Friday, January 3, 2014

Cherry Picker

My dad got this idea in his head that he could make a dollar picking cherries in some place called Michigan. I had never heard of Michigan and had no idea what it was. For a five-year-old who had never much been out of Jackson, it was the farthest thing from Tennessee I could imagine. I had no reason to be excited about going. I had no reason to want to not. I knew either way I would be piled in the car along with my mom and sisters to go wherever it was my dad had decided to go. Our clothes in a trash bag, a loaf of bread, pack of bologna, and some mustard to get us by, and a Folger’s can in which to pee, my mom piled the three of us girls into the backseat of the rusted up Ford. This wasn’t the first of my dad’s money making schemes and it sure as heck wouldn’t be the last.

I was too young at this point to know to be embarrassed, but I would grow to understand what people thought of people like us.

I missed the bus once in third grade. My dad threw me into his of-the-moment company car. For longer than I care to remember we chased down the big yellow bus in a vehicle topped by a giant termite. He was an Orkin man. For a second. He was also a car salesman, a fry cook, a landscape guy, tree doctor. These were his regular jobs. His REAL jobs. I could add hustling pool to the resume. Begging a dollar. Truck driving. Long bouts of doing much of nothing. It was during those dry times that my mom picked cotton, did other people’s ironing, and gathered Coke bottles from the side of the road to buy us milk, potatoes, and a few bags of beans. One particular summer, my front yard was packed with children I had never seen before and would never see again, children whose parents paid my mother to watch them while they worked.

Self-employed. That’s what I listed on all those school forms when asked about my dad’s career, his position in that career. There really is no way to say “Cherry picker. For now. Parking lot asphalt sealer tomorrow. By the end of the year, selling pots and pans at in-home parties.” He couldn’t keep a job for the life of him. Nor did he have any desire to.

I know at this point I could play the pity card. I never knew the reality of the terms “steady income,” “security,” “stability,” or “weekly grocery shopping.” I knew “scrounging for a dollar,” “knocking doors,” and “can’t get ahead for tryin’.” I knew cold and hungry and moving without any notice. I recently reconnected with someone who knew me as a child. He was upset that we were such good friends and yet I had failed to let him know that I was changing schools. I had failed to let him know because I didn’t know myself. I stepped off the bus and was told to pack my things. This was my life. I could, if I chose, play the pity card.

But I won’t.

I began teaching not long ago in a community that consisted of a large population of migrant workers, migrant worker in this case being a prettied up term for uneducated berry picker. Many of my students’ parents had not completed high school. The families slept piled together with other families in quarters not fit for living, spending their days in the hot sun working hard to earn whatever they could. Barely getting by. Thankful to have a job. I stood before these students in my professional dress, warm and comfortable, financially secure. I stood before them as mentor, guide. I stood before them as professor, professor in this case being a prettied up term for educated berry picker.

I could play the pity card, yes, but I won’t. I was moved to help those students, those students that others had dismissed and looked down on. I was moved to help them because of the past that I had had. I was moved. I was moved because of the memory of those icy concrete floors, the cots, the faces I didn’t know, children and parents from strange places all there for the same reason, to make a dollar in order to eat, to make a dollar in order to survive. I was moved to help those students because of the memory of the embarrassment, the hunger, the moving from place to place. I was moved to help them because of that summer, that one summer spent picking cherries in Michigan.

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