“It wasn’t only the shoes that made me feel so ugly and inferior to my classmates. Unfortunately, Donna Bates had a precocious sense of style in clothing, cultivated, no doubt, by a mother who dressed her in lace and crinolines every day in first grade and later, as we advanced together through eight more grades, kept her in the most ostentatiously stylish shoes, dresses, hairstyles, and lunch boxes of any child in school.
I remembered standing in the fourth grade lunch line one day. I proudly showed my girlfriend Shirley the red rickrack my mother had sewn on the hem of the matching top and skirt she had made for me. I heard loud laughter, whispering, then even louder laughter as Donna pointed at the hem of her own skirt, batted her eyes, and curtsied. I didn’t need to hear the words. I got the message.
I remembered feeling even more inferior in sixth grade when I learned that rich kids not only had better clothes but they also got more attention from teachers and other important adults. The nucleus of the in-crowd, in which Barbara and Betty were key members, was forming that year. I watched all year long, from my assigned seat at the back of the classroom, as they chatted with Mrs. Scalding, from their assigned seats up front next to her desk.
The three of them talked before class began each day and in other odd moments like waiting for everyone to take their seats after lunch. I heard them talk about riding horses at Mrs.Scalding’s house and her son swimming in Barbara’s pool, which was still, in those days, a rarity.
When Betty’s mother brought cookies and punch for the Halloween party, she talked to Barbara and Nathan and George, two other members of the sixth grade in-crowd. She refilled their paper cups and piled more jack-o-lantern cookies on their napkins when only crumbs remained. In the back of the room, Shirley and I received one smile even we could tell was phoney and the required three-quarters of a cup of drink and two cookies. I was still hungry, but too intimated to ask for more. Betty’s mother had the highest high heels and more jewelry on her person than anyone I had ever seen.
Then came junior high and high school. Ah, the pain that was high school! That, I decided, was where the real damage began. I was old enough by then to discern the true differences between my home-made dresses and my family’s old sedan and uncarpeted floors and the Villager skirts and sweaters, shiny new station wagons, and two-story houses the parents of the in-crowd kids had.
“Why,” I asked myself again, “Why did it hurt so much?”
I recalled having everything I had needed as a child and teen, and quite a bit more. Both my parents had worked hard to buy our three bedroom house in a new subdivision. Buying clothes, shoes, and food for three very active and fast-growing children could not have been cheap, but they managed quite well. So, we hadn’t really been poor.
“Why had I felt so poor then?”
I stared at the wall a long time before the answer to that question came into consciousness.
“It was jealousy that hurt, pure, simple jealousy, not the actual facts. My family had just been working class, and I had not been happy with that. I had wanted what I saw children of wealthier parents had.”
I shifted my position on the love seat, away from the sagging side. It was uncomfortable to admit I had been jealous.
“And for what?” I asked myself harshly. Hadn’t I found out years later that the plumber and hardware store owner my parents knew had gone out of business because some people in our small town had stayed delinquent on their bills for so long. And hadn’t I overhead them say three of the largest bills had been run up by the in-crowd’s parents who drove the new cars, built the biggest houses, and regularly gave parties that were written up in our weekly newspaper’s society section?
My parents had been working class all right, but they paid their bills. Furthermore, their hard work and careful budgeting had elevated their standard of living considerably compared with that of their own parents, just like the Ingalls’ family.