I didn’t know what it meant to be poor until Mel came to school in her new Adidas tracksuit. Being the late nineties, sports and surfwear was all the rage. Mel bounced into school, thinking nothing of the envious eyes glued to her new threads – mine hardest of all. Mel had well-off grandparents who often showered their eldest grandchild in gifts, making her one of the luckiest – and, by extension, most popular – girls in school. I bawled my tiny eyes out later that night.
My poor parents. Imagine having to comfort an erratic, hysterical ten-year-old who can’t fathom why one girl gets all the Good Stuff and another does not. My parents made valiant attempts to explain to me how Mel simply lived differently than we did; how sometimes things just happened that way; how some families had nice cars with air-conditioning, houses with polished floorboards and name-brand Cola drinks in the fridge every day. As I sobbed inconsolably, I couldn’t understand why I didn’t get the things I wanted, things I thought would make me happy and popular and universally loved, as if those elements were all entwined and connected. Kid logic is a funny thing that way.
I can’t blame my parents for their class. As an adult, looking back, I can’t imagine what I might have done differently in their position as young, inexperienced parents with two competing, irrational, bratty children. After all, Dad was (is) a Lebanese immigrant trying to make a life in a new, competitive country, while Mum had jumped straight into marriage and kids as a young woman, missing out on the educational and emotional breaks that typically come with youth and adolescence. The benefit of hindsight shows that I ‘turned out’ fine, but for my parents it was an on-the-job learning experience – especially with me, the eldest.
As I sobbed inconsolably, I couldn’t understand why I didn’t get the things I wanted, things I thought would make me happy and popular and universally loved, as if those elements were all entwined and connected. Kid logic is a funny thing that way.
As much as the Australian Dream suggests we can rise above our station (rags to riches, battler to king, etc.), it’s incredibly hard to rise above a situation that dominates your entire being. When your only thoughts are about getting food on the table tomorrow, and making sure there’s enough petrol in the car for the school run this week, how can you even begin to think about putting money aside for that investment property we’re all supposed to be able to afford?
I recall drives with my mother and younger sister on blisteringly hot days. Her yellow Cortina barely ran, let alone functioned with any sort of cooling, so the windows were rolled all the way down. To assuage our jealousy towards more comfortable drivers, we would sneer and jeer at them in their shiny cars with rolled-up windows, icy cold air no doubt freezing their faces.
“Rich bastards, haha!”, “Yeah, bloody millionaires!”, we would laugh, turning off the ancient tape deck to cool down before the cassette inside turned into goo. Rolled-up windows in summer still make me think of all the pop tapes that melted in our glovebox.
Thanks to the lay-by system – one that secured our Christmas and birthday gifts every year – my parents eventually (and, now that I look back on it, foolishly) got me what I been crying for, an Adidas tracksuit. It was a god-awful affair: the bottoms were tights, not baggy pants as per the style of the time; the jacket was too short and small; and the colour could best be described as retina-singeing bright orange. I had leapt too quickly to become a cool kid and had fallen even further down the ladder.
Plus, by the time my parents had paid off the tracksuit set, Mel was arriving to school in baggy, light-denim Stussy jeans, chunky Etnies and boy band concert tees. I could never keep up. To my parents’ chagrin, the tracksuit was resigned to the back of the cupboard.
It’s amazing how easily children can muster cruelty, whether or not they’re aware of it. As well as physical appearance, intelligence and popularity ranking, poverty was high up on the ridicule list. If you were poor – even in my mostly working-class school – you were consistently mocked and taunted for your dishevelled appearance or off-brand recess snacks.
I still think it profoundly odd that anyone, let alone small children whose only worries should be getting in a full game of gutterball at lunch and snagging a strawberry Big M in their lunch order, should consider it a personal affront that another human being might not have a terribly expensive pencil case. It should be a point of sympathy, not derision, that a young person might see their schoolmates suffering. I don’t have children, but my friend’s kids all seem pretty sharp and emotionally intelligent, so hopefully the next generation will be a little kinder to their less-fortunate friends.
I only now realise how hard my parents tried: they would give me a gift on my sister’s birthday so I wouldn’t feel left out (and vice versa); while Mum would get us both a little something on payday, with such regularity that we rudely began requesting these tokens of affection, rather than happily accepting them. They were always the first to sacrifice and go without when funds were tight. I regret how ungrateful and demanding we could be. How manipulative we were at times, and how little we appreciated Mum pawning her jewellery when food money was low, or Dad working in a horrid sock-packing factory, just so we could drink Coke, not Cola.
Lisa Dib is a Melbourne writer and podcaster whose work appears in Daily Life, Sheilas, Junkee, Warp Magazine, Feminartsy and many others. She has also worked producing live comedy, hosting local radio programs and attempting to pat every single dog.