I grew up poor. I don’t talk about it often, because I don’t ever want my mom to think I blame her for anything. Because I don’t. My dad, on the other hand, kept us in poverty. So I blame him. Maybe he did it to control us? I’ll never really understand why sociopaths do what they do.
But I was poor. In a lower-middle class neighborhood. I was still in public school at the time. Probably the poorest kid in my class. I was one of the few on free lunch. Some kids were on reduced lunch, but I was on free. And you knew who had free lunch, because we couldn’t have chocolate milk. I don’t think it was district policy. Someone in the kitchen implemented it, and we followed it. They also announced “free lunch” when you were being served, so it was quite the dignifying experience.
My teacher, who was sweet and kind and loving and I suspect had never been poor, said we needed to complete a book project at home. A diorama. I was thrilled. My book was The Family Under The Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson. Phenomenal book. I’d read it a dozen times and couldn’t wait to make a diorama of my favorite scene.
Then she said, “You’ll need to find things at home to make your scene. And you’ll need to put it in a shoebox. Everyone should have a shoebox, because you got new shoes for school!” I looked at my shoes. They were from a yard sale. I knew we had zero shoeboxes at home, because we had zero new pairs of shoes at home. My mom was the yard sale queen. And I had received one new piece of clothing that entire year. A pair of pants, which I saved for a birthday party.
I had the brilliant idea to make a box from cut-up cereal boxes. Before I’d finished walking home, I had it all planned out. Two layers, with the printed sides glued together. Then put all the rectangles together with box tape. We always had box tape, because we were always moving.
I walked into the kitchen and remembered there weren’t any cereal boxes. We ate generic bagged cereal, when we did eat cold cereal. I stood in that kitchen thinking, “I can do this! What’s my next step?”
I rang the doorbell of our neighbor’s house and prayed he didn’t laugh at me. “Can I have a shoebox? I need one for school.” He handed me a shoebox and the look in his eyes was deep sadness. He probably didn’t know about my abuse, but he knew we were poor. I thanked him and ran home to make my diorama. I searched our house high and low for anything I could use.
My shoebox was full of leftover crap from my impoverished, yet super clean, house. We were poor, but Mom said it was no excuse to be dirty. This motto didn’t help my diorama, because there wasn’t a lot of junk to sift through for that artsy treasure. But I was proud of my project. And I had done it all by myself.
When I was a teacher, I was watching the halls during passing time. A student stopped to make conversation with me. “If you see any used shoes in my size, will you buy them for me? I can do some chores for you.” This kid never asked for anything. I looked at his feet. The soles of his shoes had fallen off and they were reattached with duct tape. One toe was peeking through. “A kid made fun of me. I bet all his shoes are brand new in shoeboxes.” He was one of my hardest workers, and I didn’t know until later that he took care of himself. When he didn’t finish his homework, it was because he didn’t have electricity. When we did a canned food drive, he asked a neighbor for a can of food to bring for the contest.
Dave and I went and bought shoes. I told Dave the box needed to be nice. Really nice. I left it with a counselor and told him to make up a story. Two days later, my student walked into class. “I won these shoes for being a good citizen! And they came in a box! I put my favorite stuff in the box, because it was too nice to throw away.”
I remembered my shoebox diorama this morning, after having a nightmare that I couldn’t find a shoebox for my dad’s parole hearing. They say your brain deals with trauma while you are asleep. Throw in pregnancy hormones, and I rarely go one night without a dream about my abuse. As I was lying in bed, thinking about that diorama, I started crying. Tears of joy. Dave was up changing diapers and making breakfast, after working hard all week to pay our bills. He straightened up the kitchen and took Graham outside. They were working on a project together. And I was cleaning up the house with the girls. The house I’ve lived in more than 10 years. We have box tape, but we use it to close the envelopes we’re mailing to our sponsored kiddos across the world. Some days, my life feels like I’ve been two different people. Then it dawns on me that I am a different person. And that God is redeeming the past, even when it doesn’t quite feel like it. And then I added “Make A Diorama” to Graham’s second semester curriculum.