When I was 10 years old, my biggest concern was what I would eat during recess and how fast I could eat it before I could go play i.e. climb a fence that would pierce my inner thigh, leaving a scar that would last a lifetime, and cause me to walk with a hugely inappropriate limp the rest of the week. I didn’t have much care for how others saw me, although I was aware of how they might perceive me. I loved playing in the sun, didn’t care how my hair got all frizzy in the unforgiving humidity that is characteristic of Singapore weather. I loved having fun, I played with the boys, thought I might have had a crush on one or the other of them at some point but couldn’t be bothered not being myself to lure one in like my friends were intent on doing.
So I loved my life when I was 10. I loved school because I saw my friends each day and could play to my heart’s content after the mandatory lessons were over. I didn’t ever think anything was wrong with me until it started being pointed out.
It began when my class had an anonymous gift exchange for a reason I can’t care to recall. At 10, we were finally allowed to write with big boy and big girl PENS. No more pencils for us, thank you very much. We now knew what we were doing and didn’t need the temporary nature of a pencil. This cost my mother a fortune in correction tape but that’s her problem. I could write with a PEN, and that’s all I cared about.
My mother raised us on her own. My two older brothers and I. She did it on her salary alone, which was less than I earned when I started working. I never figured out how she did it because I could never find enough to supply my selfish needs with my salary so she must have enchantments she used to make her money multiply. Except she didn’t. She went without her needs and her luxuries so that my brothers and I never ever thought that we were poor, even though we were. Her efforts failed with this gift exchange.
I was provided with a set of colourful pens to give to the person whose name I had picked out of a bag. I thought it was a great gift and it looked pretty and I would have liked to receive it. After I gave my classmate her gift and she gave me mine, which was much better than my pens, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was, because what happened next stuck with me like poo particles you inevitably inhale after someone farts.
While everyone was busy running out to go for recess (WHICH I WANTED TO DO TOO), I was beckoned by my teacher what wanted to have a quiet word. I saw the girl whom I had gifted my awesome pens with red eyes, obviously having a cry because the present I had bestowed upon her was too magnificent for her to bear.
“This isn’t good enough, Melanie. Peipei (fake name, duh) gave you this present which is so expensive and you only gave her this. It’s not good enough. It’s too cheap. You need to get her something else.” The words my teacher said might not be verbatim (it’s 17 years later, my memory’s a tad fuzzy thank you very much), but the way it made me feel like crap, I’ll never forget.
I felt such shame and embarrassment. I was angry that my mother didn’t care enough about me to give me something better to gift. I didn’t know that my mother cried herself to sleep almost every night because she was so worried about how she was going to get us through the next day. I didn’t know that she never treated herself to lunch at work because she didn’t want to waste money on herself. I didn’t know that she lived paycheck to paycheck, and that each paycheck just about covered our bills, let alone the cost of raising 3 children. I didn’t understand how alone she felt every day.
I went home, my world falling apart.
When I told my mother what had happened, she cried. She said that was all she could afford. I didn’t know enough to empathise with her and comfort her back then, because she’d been so successful at making me feel like we were doing just fine. I thought she was being selfish and didn’t care as much about me as she did my brothers. She would have given an arm and a leg if it had been for them, my 10 year old self-centred mind thought loftily.
I regret so much not being on my mother’s side that day. I regret not telling my teacher that that was all I could give and if it wasn’t good enough, take my classmate’s gift and stuff it up her arse, please. I don’t need it. Because my mother is good enough and don’t you dare tell me otherwise, because she did the best she could with what she had. And she had a little more then $1000 and 3 mouths to feed, not including her own, because as I said, she ALWAYS WENT WITHOUT.
That feeling of not being good enough back then had haunted me. That moment when my teacher said those words to me had followed me. I have always strived to give more than I could afford, more than I had because I was afraid of being called a miser, or selfish, or uncouth. I gave too much and still do sometimes. I don’t ask for what is my due. I’m trying to stop, because as long as I give the best of what I have, I’m good enough.