The roots of who I am

I’ve had the song “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman in my head for several days. Often, when a very old song (it came out in 1987) is in my head for days on end, it’s like a dream: it’s trying to tell me something.

Around 1987, there was this very anomalous trend in pop music when songs that had strong social justice messages were popular, like this song and Suzanne Vega’s “Luka.” The Tracy Chapman song was about trying to escape poverty; Luka was about a boy living with physical abuse.

It may sound depressing, but they came at a very pivotal point in my development. I was in my very early teens and for the first time in middle school, I made friends who had much less than I did. One of my best friends at that time was abused by her mother, even when I was present. Our idea of excitement was riding the bus to the mall, even though neither of us had any money to spend. She lived deep in the bad part of town, so making it to the mall required bus transfers, which I’d never done before.

One of my other close friends was so much poorer than I was—even though I grew up in a $25,000 house with a crack dealer living a couple houses away. Her single mom was never present when I stayed the night at her house. We’d scrounge up a couple dollars’ worth of returnable bottles and walk to the grocery store and buy whatever trashy food we could get for $2-3 dollars.

I was so much more comfortable with them than I had been in elementary school. Grade school was hell for me in every way except academically. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I’m still stunned by the fact that one of my classmates stood on her desk when the teacher left the room and said, “Who here hates Holly? Raise your hands.” And a bunch of hands went up.

Those kids were snotty brats, sure. But they were more than that: they were also extremely wealthy and privileged. They had private lessons and college-educated parents and the latest, trendiest clothes. They were shallow, materialistic, and frankly, mean as hell.

I noticed about a year ago that I had unintentionally sought out close friendships in adulthood that had the same dynamic as with the bullies in grade school. They were even the same in the fact that they were with shallow and materialistic people. I have some shallow and materialistic traits myself; I think many people do. But I think I was repeating that dynamic in friendships not only hoping it would turn out differently (hint: it didn’t) but also in hopes that I’d finally get validation from the former spoiled kids. Of course, I didn’t and I couldn’t. I had to figure out why I was seeking them in the first place.

The truth is that there’s still more of me that empathizes with and relates to the people who have it worse off than me than what I had in common interests with the rich kids. I remember that the first time I volunteered to serve in a soup kitchen was when I was 16, something I’m pretty sure the rich kids still haven’t done.

I think that once I could give myself validation, I no longer needed to repeat the friendships that were with shallow people I couldn’t relate to. I firmly believe that we have some lessons in life that continue to plague us until we’ve learned what we needed to know from them. I think this was one of my biggest. It’s still in progress because I’m still working on changing my approach to money now that we’re solidly in the middle class. But I think that I’m starting to learn it now and with time I will get better.

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