As I got deeper into writing my memoir, Glowing Houses, I realized the recurring theme was about facing my ignorance and moving through the pain and shame of having it exposed to others. The below excerpt is from chapter 7 where I am about to apply for a cashier’s job at Woolworth in Fort Worth, Texas (1982). Before heading out, I reflect back to my first job back in Kentucky (I was 15) where I got schooled on how to make change with a penny. A humiliating day of learning.
I set out to find a job by looking in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram classifieds section. I saw that there were a lot of listings at the shopping mall that didn’t require experience, or not very much, and figured that would be my best bet. I had the right qualifications to work a cash register because I did that job at the Dairy Cheer. My math skills were pretty good. I could count back change down to the penny, even when people gave me a penny to avoid getting more pennies in change.
I learned quickly about this little trick after the first time it happened at the Dairy Cheer. The customer was a guy in the drive thru one time and the total came to $7.26. He gave me a ten dollar bill and a penny. When I looked at him and tried to hand the penny back he said, “Nah, darlin’ I give you that on purpose. So as not to get back more pennies.” I was confused and my cheeks burned hot, but I acted like I knew what he meant and said, “Oh, I was just teasin’ ya’” then took the ten along with his penny, said I’d be right back, slid the window
closed, and turned my back to him.
As I turned away my eyes watered and my throat got thick with worry. I thought that maybe I couldn’t do this job after all. I could make the milkshakes, and was even learning to make some of the food, but this money business was like a story problem from math class, which, unlike my times tables, I could rarely find the correct answer. It’s like my brain wasn’t wired for story problems. I figured if this guy was asking for such complicated change, others would too. I needed to do something. I needed to figure out this real life story problem. The man in the truck was waiting for his order and would be expecting his change by the time his food was up. So I’d just need to ask for help. That, or give the guy more change than he was due and pretend it was a mistake that maybe he’d correct.
The last thing I wanted to do was give Valerie more ammunition to play games with my ignorant ways. But that’s what I had to do. I ran back to the kitchen where she was cooking up orders and told her what happened. “Valerie,” I said in a quiet quivering voice as I slipped into what felt like a lion’s den. “I need your help making change.” She wiped the sweat rolling down her forehead with her forearm as she turned to me and said, “I cain’t help ya’ none, Ruthie, I got my hands full back here. You’re just gonna have to figure it out on your own. Sorry, hon. Whad’ya git anyway?”
I opened my hands and said, “He gave me a ten plus a penny. And when I tried to give the penny back he said he did that on purpose. Why did he give me a penny? What should I do?”
The look she gave me reminded me of my eighth grade Language Arts teacher who often turned away from me with pursed lips when I looked at her with a blank stare when she asked me a question. I rarely knew what to say so I said nothing. It was like my brain was completely empty, not just when I was asked a question but during tests and open discussions she sometimes had with the whole class. It was like my brain was void of thought altogether. I don’t know when the emptiness set in for me like that but for Katherine it started in first grade. Even after being paddled with a wooden board for not talking and having the blank stare she got promoted to second grade where she was kept for two years. In retrospect, I imagine my brain was not functional, not just out of being ignorant but from not eating. Sometimes we’d get a bowl of oats in the morning before catching the bus but since moving from grade school into high school I stopped taking the free lunch. Too embarrassed. I never understood what the teacher was talking about. She may as well have been talking in a foreign language. Language Arts was an art I couldn’t do, a language you’d think wasn’t my own. I felt dumbstruck and my face must have looked the part.
Valerie was looking at me like that now. She was both disgusted and at the same time seemed to pity me because of just how stupid I was.
“Well, how much is the bill?’ she said while flipping the burger and pressing the bloody juice out to the sides with the metal spatula.
“Okay,” she said, “then all you have to do is key in $10.01 to the register. That makes it like if the bill was $7.25 instead of $7.26. He just wants to get back three quarters instead of two quarters, two dimes, and four pennies.” I was still confused and the look on my face must have showed it. Valerie scooted the burger off to the side where the heat was lower, set the spatula down, wiped her hands on the apron she was wearing, took the money from my hands, and walked to the cash register. She keyed in that the bill was $7.26 and that she’d been given $10.01 and the register that did the math told her the change would be $2.75. She took the change to the window herself.
“Hi Big John! How ya’ doin’ today?” she said to the man in the truck.
“Doin’ jus’ fine. An’ you?” he said as he gave her a little wink then looked behind her over to me. Valerie tilted her head down to where her chin was tucked behind her shoulder just enough to where I could see her mouth curl up and eyes roll back as she looked back at me.
The penny thing was yet another humiliating experience but it made me wonder why people didn’t like pennies. Shoot, Mom collected as many pennies as she could. Sometimes she’d count out ten or twenty so I could buy a little something off the food truck at the high school, something I saw the town kids do on a regular basis. Some of them bought lunch and pop and even candy. When I had some pennies from Mom, I always bought the same thing. A sweet and sour sucker.
There’s two kinds of ignorance: the kind where you know you don’t know something, like how to change a flat; and the kind where you don’t know what you don’t know—the worst kind of ignorance and the one that’s debilitating. One of the worst things a parent can do to a kid is to keep it ignorant. On the flip side, though, it is because of my very ignorance that I’ve never known my limits, what I could not do. Being ignorant is both a blessing and a curse. But until you know it’s a blessing, it’s always a curse.
I will post more soon. Thanks for reading!