When I think of my childhood, I remember love and drama, my alcoholic daddies, a hard-working mother and lots of football.
Sports was our out, I guess, as it is for so many. It's a way to win, or at least pray and root for a win, when other things aren't going so well. There is no real secret why sports--perhaps the ultimate diversion--is so important to communities in trouble. Sports can help you forget, at least for a little while.
I'd planned to write about my love of football for this annual issue (which Bryan Flynn is singlehandedly knocking out of the park, to mix my sports metaphors). I've been thinking about screaming until I was hoarse at Neshoba Central football games; then later going near-deaf amid all the cowbells we State students rang throughout entire football games, often right here at Memorial Stadium.
Thinking of football inevitably reminds me of my stepdad who never had children of his own; I became his "son" when it came to sports. He loved all sports as much as my real daddy loved baseball before he died when I was 8. I remember my stepdad cheering in the stands during games and halftime shows when I wore my white go-go boots and twirled my flag. I could always pick out his voice.
He loved me dearly, and tried, but he couldn't afford to take care of me (although he liked to buy cars we couldn't afford, steeping us in debt). My real dad, although loving and lovable, could not provide, either. By the time I came along, he couldn't keep a job due in no small part to his alcoholism and bad health.
When my real dad died, it was hard for my mother and me. We lived in a house his brother's construction company had built us, but we had to pay for it. My mother worked in a pants factory by day, and my grandmother took care of me when Mama was gone. There were never any savings. My people didn't grow up among people who had enough money to save. It was always hand-to-mouth, day-by-day, week-by-week.
I remember my mother rolling up nickels to buy me an Easter basket and how hard we had to save to afford my NCHS class ring.
The odds were against me breaking out of that cycle, especially since my stepfather would prove so difficult for us. His troubles always meant a series of debts, stuff we couldn't pay for, and living in a series of mobile homes and apartments. There was a house in there I loved and paid for by cooking and scrubbing pizza pans at Pasquale's in the 10th grade, but my mother gave it up when I was in high school to move back in with my stepdad--into a trailer he had bought. Love isn't always smart.
But through it all, I had a small safety net. When my father died, I started drawing a Social Security check. The money helped me get through school and put food on our table at times. It helped me afford the go-go boots and my flute. It made a childhood better than my parents' possible even with its imperfections.
When it came time for college, I didn't want to go down the road to East Central Junior College, as it was called then, like so many people I knew were doing if they were going to college at all. I wanted to attend a university, meet new people, learn stuff, see the world. I desperately wanted to leave Mississippi--closed attitudes were wearing on me hard--but I just couldn't afford to.
But my eyes were big enough to believe I could go "straight to State," as we called skipping junior college and moving to Starkville. Tuition was low by today's standards, but I didn't have the money. But I got lucky and got a $1,000-a-year John C. Stennis Scholarship in political science. It might as well have been a MacArthur grant as far as I was concerned.
It wasn't enough, though, especially since my mother's health was failing, and she needed my help. So I managed to go to Mississippi State on the scholarship, federal grants, my daddy's Social Security check and a series of jobs, mostly secretarial. (I type like a maniac.) Over the summers, I would work in pizza or fast-food joints as needed. I managed to keep my car up and send a little money home to Mama--a remarkable woman whose life had been crippled because her daddy had never enrolled her for a day of school. Not one. She had to cook for the men who worked the fields.
That meant she couldn't read or write or help her kids with homework--but it also meant she wanted the best for us and was willing to teach us to count pennies, save Green Stamps, work more than one job at a time as needed and fill the holes with whatever government help we could get. This was about survival and giving me chances she never had.
She gave me my grit. She urged me to find educated mentors, and to find time for activities like band, even though we couldn't afford it. Like my stepdad, she showed up at football games and screamed in support of me--even if she wouldn't have known what to say in a parent-teacher conference. I couldn't have asked for a better mother.
But, and please understand this, she could not have lifted me to a different place and given me a better life on her own, despite her determination. We needed government help to eat sometimes, much less put me on a meritocratic path for an Ivy League master's degree some day, as well as research fellowships and any chance of owning and running my own newspaper. Brains aren't enough when your often-single mother can't make ends meet.
These memories have tempered my enthusiasm this year for "football season"--which to me means everything about my beloved autumn--due to all the contempt we're now hearing toward people who need welfare to get by, or food stamps to eat, or grants to attend college. I can't stop thinking about the cruelty and selfishness of Rep. Paul Ryan, in particular--a man who also drew Social Security checks after his father died, who used grants to go to college, whose family got wealthy off government contracts.
What helped Ryan, though, he doesn't want to remain for other young people--even kids like him and me who also want a piece of the American dream, but need to afford shoes before they have bootstraps to pull on.
On behalf of all the Americans who got where we are thanks to government help, I am embarrassed and saddened at the ignorant, hateful way so many people now treat the poor. It is contempt and, with Ryan, sheer hypocrisy. I can't imagine paying back a society that helped me by adopting such an attitude: I've got mine, so screw the rest of you.
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