What you once knew without thinking begins to clash with the evidence darting out at you from all around — from tv and movies and comic books and magazines, and even real life, like the way your mother oversmiles as she takes the crumpled green bills out of her fabric wallet and hands them to the department-store clerk to pay for the book, scarf, dress, hat, and kerchief that you need to join the Brownies. This is the moment when you discover that there are people out there who have things that you don’t have.
The excerpt above, archived in The Sun, reveals the author's "dawning of the realization of poverty, of being different." This internalized shame is a central theme in her 2010 book, which began as a collection of essays--four of them first appearing in the magazine. In her workshop Lefkowitz encouraged us to explore similar themes of shame around money and class--be it poverty or privilege--acknowledging there may also be "a lack of wealth in having it all, in materialism and its expectations."
During our reading of her piece followed by a brainstorming session, we considered that class isn't necessarily static or isolated; a personal story of class could be made more powerful if juxtaposed within the social strata. Some of my own experiences living with a divorced single mom on the edge of an upper-middle class milieu came to mind, such as my perception of never having "enough" wealth at my 1980s suburban middle school and Jewish summer camp. In my case, it was not the shame of real poverty that I experienced. But the social class I was surrounded by--with its emphasis on material excess, from leather-seated sports cars to fashion trends always out of reach--defined my self-worth and social status as lacking (and shameful) in comparison, which led to a painful and internalized sense of alienation and exclusion that lingered beyond high school.
a) Using the prompt 'the dawning of discovery that there was money,' write about your relationship with class as you became aware of it for the first time. You could describe your first job and paycheck or your parents arguing. Extrapolate a message you learned (to be careful with money, that you weren't worth the money, etc.). Write of several incidents that accumulate, choosing sensory details to describe them. What was your--or someone else's--revelation?
b) Write about what you are poor in. Talk about your poverty (the ways in which you yearn for things you do not have). Even if your material needs are provided for, perhaps 'poverty' permeates other areas of your life. How are you a 'have not'? What do you feel you'll never get enough of?
c) Write about what you are rich in. Brag about it. What 'club' are you part of? What do you belong to?