“Those Quirky Cues” – May 6, 2009

I’ve been thinking about cues.

I first read Ruby Payne’s “Framework for Understanding Poverty” years ago for an education class. The slim book argues that each economic station — poverty, middle class, and upper class — has its own set of rules and hidden social cues. Children born into poverty, the middle class, and into affluence, grow up knowing the particular rules of that station, and in order to move from one station to the next (e.g. poverty to middle class) children must be taught, explicitly, the rules of the “next” station: how to behave in certain situations, how to get certain resources, etc.

I think of “Gilmore Girls,” with Lorelei breaking all the rules, separating herself from her affluent parents and upbringing and deciding, instead, to raise her daughter according to middle-class values. According to Payne, while the affluent (read, more, “old money”) value the past and the middle class focus on the future (planning for, saving for), those in generational poverty value the present: the present is the only thing they can count on because the future is uncertain.

The book is fascinating. It’s just a framework, and so while I might not agree with everything she says, it’s meant only to be a way of looking at things. Any teacher who works in a poor district should read it: he or she must teach certain social cues — standing in line, being quiet, how to handle books — instead of berating children for lacking the “knowledge” that middle-class children have been taught since birth. (I put “knowledge” in quotes, there, because I don’t like what I connote there; I hate not finding the appropriate words!)

It’s Payne’s argument that the toughest part about moving out of poverty and decidedly into “middle class” is not the accumulation of wealth. It’s not about earning $50,000/yr instead of $10,000/yr; rather it’s obtaining the knowledge of those social cues. I think of my own upbringing. We didn’t have a lot of money: my mom stayed home with me and my brothers, while my dad worked in education. Our house was small, on a super-busy street, and waterbugs were frequently seen. My clothes were hand-me-downs. But both my parents were college-educated. We went to the library and were read to every night. We watched television, but only PBS shows, on occasion. It was only later, when my parents split and each worked fulltime, that we started getting more “stuff” and, financially, entered the middle class. But my brothers and I were taught those social cues from day one, independent of our financial situation.

Actually, what got me thinking about Payne’s book was an old post by Judith Warner on the New York Times website, “My Kind of Normal.”She writes about her own “weirdness” — demonstrated most recently by her failure to call a plummer about a dripping faucet (despite months of dripping and water waste) — and how she’s passing that weirdness onto her daughter. Her eleven-year-old daughter won’t wear Uggs and doesn’t like Zac Ephron: how weird and abnormal, Warner writes.

Warner discusses — in this post and others — her own tendency to overanalyze and overthink, and her own hypersensitivity. The comment section is full of people identifying with (and criticizing) her. I identify with her too, to an extent, and now that I’ve learned more of the social cues (due in no small part to my schooling, post high school, and the internet, that great equalizer), I can better appreciate my (or so I perceived at the time) outsider status during junior and senior high.

Is it wrong to hope that this economic downturn results in a shift in fortunes?  On the local news, which has a decidedly middle-class point of view, I saw a story the other day about families who, for the first time in their lives, have had to seek assistance, going to food banks, thrift stores, etc. They’ve had to access those same resources with which those in poverty are already familiar.  More are famliar, now, with what it’s like to be underwater, unable to save, plan for the future.  Maybe this will bring about greater understanding among more people.

Outside, my grass is about 10 inches tall. I have the option of mowing, taking care of some things around the yard, for a $25 reduction in my monthly rent. But I rent because the last thing I want to do is worry about things like mowing the lawn. I have enough trouble putting my clothes away each Sunday after doing the laundry. The yard looks extremely unkempt, and I wonder what the neighbors think; I should contact my landlord, but… I don’t.

Just like my bathrooom light that’s been out for about a month (my little step stool isn’t tall enough for me to safely change the lightbulb), I don’t care enough about it to do anything.  Is that weird?

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