I slipped into my matte black Mary Janes, and my sisters and I made the 10-minute walking journey to school. Inside the school, kindergartners-to-eighth-graders donned the same navy blue bottoms and white button-down tops. We ate the same breakfast and lunch, both free to us. In Chicago public schools, where about 80 percent of neighborhood schools have a mandatory school uniform policy, we didn’t wear our socioeconomic status. Some kids were known for sports, some for their jokes, and I for winning the young authors’ contest. None of us, though, had a uniform fancier, prettier or more important than the other.
Some years, when my feet and legs were growing faster than expected and my sister’s hand-me-down uniform skirts couldn’t keep up, I got a few new uniform pieces. I didn’t know that kids in middle-to-high-income areas were shopping for entirely new wardrobes before school each year. And I didn’t know that we couldn’t, even if we had to, because we were poor. I didn’t know that there were social standings related to how much money your family made, and I didn’t learn we fell near the bottom of those standings until we moved.
I walked into my new sixth-grade classroom with my braided hair sitting high in a scrunchie, my favorite shirt — a hand-me-down “Flintstones” tee that I had happily picked out of a box of clothes donated to us earlier that year — and my one pair of blue jeans. I read judgment in the eyes of my new classmates who had learned a skill I hadn’t yet acquired. They knew how to measure my socioeconomic status with one quick head-to-toe scan. I didn’t feel shiny and new. Suddenly, what I was wearing was telling my life’s story.
I went home that day and rifled through the pile of clothes that belonged to me. The blue jeans were a fail today, but I had a pair of black jeans that were passed down to me by my older sister. Maybe they would tell a different story the next day. I spent the first 15 minutes of that next morning spray-starching and ironing my black jeans until I created the perfect crease.
“Well, now they look like shiny leather pants,” my oldest sister remarked without looking up from her Walkman.
She noticed it, too. She noticed that here our clothes were a mark of poverty, and so she got a job at the burger place across the street to buy her own. A few years later, so did I. In high school, I worked 15 hours a week to buy myself the low-rise jeans, flouncy tops and chunky sandals and boots that wouldn’t give me away as poorer than my peers. I reeked of french-fry oil and hamburger meat, but expressing yourself with graphic tees and designer tracksuits wasn’t free.
When my first son was of school age I was still poor, and as a young single mom even more so. I celebrated his first year of school with a shopping spree. New shorts, new shirts, new shoes and a new backpack. Determined to hide his status as a poor black boy to a single mom, I moved around whatever bills I could just to buy him the best, sending myself into a months-long game of catch-up with the utility companies. He quickly outgrew things, and I started the vicious cycle of spending money I didn’t have again the next year. The poverty and deprivation had followed me into adulthood. Even after I finished my college degree and started my first real job with real pay, I carried the residual effects of being poor with me. Finally, my son, old enough to pick out his own clothes on our back-to-school shopping sprees, pointed out sweatpants and plain T-shirts.
“Is that what you want?”
“It’s comfortable,” he said.
And finally, I realized that he had not inherited the shame I felt preparing to go back to school while poor. That was our last shopping spree. When a shirt or a pair of pants or shorts doesn’t fit anymore, we wash it and drop it off at his choice of charity, often the Salvation Army. Then we replace them. Throughout the year, as items age out and develop holes in the knees, we buy those pieces here and there as needed. We don’t break our monthly budget to buy the appearance of a social status. I’d like to believe, even, that we are contributing in a small way to a changing culture that says it’s okay to come back to school with the same backpack from last year. If the same shoes fit and are clean, wear them on the first day.
As my husband and I prepare to send our littlest one off to his first day of preschool, we plan to buy him a new outfit to mark the occasion and take Instagram-worthy photos. Thankful for what we have, we want to celebrate special moments with our boys without giving them the sense that money and expensive items are what make those moments worthwhile. Most important, I take pleasure in knowing my children are comfortable in all the ways that matter.
Kelly Glass is a freelance writer whose interests focus on the intersections of parenting, mental health, race and diversity. She lives in Illinois with her educator husband and two children. Follow her on Twitter.