She lived just down the street from my church. Her house was shot-gun style – front and back door lined up – and the siding was bare wood, the paint long ago lost to rain and wind. The front porch stood on cinder blocks, a couple feet off the ground.
Her name was Sonya, and she was a big girl – not in the euphemistic way – but in the literal way. She was very tall, and her shoulders were broad. She had short ash-blonde hair and round cheeks. She was my friend.
One day, I heard something about Sonya, about how she had been stabbed to death. I was in 8th grade, and so hysteria swept through me on the tide of hormones. Sonya was dead.
I told my mom, and she asked around at church. No one knew anything. No one at my church knew Sonya – she’d never been, even though I’m sure my best friend Mary and I must have asked her. Church was our primary social ground. As the pastor’s daughter, Mary lived there, and as the choir director’s daughter, I practically did. So when we asked people to church, it was kind of like inviting people over to play, the way church should be.
But Sonya never came, and no one from church ever went to her, it seems. No one knew the story of Sonya’s life . . . or her death.
Now, from 25 years later, as I look back, I realize Sonya’s family was desperately poor. I know the signs of it – the unpainted house, the sheen of second-hand clothes, the averted eyes or glancing stares that come with unpainted houses and second-hand clothes. Now, I know what poverty and the judgment of poverty look like.
But I didn’t then. I didn’t know Sonya was poor. It never occurred to me to think about it. In fact, I didn’t realize that most of my classmate’s in elementary school were poor, some desperately so. In the mountains of North Carolina, poverty is the norm for many people who have lived there for generations, but that’s something I know from sociology, from films, from adult sight.
As a kid, I didn’t care.
It turned out that Sonya was just fine. She hadn’t been stabbed. I don’t know why she was missing from schools for a few days. I don’t know why that rumor got started.
But I do know that something happened to all of us then. Maybe it was precipitated by the stabbing rumor; maybe it wasn’t. But somewhere right about that time, just as our hormones started to rage and we began spending Friday nights at the high school football games. Just as fashion and boys and acne treatment became the focus of my life, Sonya disappeared again. This time not literally, but in just as powerful a way.
At some point, I spoke to Sonya for the very last night, and I can’t even remember that day.
But I do know why it happened – quietly, in the most definitive of ways, I quit being her friend. Then – and even now when I don’t repress the impulse – I would tell you it’s because we didn’t share the same interests – but that would be a lie.
I don’t know what Sonya’s interests were. I don’t know if she was interested in music and history like I was, or if she loved science and sports. I don’t know if she had a crush on Doug like I did or if she was more interested in Jimmy or Jennifer. I don’t know if she would have wanted to come to the skating rink with our church youth group because I quit asking.
And I know why, too. Sonya was poor. And poor meant lesser. And poor meant uncool. And poor meant separate from me.
It’s a lesson no one ever taught me directly. But it’s one that my society taught me every day. . . . and still does.
I do have one lingering memory of Sonya. It’s a Friday night. Mary and I are in the parking lot waiting for my dad to come get us after the football game. Sonya is walking away across the field, taking the short cut to her house. I see her back as she walks out of the circle of golden cast from the stadium lights. I see her walk away into the dark. And I stand silently watching her walk away from me.
What were you taught about poverty and people who are poor?
Last week my friend Jennifer Luitweiler wrote a beautiful post about how we judge people who are poor. I hope you’ll read it. It changed me.