My first week of teacher inservice was completely overwhelming. I knew no one and had no earthly idea or money to prepare my first classroom. I was hearing conflicting job descriptions in regards to what my day would look like and was disheartened to hear that even though I was starting work in August, I would not receive my first paycheck until September 25th! See, I was naïve to the knowledge that teachers get paid once a month. And new teachers, don’t see that first paycheck until the end of September. How was I going to make $78 dollars stretch that far? Especially when I had so many needs.
Just don’t think about it, I told myself. If you ignore the problem it will go away.
Food’s not that important…plus, you could stand to drop a few pounds anyway. This will be good. You’re just going on a diet for a month. Maybe your stomach will shrink, and you won’t need to buy many groceries anyway.
You don’t need paper towels, you have nothing to make a mess with. No mess, no cleanup.
Dish soap? If you have no food, you have no dishes to wash. You can do without that too.
Toilet paper…? I would have to be creative with that one. I would have to find a way to make my small supply stretch.
Shampoo and body wash? It’s better for your hair to skip daily washes. Maybe I could stretch my shampoos to three or four days. And my half empty bottle of body wash…I could dilute it so that I had more to work with. Adding a little water to your soap can’t hurt anything.
Now gas, that was another story. I had to have gas to get to and from work. Fortunately, my commute was about 10 minutes, and my Honda Accord got decent mileage. But, I wasn’t sure how much money to set aside for my gas budget. Gas was not something I could make stretch. When my tank was on E, there was no ignoring that. I would have to limit my driving as much as possible. I set aside $40 for gas. Hopefully that would cover it.
That left me with $38 dollars. $38 dollars left from the check my father wrote me. Most of it dedicated to the rent due next week. I had nothing left for furniture. My living room remained a giant empty room. No couch, no dining room table, no chairs. I had one small, beat up, end table that served as a place to house my keys and purse next to the door. My dining options were to eat standing up in the kitchen, hovering over the sink or sit on the floor and use this strange, short, long table. Since sitting on the hardwood and scrunching down wasn’t very comfortable, I opted for kitchen sink hovering. On the rare occasions that I did eat.
In the bedroom, I used an old comforter that my parents brought that was mine from 8thgrade to make a pallet on the floor. Being that it was nine years old, it had an unpleasant distinct scent to it, and was lumpy. But if I folded it just right, I could match the lumps to the spaces with sparse cushioning so that it was almost flat. The old lumpy pillow with a different distinct smell had to be older than the comforter. I was able to fold and bunch it in a certain way so that it felt like my head and neck were supported. A small, decorative aquamarine blanket was used as my covering while I slept. The blanket was much too small for my long legs. So I would turn the blanket in more of a diamond shape, draw my knees close to my chest and tuck my feet in. Not the most ideal way to sleep, but it worked.
The shower had no shower curtain, so a towel next to the dual shower/tub sufficed to catch all the excess water that splashed out. It also doubled as a bath mat for when I stepped out of the shower. I had two towels. One for the floor, one for my body and hair. Washing them frequently was a problem, because I had no washer and dryer. The apartment complex had a laundry room, but it was expensive, and not in my tight budget. $1.75 to wash and $1.75 to dry? Plus, I had no laundry detergent. So that wasn’t an option. Instead, I would draw a bath, soak the towels in the tub, and scrub them down with my diluted body wash. Then hang them on the shower rod to dry out.
Kendrae’s apartment that he shared with two roommates was equipped with a washer and dryer, but I didn’t have the gas money to make the 15-minute drive every other day to wash my two towels. No, in about two weeks, after I had worn everything in my extremely limited closet, I would have to make the drive to his apartment to do my laundry. Then I could throw the towels in too, to get the thorough wash they so desperately needed.
Kendrae grasped that I didn’t have much, but I didn’t let him in on the severity of my living situation. In fact, because he was fearful of my parents, he did not want to step foot in my apartment. Which, honestly, was a relief. For one, I wasn’t entirely sure the place wasn’t under surveillance. So him staying away was to our benefit. And secondly, I didn’t want anyone to know how much I was struggling, especially Kendrae. He was going to school full-time and working as a Kroger cashier. He had to pay his own bills and was on an equally tight budget. I knew if he saw how much I lacked, he would insist on helping. But I knew he wasn’t in a position to do so. No, it was best if I kept my living arrangements to myself.
The first week of school wasn’t as wild as I anticipated. I spent most of the first few days familiarizing myself with paperwork, shifting student schedules around and praying no one asked me any personal questions. I was exhausted from being forced to live such an extreme façade the past few months just to survive. Now that I had taken a step away from that situation, I wanted to practice being myself. Or at least finally having a slight bit of freedom to rediscover who I was. So I kept my head down, and tried to keep conversations with others as surface level as possible. I smiled a lot and was always polite, but I learned how to avoid talking about myself or any facet of my life.
Under less extreme circumstances, I am drawn to people. I love human-to-human connections and feed off of other’s energy. But I was embarrassed. I was mortified at the thought of telling someone that I wasn’t close with my family. What was even more intimidating was trying to describe our relationship with one another. Estranged? Ex-communicated? Ostracized? Complicated? All adjectives that would just prompt further questions that I didn’t want to or know how to answer.
