s it like for my kids, being exposed to fabulous wealth in the summer. It’s true they see some amazing displays of money. But I think it’s made the year-round kids see how little it really means. There are kids here whose families can’t afford to heat their homes in winter and only eat venison, and kids who have it all. Of all the things I saw kids get teased about when I worked at the high school for 3 years, money and the things it brings (or not) wasn’t among them.
    You put this so eloquently. As a nurse I often felt that condescending attitude from people that you described as a teacher. And didn’t smart girls become doctors or lawyers?? Drove me crazy.
    Great topic.

  6. That quote about teachers is not only offensive, it’s stupid and meaningless. If you didn’t know the subject, how could you teach it? And if no one taught it, how would the doctors and lawyers and candlestick makers learn how to do their stuff? It reminds me of people who thought of African Americans as less than human, but entrusted them with the care of their children. It just doesn’t make any goddamned sense.

    I think having a job you love is worth so much more than being ‘rich’. Just think of those ‘billionaire businessmen’ who always look overweight, harassed, red in the face, as if they’re constantly on the verge of a stroke, who never see their families, who probably never take five minutes to enjoy their big houses and swimming pools (yeah, I know, monstrous stereotype). People need to concentrate on what kind of life they want to build. Stuff is just stuff.

  7. Thank you for all of your comments, support of my writing, etc. I’m truly overwhelmed because both of these posts just kind of burst onto the keyboard/screen. There wasn’t much self-editing. It appears it is a hot topic for many of us. And judging from the comments it brings up the issue of making sure we’re careful not to glorify “the poor” and vilify “the rich.”

  8. Amazing post. It’s so nice to learn more about you. I had a brief couple years of being one of the haves when my husband’s business was doing well. We splurged eating out all the time; I kick myself now for not saving more. On another sort of random thought, I remember my grandma pulling me to the side at my wedding shower to ask if my husband would be able to support me in the lifestyle I was accostumed too. All I could think was how rich do y0u think my family is; I could support it.

  9. I have lived on the lower spectrum my entire life. Many of the people you described would not only sneer but feel bad for my plight. I, on the other hand, love it. I have never wanted or lacked in anything essential. I have always been well fed and clothed. I have found that being thrifty is not a bad thing.

    Now, with my husband in school (to become a doctor) (I think that your husband is a real doctor, by the way), we are working to find ways to save money. Yet, we still don’t lack. We eat delicious food, go on fun family dates, and wear nice clothes.

    Even if we didn’t have these things, we would be happy.

    The question is, how do you define happiness? Happiness, for me, is having healthy children, and a healthy and supportive husband. With that definition, I am the happiest person alive.

  10. I think Amber has summed up my feelings.

    We actually have a very comfortable lifestyle too, Jane. But you truly can’t buy happiness, and I’ve tended to find the more we’ve gained the less happy we are.

  11. Jane, I have to say that I can tell you are wicked smart. And it makes me happy that you chose teaching as your profession, whether you’re currently immersed in it or not. Too often, people who are very, um, NOT wicked smart go into teaching, and they somehow get hired, and they’re very happy to have their summers off and their pensions growing despite how little they help kids. It’s really important to have smart teachers, because it’s a job that shapes minds and cultivates a citizen’s ability to think. There are plenty of mugs at Hallmark that say this, but unfortunately, our society doesn’t follow suit. Teachers are always seen as “nice” and “sweet” and sometimes, “hard,” but rarely brilliant and deserving of the same respect as doctors and lawyers.

    I’m proud to share a profession with you!

  12. ck

    What a great quote. And I love your insight and lyrical voice.

    (And what a nice treat to catch up on several of your posts in one night. I could keep reading and reading…)

  13. Husband and I both grew up in upper-middle class families in upper-middle class neighborhoods. We’re living now, though, in a pretty down-on-its-luck working class town. Although I’ve lived in highly diverse cities, never before have I lived in a place where I’ve felt “different.” It has been an important and defining experience for me to understand firsthand the different assumptions we make about people based on wealth and class.

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