Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Erin Murphy's Voice

Dear Mitt Romney,

“You can fall in love with a rich man just as easily as you can fall in love with a poor man.”

These words of wisdom were imparted to us girls by our 7th-grade social studies teacher, Mrs. B. It was 1980. I was being raised by a single mother who taught high school English in the inner city by day and tended bar at the Rainbow Inn by night. She didn’t have a rich man—or any man—to supplement her $13,000 annual salary.

I can still picture my mother at the kitchen table, the tower of bills rivaling the stack of student papers waiting to be graded. We lived in a two-bedroom ranch house, with the dining area closed off to serve as my brother’s room. It was a struggle to keep even this modest roof over our heads. At one point, my mother came close to taking a third job as a live-in nanny for a wealthy widower who took frequent business trips. Our family of three would have shared his attic while his teenage daughters slept beneath us in their French Provincial canopy beds.

We more than qualified for free school lunches. At home, we had a brick of government cheese donated by my grandmother. It was not unusual for us to eat sugar sandwiches: sugar-sprinkled butter slathered on week-old white bread from the bakery thrift store. We’d stretch one pot of potato soup over six straight dinners. My mother used to joke that paper towels were a luxury.

I’m not trying to sound like Steve Martin from The Jerk, a popular movie from that era: “I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin' on the porch with my family, singin' and dancin' down in Mississippi...” But we were poor. It wasn’t because my mother saw herself as a “victim” or “entitled.” It was because she didn’t make enough money.

I could write a book about my mother’s devotion to her students—how she’d stay after school to help kids complete college applications, how she’d nominate students for life-changing scholarships, how she’d drive them four hours to academic enrichment camps because their parents didn’t have cars, how her former students still write to her to say what a difference she made in their lives, frequently enclosing photos of their own children in caps and gowns. Yet Mitt Romney would have looked at her tax returns and declared that she needed “to take personal responsibility and care for [her life].”

My mother didn’t marry a rich man, and, unlike Romney, she didn’t have rich parents. Perhaps my 7th-grade teacher can be forgiven for her dated advice to pre-teen girls. But a prospective President of the United States cannot be forgiven for dismissing nearly half of our country’s citizens.

 -- Erin Murphy

Erin Murphy is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Word Problems (Word Press, 2011). She teaches English and Creative Writing at Penn State Altoona. She and her husband (who is Rich but not rich) have four children.