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A letter to a poor child

Heartland author Sarah Smarsh’s heartbreaking and moving letter to the children society says “aren’t worth much”

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By Sarah Smarsh on

Child, you are priceless.

Your mom was a teenager when she carried you.

Your dad smells like oil and sweat.

Many of the people you love chew tobacco, curse, spit on the sidewalk, use English in a way your teacher says is wrong.

You ride in the front of the car without a seat belt, your sweaty back against the cigarette-burned upholstery of an old car, your young grandmother steering through the cracked parking lot of a discount day-old bakery. Your feet dangle out a window opposite the one from which your grandma’s cigarette smoke unfurls.

For all these reasons, society says you are not worth much. You were born into a place where survival requires labor, and productivity is the first value. Such a life will be scrutinised for justification by employers, the government, courts of law, culture – all concerned with whether you’ve earned your keep.

Look at the grown-ups in your community: welfare applicants, legless war veterans, highway beggars, old ladies waiting for half-off Wednesday at the thrift store because Social Security checks only go so far. You’re too young to know about the systems and history that failed them but old enough to discern the popular consensus that they failed themselves. They’re called lazy. Moochers. A burden to society. They’re at the very bottom of something, trod over as the dirt at the bottom of a ladder, cast off as dregs at the bottom of a barrel.

You were born an arm’s reach above them in matters of earthly security – close enough to see them at your own family Christmas and to feel the threat of falling to their fate with your every decision.

Some people enjoy lives in which relative wealth is assured and one’s worth isn’t questioned. They have a bit of money in the bank, and its value gets conflated with their own. A lot of these people work hard, but in a different way. To maintain, to keep up, to advance, maybe. But not to eat.

You have been taught to feel incredulous rather than envious. In that way, you were born into a great blessing: freedom from materialism in a place where a dependable car is more valuable than a shiny one, because shiny never got anyone to work.

Eventually, you’ll hear the term stated outright on a television show you’re watching with the innocent, unarticulated hope to see yourself dignified in popular culture: White trash

Some people long for shiny things and give their lives reaching for them, you’ll see later. They reach, you’ll hear, up some “ladder” of so-called class. In the system the metaphor describes, there is rich, then richer and then richer still. The ladder thus has a definite bottom but no top. You’ll picture the ladder you climb to help your dad tear shingles off roofs. Anyone who ever worked a roof knows that climbing an endless ladder would be worse than staying on the ground.

But the ground itself has troubles. It can be a sort of quicksand where staying put means getting dragged down. You’ll want to move that ladder to solid earth – to acquire the bit of economic, social and cultural capital that might let you stop climbing and let go of the rungs altogether. Then you’ll have achieved the American Dream. Not the one about climbing economic ranks but the original one: to be free.

In the meantime, the world can’t see you, though you don’t yet know why. You’re the poor people’s child, promised a certain sort of life: bad grades because school doesn’t matter, a baby inside you when you’re still a kid, too little knowledge because college is expensive, too much booze because work is hard. There’s a term for that version of your future. You’ll hear the suggestion of it in the scornful voice of a teacher whose approval you covet, or of a little boy with nice jeans whose hand you hope to hold. Eventually, you’ll hear the term stated outright on a television show you’re watching with the innocent, unarticulated hope to see yourself dignified in popular culture:

White trash.

In fact, your value is immense, and thus a false analogy is the throat-gripping frustration of your life.

The same people who would call you trash will eat bread made of the wheat crops waving outside your bedroom window – the green winter wheat over which pilots smile and wave at you while you run in their chemical mist, the gold summer wheat from which you pull stalks of invasive rye with your hands. Come harvest, you’ll swim in winnowed wheat kernels in the wood-sided beds of mid-century wheat trucks before the grown-ups drive them to the small-town grain elevator. You help make the bread that people with more money eat, and this seemingly undesirable life – full of charms the wealthy don’t know about, but a hard row all the same – will make you in their eyes dispensable, like a plastic Rainbo wrapper for their sustenance.

So, while you’re working hard to move the ladder to a safer place where you might jump off, you must believe precisely the opposite of what the world tells you now. Believe the opposite of what low wages will tell you when you join the workforce, of what movies will tell you when they lampoon the people and places you love as caricatures and fools. Your hands and mind will do the work, but this is the faith that will move them.

There are millions of children like you, all priceless. Maybe it’s not the harvesting of wheat they know but the wiping of restaurant tables after hours, the trimming of branches over another family’s suburban lawn, the wringing of brown water from their mother’s cleaning rags in a quiet motel room. They too were born into labor. They too will learn about the hardest of work to survive, both the pride and humiliation that come with it. Where you and they end up will have nothing to do with actual worth and everything to do with the values society assigns. You drew a good hand in intellect, health and gumption. But I may as well be speaking to all those children.

You’re on your knees praying tonight to survive a reality that feels all wrong, as you do every night before you lie awake for hours with difficult thoughts and scary shadows. You think you’re alone in all the ways that matter to a child, and you are correct. The way you pray is out loud, quiet and grand, in off-the-cuff monologues that amount to a plea for help and a promise you’ll do the work to deserve it. You think someone can hear you, and you’re right.


Heartland by Sarah Smarsh is out now from Scribe

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