I am only a few months from turning 42 years old. As a teen, I used to think of my future 40-year-old self with a unusual sort of awe. While most of my peers at the time thought of middle age as old and gross, I saw it in a much less harsh light, and I continue to see it that way. Forty was the magical number in my head that signaled the light at the end of the tunnel; it was the gold star on the chart of life, the sweet spot we’d worked decades to find. From where I sit today, I was the crazy kid who was right all along.
I wasn’t the teenager whose goals were wrapped in the thin paper of escaping the iron clutches of parents who just didn’t understand or finally having the freedom to call the shots in my life. Yes, like every red-blooded American kid, I wanted those things, but they were pretty far down on my list of priorities. I had a different set of standards I was chasing with fervor.
Neither of my parents, for reasons of their own, had graduated high school. As a result, I was raised on the scraps our government gave the poor. Make no mistake: Those scraps were sorely needed. Even with them, shoes were almost a luxury, and one pair had to last an entire year. We started each August shoving toilet paper in the toes so they’d fit, and ended each July with cereal box cut-outs inside to cover the holes in the soles.
When it came time to renew our benefits, we sat all day, regardless of our appointment time, waiting to talk to a caseworker. We were treated like lazy cattle looking for a handout. It was humiliating and almost always came with the devastating news that our benefits were being cut. School clothes would have to be bought at the local Salvation Army, because with just a scribbled signature from our caseworker’s pen, cheap department stores like Kmart became too expensive.
This was the case even as I watched my father dress each morning at 6 a.m. and head off to work as a mechanic, replacing transmissions on his feet all day until he got home a little after 5 p.m., covered in grease and dead tired.
Such was our lives. There wasn’t much to look forward to except every Friday for grocery shopping. If we were lucky and Dad got his hour of overtime on Wednesday, there might be a couple of dollars left to buy a 50-cent candy bar. Maybe. Going to the store was great if we could, a nightmare if we couldn’t. The poor in our country are judged, regardless of age. The joy of a candy bar can be quickly drained by the sideways glance of a stranger’s silent judgement that you’d dare use a food stamp for a treat.
Years of growing up this way helped shape the more practical side of my goals as I aged. I knew I didn’t want to face the humiliation of welfare my entire life. I didn’t want wasted days sitting in a hot room in uncomfortable chairs, herded like cattle, hoping for good news that wasn’t coming. I didn’t want to have used clothes from strangers, and I didn’t want anymore cardboard in my shoes.
I knew from an early age what I needed to do: Get an education. Work hard. Never settle. Give more than I take, and never leave my fate in the hands of someone else.
Somewhere around 14 years old, 40 became my magic number. If I could really bust my ass and do everything I was supposed to, I’d reach 40 and be able to turn back and look upon my life with pride.
With a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, I did it. I graduated high school and college, both with honors. I worked my way through school, taking classes a few at a time, but I did it. I’ve always been lucky enough to have had at least one full-time job, and I never had to seek welfare benefits to get by while I did it. I met a man and we married, and we’ve always been able to buy our kids new clothes and shoes that fit, replacing the worn out with the new. But I have never passed a homeless person or someone down on their luck without giving them some money or a warm meal.
So, when I looked back at my life when I turned 40, I do so with unabashed pride. I may have started on the bottom rung of life, but I’ve slowly climbed to a level I can be proud of, a place that I worked hard to attain. My 40s give me hope that there is good out there that I can do to bring some of life’s goodness to more than just me and my family. If I try hard enough, with a little bit of luck, maybe I can help someone else see the potential in themselves.
Seeing that potential, recognizing its worth and working toward the goal can change a life. It changed mine. Who knows? Maybe 80 will make 40 look lame. From where I stand at 41, that’s a tall order, but a challenge I’m still up for.