Rising Above Poverty

There are sayings and proverbs that were tailor-made for the poor. One that I remember since I was a child growing up in Brazil is “the poor man’s bread always falls with the butter facing down.” This points to the belief that when you are down on your luck, chance doesn’t help. It almost resembles Jesus’ saying that “the one who has it, more will be added to him but the one who hasn’t, even what he has will be taken away from him.”  I never quite understood that but I guess it has to do with being good administrators of the goods entrusted to you.

But when you live meal to meal, there is not a whole lot to administrate.

I remember High School in Macapá, northern Brazil. I didn’t particularly like recess. I would usually stay in the classroom, quietly reading a book or just talking to a class mate. Since I was on the second floor of the building, I could look down and glance at the kids who had money to pay for snacks. Those were the kids whose parents had enough money to pay for private transportation to and from school. They wore the nice clothes and they had their own clique. They were white and looked sophisticated. Some of them had spent summers in Paris or New York. My world couldn’t be more remotely removed from theirs.

One of my classmates was the son of a wealthy military officer. He would come to class high on whatever it was he was consuming, cuss at the teachers and sleep off his hangover right through the lectures and exams. When he was awake, though, the girls swarmed him like bees. There was a rumor that he had killed someone in the town they lived in previously so their family had to relocate to our town. He didn’t look like the killer type to me but just to be sure I sat as far away from him as I possibly could.

Years later, I saw that guy at a church meeting in the Capital City, Brasilia. By then, he had probably littered other alleys with more corpses and maybe he had been close to dying himself. He had aged and looked tired, but he was singing praises to Jesus. He had found religion, after wasting most of his teens with sex, drugs, and other futilities. I think of him many times and wonder whether his wealth was the main reason he erred. Or was it simply parental neglect, who knows?

So back to the perpetual pessimism of the poor. I never wore new clothes, all the way through my teens. I bought my first new pair of jeans when I was in college — with my own money! I wore rubber shoes that in the heat of summer made my feet feel like a volcano and smell like dead mice. At times, we didn’t have toothpaste growing up. I remember my dad telling us to brush with soap a time or two. We would squeeze every “drop” of the paste from the tube, usually cutting opening the tube and swabbing it with the toothbrush to use the paste to the fullest, thus maximizing the resource. I was an environmentalist back then and didn’t know it.

To this day, when I make soup or prepare a mix from an envelope, I put the open envelope under the faucet, let water run inside and rinse it to get the last scoop of the content so nothing goes to waste. That’s why my hot chocolate tastes so good! I also try to eat everything I put on my plate even if it doesn’t taste that good. I don’t believe in wasting food.

Back in those days I couldn’t escape the trappings of poverty. I smelled like dust from walking everywhere. My clothes advertised need. My shoes melted in my feet. My teeth got pulled and not filled. Just about the only thing that didn’t immediately give me away as being among the poor was my mind. Early on I knew that people could choose to laugh at me for the way I looked. They could refuse to invite me to eat their lunch. They could shout names at me from their car. But they couldn’t stop me from developing my mind, from cultivating my intelligence, from dreaming about a better future.

And finally, when the time was right, it was my ability to think, my thirst for learning, my willingness to apply myself to the rigors of academia, that served as my ticket to the kind of life I enjoy today, with God’s help.

So the bottom line is, even if culture and language is filled with images of self-doubt about a poor person ever making it in life, as long as you refuse to believe the pessimism, you will have a chance to rise above all the predictions about yourself.

Ivanildo C. Trindade