I was a free lunch kid. Although I never knew there was a free lunch program. My mother sent a note to my teacher, asking if there were chores I could do to earn my free lunch. I dusted erasers, swept, washed black boards. I don’t know how my lunch was paid for before, but by the time I was in fifth grade, the shame set in. I remember my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. McKee. She seemed as uncomfortable as me.
My way of saying thank you has been to never complain about paying taxes. I remember once, a random guy on work break saying he hated paying social security, that he personally would never get to claim that retirement, because the government took the money and used it for other things. I said to him, “You know, I don’t mind paying my share, even if I don’t get the benefits. Maybe the portion I pay in goes to help my grandparents, who live on their Social Security retirement. They have nothing else. If that is the only way I can contribute to my parents and grandparents, or to future recipients, I’m okay with that.”
High school was better. After my father died, my mother got a social security check from his benefits. I may not have had lunch money every single day, but we had enough. I was the first in my family to go to college. I had a scholarship, a student loan, and a Pell Grant. I worked. It took several years to pay back the loans. I simply don’t know how to pay back all the support and sacrifice my family gave to me. When I published my first book, I inscribed a copy to my mother, trying to thank her for all she had done, the example she set. I remember writing that she was my hero. I remember my older brother, a long distance trucker, stopping in my college town, meeting him at a truck stop, and he gave me fifty dollars. I remember my sister Jean, who worked at the local newspaper, helping me type a research paper during a break in the summer session. We edited and wrote, while shelling peas all day for our mother. It was typed on a manual typewriter. I will always remember.
I am grateful for a nation that makes a way for people, kids like I was, poor, not quite in the welfare system, not quite out of it. I will always remember that this is a great country, that we have always looked out for the least among us. Having been one of the least, I am proud to now give back in the only way I can, through taxes, through voting. I consider it the least I can do for a country that always remembers the least among us. Out of many, one. In a larger sense, this nation that I love was built from the least from other countries, the tired, poor, hungry, wretched refuse from other shores. We took those tired, hungry poor, and here they became railroad workers, teachers, firemen, policemen, settlers, farmers, explorers, engineers, scientists, entrepeneurs, and they built this country for us.
This country is not perfect. We allowed slavery. We decimated entire native populations, we once fought a civil war. No, this country is far from perfect. But from its roots, from its birth, it has always stood for the individual freedoms. “To form a more perfect union” is the foundational statement of this nation. To strive for perfection, to see what a person can make of themselves with their own two hands.
Yes, I was born here, white, poor, female. I don’t think that makes me any more worthy of what this country offers than immigrants from other countries, nor does it make me less worthy than white, privileged males. It makes me equal, and being here, a part of this country, should make us all equal. I get so tired of fighting against those who try to make this country less than it is. Smaller, meaner, enclosed. That is not how this country came into being, it is not how it grew, and it is not what we are. Register to vote. Educate yourself. And vote. It should be a requirement. It’s one of the greatest things you can do to repay the country. Participate in its democracy. Be its democracy.