“I’m poor. You’re rich.”
It started in ESL class when I was haphazardly throwing around one of my new Spanish phrases. As a joke, I said “Dame tu dinero” to one of my students, and she playfully responded back, “I can’t. I’m poor.” I laughed and nodded in agreement: “Yeah, me too.” This became a sticking point for her, however, as she kept telling me, “No, I’m poor. You’re rich.” I remained adamant that I wasn’t rich, offering as a closing point to our lighthearted interaction, “OK, we’re both poor,” but I could tell that she remained skeptical.
It continued out on the Painted Turtle Farm when her son and another boy tried to say I owed them money for all the goals they scored on me in soccer. It was again a comical interaction, but my student definitely wanted to make sure that the two boys weren’t expecting money from me anytime soon. She was explaining to them that they had to drop the idea, and meanwhile I went back to the old standby: “I can’t give you money. I’m poor.” “If you’re poor,” one of the boys joked, “why isn’t your shirt ripped?” “If you’re poor,” the other continued, “how come you have a car?” While the first question was clearly ridiculous, I answered the second one without thinking: “My parents bought it for me.” A look shot on my student’s face that clearly showed the privilege she saw me as having, and I tried to justify myself by marking that the car was cheap and falling apart, but it was a foolish effort. I noticed back in class that when she mentions her status as poor, especially when she says, “I am not rich,” she will look at me without fail.
Despite the levity contained within all of these conversations, I’ve felt a serious discomfort as to how to react in these situations. While I went into ESL classes with a careful eye towards my and my students’ linguistic disparities, I regretted to acknowledge our different economic situations. When I’m on campus, I feel poor in comparison to the majority of students, which makes sense considering the affluent status of the college overall. But the fact that my parents don’t put extra dining dollars on my ID card doesn’t give me a free pass to claiming impecuniousness. Yes, I always buy clothes that are on sale, and I spend a long time in the grocery store pouring over the price per pound of chicken cutlets versus chicken breasts in order to save myself about sixty cents, but I do so from an entirely different standpoint than my students. I am a young college kid trying to milk the most out of a bank account built up from intermittent part time jobs, and I’m saving my money so that I can blow it all on a trip abroad for which my school essentially pays. I may not personally feel rich, but my student is damn right to call me that from her perspective.
But what I respect most is that while my student clearly wants to differentiate her status from mine, she in no way means to create any distance between us. We took a trip to Mr. G’s after our most recent ESL class, and this very same student paid for my and the other interns’ ice cream. I protested, of course, but she was adamant. In one respect, this can be read as her appreciation of our help in learning English. But I think it can additionally be read as a mark of pride–a way of showing that though she may consider herself poor, she does not consider herself helpless. Middle- and upper-class adults would have made the same offer to a group of college students, and why can’t she do the same? And I need to continue interacting with this student from a perspective that includes but does not become oppressed by the economic disparity between us.
Darren Spirk ’16