Living in a country where people have the freedom to define their own destiny, based on the choices made over a lifetime, means that no one has the power to define who you are and what you choose to pursue in life. Glass Castle, written by Jeannette Walls, is a powerful true story about a young girl who does not allow the challenges of growing up in poverty define who she becomes as an adult. Her childhood was plagued with people defining her worth by what they saw and assumed rather than truly understanding that within the poor, tattered young girl was a bright, creative mind wanting nothing more than to survive and be safe.
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Learning was something she believed in and made time for as she was growing up, but it was pure survival that kept her going from day to day. Jeannette’s memoir reinforces the fact that no person should be labeled based on socioeconomic status because wealth does not define character and value.
Pride and self-awareness is something that lives within us. I believe that it is that same pride and self-awareness that feeds us from within and helps us move from one point of social status to another as it drives us to learn and grow. People do not choose to be born into poverty, but those who experience that life and choose to rise above that lifestyle do so by being aware that they have the power to change their life experiences. Jeannette begins her memoir by describing a moment when she spots a homeless woman sifting through a dumpster in search of food and necessary items. Embarrassment and frustration sets in when Jeannette realizes the woman is actually her mother. Rather than stopping to help her mother or ensure her mother’s needs are met, Jeannette continues on to her party praying her family secret will never be shared with others. Even though Jeannette is now considered a respected, educated member of society, what no ones knows is that she was once a child of poverty being raised by the very woman digging trash out of the dumpster. That poor, dirty woman was the same mother who attempted to keep Jeannette and her siblings safe and loved as they moved from one place to another trying to outsmart the welfare system and stay off the radar of others who were judging their existence. At the end of the novel Jeannette reflects on the fact that her parents, even when offered support from their children, did not want to rise out of the life of poverty because it was a life that they knew and understood. I have had the experience of going to school with students who struggle with having their basic needs met at home. Those kids are in my honors classes and working hard to get good grades so a free college education can be an option for them. Those same students share stories of siblings and family members who dropped out of school and choose to live on the system like their parents because that was all they knew and all they aspired to be. I have the greatest respect for those who work hard to overcome their life of poverty and struggle when I speak with classmates who do not feel the need to work for what they have knowing they will be cared for by the system. No matter how I feel, I realize it is not my place to judge.
Throughout the novel, Jeannette reflects on a childhood where she and her siblings never knew where they would sleep at night because her parents would up and move with little to no warning. They were never able to take their personal items with them so they never got attached to what little they had. It was not uncommon to hear the words of their father stating, Time to pull up the stakes and leave this shithole behind, he hollered. (Walls, Page 17) These midnight moves were often based on Jeannette’s parents discussing, in the dark hours of the night, that the government was after them for not paying their taxes. When moving, the family belongings, as well as the five of them, would all fit in the family car. The items consistently moved from one location to another included, A big black cast iron skillet and the Dutch oven, some army-surplus tin plates, a few knives, his pistol, and mom’s archery set. (Walls, Page 17) With each new home came the chance to start over and hope for new adventures. I have been fortunate to live in the same home for seventeen years so I cannot relate to the transient existence of many people living in poverty. I have seen students come and go at my school and have observed those students not connect with anyone in the short time they are in school. After reading about Jeannette’s experiences as a child, I now better understand that many children growing up in poverty live in a state of paranoia, uncertainty and constant change. Unfortunately, the result of this type of lifestyle is poor school attendance, lack of connection with others and behavior problems due to defending your family’s lifestyle, which so many do not understand.
Education is the key to defining your future because knowledge is the one thing that cannot be taken away from you. Jeannette describes the greatest challenge of growing up in poverty being one of transiency and navigating school and the peer pressure that accompanies school when you come without the tools needed to fit in and learn. As we fought, they called me poor and ugly and dirty, and it was hard to argue the point. I had three dresses to my name, all hand-me-downs or from a thrift store, which meant each week I had to wear two of them twicewe were also always dirty. (Walls, Page 140) As a transient family, the parents often moved without the school records necessary to prove how smart the children were so Jeannette would find herself enrolled in a special education classroom because they assumed she could not read. This assumption was made on first impressions rather than academic data. With each new school placement, social services was probably notified within weeks which would lead to another move in order to avoid the system getting involved and breaking up their family.
What Jeannette learned, as a young adult, is that her mother owned property in Texas that was worth quite a lot of money. Jeannette could not understand why her mother would hold onto that land as a family treasure when they had lived the life of poverty for so many years and were eating out of dumpsters in order to survive. Jeannette and her siblings, as successful adults, had also offered to take their parents in, but both chose to continue to live a life on the streets, because that was the only life they knew. What Jeannette, growing out of a life of poverty and now accessing a world open to her through her education, hard work and connections, may never understand is how her parents could take pride in the life they lived. How can it be rewarding to never know where your next home will be or what your next meal will consist of? What would a life of looking over your shoulder or always assuming the worst in others do to a person over time?
When reading The Glass Castle, a person learns quickly that it is no one’s place to judge the lifestyle or worthiness of another human being. As children, we are at the mercy of the adults who are there to guide and care for us. No child is given the opportunity to pick a parent, nor control the way the parent raise them. This memoir is just one example of how a person in poverty can rise out of that experience by maximizing the opportunities along the way in order to become their very best self.
Walls, Jeannette. Glass Castle. Scribner, 2005.
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