I ate my lunch in my classroom by myself because I was embarrassed at my lack of food. I didn’t want to raise any concern over my three crackers for lunch. Plus, lunch rooms can foster conversations about one’s personal life, so it was best if I just hid out in my room. I would just explain that I needed some down time or that I would be working through lunch if I was ever invited to eat with the others.
Once September 25throlled around, I would be fine. If I could just make it to that first paycheck, my living circumstances would improve. I could buy a mattress, half-way stock my pantry, buy a shower curtain. Then each month I would slowly furnish the rest of my apartment. I would purchase a table so I could sit down to eat. Then a couch so I could actually use my living room. Oh, and internet! I couldn’t wait to have internet installed. I could transition to my own cell phone plan so I could ditch that burner phone. Get on my own car insurance so I could be fully independent and earn the freedom I deserved.
I looked down at the large, free desk calendar gifted to all the JMS teachers and exhaled as I focused on the date: September 3rd. 21 more days until I got paid. How was I going to make my last few dollars stretch that far? I could feel my heart beating faster and the blood rush to my cheeks. My typical meat locker of a classroom suddenly felt like the outside Texas heat.
The question reverberated in my head again: how was I going to make my last few dollars stretch that far? My gas light was on and my pantry was bare. I had no necessary toiletries. The fact that I only had $14 remaining was starting to truly sink in. My throat was expanding and taking a breath transformed into an arduous task. Before breaking into a full-on panic attack, I pushed all my worries into the furthest back crevice of my brain. Worrying will get you nowhere, I chided myself. Plus, I didn’t have the time right now. I was due at the first staff meeting of the school year.
The meeting started off like you would expect a first-of-the-year-staff meeting to go. The room was filled with, happy you’re here’s, we’re going to have a great years, and are you as tired as I am after only a week and a half? The kum ba ya was interrupted as the principal called my name out loud. Again, the blood rushed to my cheeks and I’m certain I looked like a sunburnt strawberry. I stood up, mortified, as I was beckoned to a table displayed in front of the entire staff. Two more names were called and the trio of new teachers were awkwardly standing in front of the room.
Then, in a gesture I’ll never forget, Mr. Mitchell presented us with a new teacher care package. He stated, that everyone knows how difficult it can be to be a teacher. Especially when you’re just starting out and waiting for your first paycheck. So JMS wanted to help us out in a small way and gift us some vital necessities. All three new teachers were given two tote sacks with grocery store and essential items inside.
I was instantly embarrassed. Could they tell I was that hard up? Did someone notice my lack of lunch or heavily repeated attire? Was it plastered across my forehead? All I could do was smile nervously and embrace the kind gesture. I may have felt humiliated, but I wasn’t too proud to accept the offering. I needed it more than I was willing to admit.
I left the staff meeting hoping that my face hadn’t given me away. My cheeks were flushed and warm to the touch of my hand. Just smile big enough and no one will know. The mantra that ruled my life. Smile and nod. That method had been my go-to move for just about everything. Who could blame me, it had about at 98% success rate.
Back in my empty apartment, I set the sacks on my poor excuse of a dining room table. If I was honest with myself, I had to get over any insecurities about accepting this gift. Could they have just been trying to help out struggling new teachers? We all had received the items; I wasn’t singled out. Just be grateful, Sarah. You are working at a school that cares about the well-being of their staff.
As I unloaded the bags, I couldn’t suppress the tears. Four rolls of paper towels, eight rolls of toilet paper, trash bags, Lysol wipes, household cleaner and more food than I had eaten the whole last week. I was overcome with humility and gratitude. All of my major needs were taken care of. These people that I barely even knew and I had purposely been trying to avoid eye contact with, had come together and taken care of me. They had provided for me in my most crucial needs, ones I hadn’t even expressed. Crossing my legs on the floor as I rested my back against the kitchen cupboard, I closed my eyes as the waves of kindness washed over me. Thank you, I expressed aloud. And my words echoed through the empty apartment and through my heart.
I learned that “just enough” is still ENOUGH. I may not have had a mattress, a full gas tank, or even a full stomach. But I had a heart, overflowing.
*Actual photo of my gift bag my first year at Judson Middle School. September 4, 2014.
Author’s Note: As I sat and wrote this post, one message hung around the forefront of my mind. So I want to leave you with this thought as it has proven its autonomy in my life over and over. Financial wealth does not equate favor. Let me say it again. Financial wealth DOES NOT equate favor. When stuck in the middle of a circumstances that seem overwhelming, do not believe the lie that if you were on the right path, you should have smooth sailing with money rolling in. If I had taken my absolute lack of any material items as the compass for being on the right path, I would have turned and sprinted the other way.
Allowing material possessions and money in the bank to determine your validity, your direction, and your favor will only leave you empty. Money does not equal fulfillment. Money does not equal good life choices. Money does not equal happiness. I am not saying that possessing money is bad. But using money as lighthouse in the middle of the fog to guide your ship into the harbor will only end with a crash into the rocks.
Looking back, it was in this stage of financial famine that I felt the most fulfilled. It sounds backwards, but in my dire need, I was forced to rely only on the one true guiding Light. If I had taken my lack of money as any indication that I had made the right decision, I would be poorly mistaken. But instead, I continued to step forward in faith and have been reassured again and again and again that while the path I am walking is not easy, I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. So next time you find yourself in a phase of famine, take heart because it may just mean that you are precisely where you’re supposed to be.