Sunday, December 17, 2006


When my father was a kid, the government sent (Americorps) VISTA workers to West Virginia to help the poor, benighted hillbillies. Denise Giardina's The Unquiet Earth has a scene where aid workers come to the protagonist's school and distribute shoes to the poor, needy students. The kids hate the shoes and don't act properly grateful.

I was thinking about that scene all last week, while my kids were getting presents donated by local businesses. One event wasn't bad at all, it was put on by people of color who were comfortable with the kids. The biggest gifts were presented to the kids like they were things they had won (even though the reality was that we teachers selected the poorest kids to receive the most extravagant items).The kids had to, in a sense, earn their gifts by writing an essay to qualify for the event. It was exciting and didn't injure the kids' dignity. The other biggest gift event, however, wasn't quite like that. All my kids, plus all the kids in their grade and another grade, were given the same gift item. It was nice enough, if unimaginative. The people from the company dressed up all Christmassy and handed out the presents and smiled and took pictures. It was part of my duty to make sure every child said thank you and to try to drum up excitement and holiday cheer and all that. I wasn't very good at that part, I guess. My kids were as polite as they knew how to be, but acted subdued, almost silent. For one thing, I think it was more white people than they'd ever seen at the school before. The kids seem to be kind of intimidated by lots of white folks. It gave me a weird pang to see them get reminded over and over about how grateful they had to be for the gifts. When they had to write their thank you notes to the business, more than a few of the notes had a distinct tinge of sarcasm to them that I'm not sure the recipients will pick up on.

Gratitude can be a kind of sickness. It can make your forehead sweat and your guts twist. It can really hurt to always be in the position of having to be so fucking grateful for handouts, especially handouts from people who really didn't do anything special to get put in the position of the great benefactor. They just happened to be born into privilege, when you just weren't. When you're poor, there are always things that you can't afford to turn down. You have to swallow your pride and accept the handout, even when it comes from someone you hate, someone who hurts you or your community. Or just from someone who has no understanding of you and the only dealing they ever have with people like you is when they are doing charity.


Blogger Andrea said...

Yes! There is such a divide between the haves and the have-nots. When asked to write a parody of "T'was the night before Xmas", a student wrote the following:

T'was the night before Christmas
and all through the house
not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse
I woke out of bed to be surprised
when i noticed there was nothing
not even a fly.

The image of the fly was perfect, and we shared a moment that was very special to me.

We talked about how she never gets any presents and how she won't take handouts. I told her about a time when we were really poor as kids, and my mom arranged a rich woman to take me and my brother out shopping. It was the most embarassing thing ever.

People who are trying to give either do so out of the goodness of their hearts (I believe that is still a factor), or because it makes them feel less selfish, and more generous than others - fluffing their egos so they can enjoy more. Maybe these people shouldn't be encouraged to shove their differences in the faces of those who live without so many things.

12/20/2006 9:04 AM  
Blogger lily of the valley said...


And, like I said, there was a huge difference between when people of the same community (or close to it, at least) were giving gifts to the kids and when it was people outside their community. The former made every effort to make sure the kids' dignity was still intact. The latter, not so much.

12/20/2006 12:10 PM  
Blogger Venha Futuro said...

I would hope, and I could very well be wrong, that people don't realize that they are having a negative effect, or they aren't sure how to avoid it. I hope that's the case, but I'm not so sure. Sometimes this sort of thing makes me feel really pessimistic about the human condition.

12/20/2006 12:48 PM  

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