Growin’ Up Poor in Memphis

Memphis Bicycle 2My parents were ‘Depression babies’ born in 1931. Mom’s family managed to hang onto their farm in Missouri but Dad’s family lost their home in Detroit. Mom and Dad met at Concordia Teacher’s College in River Forest, Illinois, just outside Chicago. They were the first generation in their families to attend college.

We moved to Memphis in 1958 when I was 3. Dad was a teacher and later the principal of a Lutheran grade school. (Yes, being Lutheran in the South can get really weird. Nowadays, I’m Presbyterian and live in a neighborhood that’s predominantly Jewish and Irish Catholic.)

Memphis in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s still had vestiges of the Jim Crow South – White and Colored restrooms. Sharecropper shacks along Highway 61. Sanitation workers carrying mounds of refuse in a washtub on top of their heads. Mom and Dad, to their credit, raised us to not harbor prejudice; we were taught that all people are created in the image of God.

When we moved to Memphis, it was just my sister Lisa and me; we would eventually be joined by 5 other siblings. Supporting 7 children on a modest school teacher’s salary was a challenge, to say the least. We never lacked for basic necessities but wants were almost always put on hold. Mom was a fabulous cook but there were times that she would have to get really, really resourceful when there was more month than money. We wore hand-me-down clothing, rode hand-me-down bikes, rarely ate out. Vacations consisted of staying with either one set of grandparents or another. There was a nagging feeling, that I’m sure a many poor people feel: to be on the outside looking in.

For us kids, if we wanted something, we had to work to pay for it: dues for the boy scout troop, a bike, an occasional Coca Cola. I collected soft drink bottles in the neighborhood for the 2 cent deposit refund. When I turned 12 and was old enough to get a paper route, it was like hitting the lottery. I was earning $30 a month! Mowing lawns during the summer brought in additional income.

My high school was situated in a working class neighborhood. Teachers were very dedicated but resources thin and options limited. I marvel at the vast differences between my high school experience and those of my kids’ attending a public high school in the Philadelphia ‘burbs.

It was a forgone conclusion that my siblings and I were on our own when it came to college. At the urging of a high school math teacher, I applied for and got a scholarship at Memphis State’s Herff College of Engineering. The scholarship was $500 per year and almost covered tuition for two semesters. Most semesters, I worked part time while carrying a full academic load. I lived at home.

Two brothers and two sisters followed me to study engineering at Memphis State (now University of Memphis). Among us, we have one civil engineer, two mechanical engineers and two electrical engineers. For all of us, an engineering degree was a ticket to a better life. Upon graduation, we secured jobs with the likes of Procter and Gamble, Hewlett Packard and the National Security Agency.

Sadly, the city of Memphis still struggles economically. Its sister city Nashville has eclipsed it in population and economic growth. Today, Nashville gets mentioned in the same sentence as Austin and Charlotte while, Memphis gets mentioned in the same sentence as Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit.

I offer you the following lessons learned from Growing Up Poor in Memphis:

  • Whether rich or poor, parents need to model and teach frugality to their children.
  • Don’t indulge your children’s every whim. A child need to work for and set goals for attaining a portion of the things they want.
  • The oppression of poverty extends beyond lacking things. It is also a state of mind, that feeling of always “being on the outside looking in”.
  • A marketable college degree can still be a ticket to upward mobility. I dare say that selection of a college major is more important that the status of the educational institution.
  • Sadly, the cost of college has far out-paced the general cost of living. While being ever more essential for economic advancement, a college degree is increasing out of reach for many Americans.

© 2016 Paul J Reimold

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