The dreaded school camp list: What it's really like to grow up in poverty

Friday, November 1, 2019

Even now, my face burns thinking about that list for school camp.

"Raincoat with hood, backpack, sleeping bag, a towel, two pairs of shoes..." I just feel panic. They may as well have given me a note that read: "You won't be able to afford any of this, and you will end up on camp without something, and then a teacher’s going to ask you why you haven't got it. And you're going to have to lie for a week about why you haven't got a proper coat, and you're freezing."

My childhood was a game of two halves. At first, my parents both had jobs. I remember getting a new bike. I remember feeling well-fed. And then my parents divorced, and my Dad became a single dad, and shortly after that he was made redundant. That's when the wheels started falling off.

My Dad is an incredible human, and he tried to keep a lot from us, but he was overwhelmed.

My mental capacity was taken up with worries that you shouldn’t have as a kid. I worried about my parents' mental health, because they were stressed. I worried about showing that I was worried and hungry, because I didn't want to upset them further. I had anxiety attacks about school camp or finding money for woodwork.

Poverty was this hidden, shameful thing. I became good at lying, because I didn’t want my Dad to get in trouble.

Teachers would ask, "Where’s your lunch?" As if I just hadn’t bothered to bring it, when actually there was nothing in the house to eat. "I've already had my lunch," I would lie. I don’t know how many times someone said to me, "Aren’t you cold?" And I would always say no. I was freezing, but I didn't have a jacket.

It was through tenacity and luck that I escaped the poverty cycle. I got my first job at 12. I was always quite academic. I dreamed of doing law or becoming a doctor. But those doors felt closed because I felt I needed to earn money quickly. I’d lived with so much anxiety and uncertainty, I just needed to know I had a pay cheque and security.

It breaks my heart knowing that other kids are still living the childhood I lived, but at least we are doing something about it. I think organisations like KidsCan have highlighted poverty in New Zealand, and they’re helping in a really practical and respectful way, minimising that sense of shame.

Just the thought of being able to rock up to a KidsCan breakfast club and eat without anybody asking, "Why are you here; why haven’t you got your breakfast?" Or somebody asking, "Do you want some new shoes?" Or a new jacket - that would have been a godsend.

When poverty takes away even the basics, you treasure something new, and something that everybody else has too. You feel valued as a human being; you don’t feel like you’ve been forgotten or judged. It gives you dignity.

These are stepping stones. If your shoes hurt, you’re probably not playing sports. If your shoes fit, you could be on your way to being the next All Black or Black Fern. Make a kid feel good about themselves, and who knows what their potential could be.