Say it one more time

Broke in Berkeley

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“What are you doing?”

I turned and looked over my shoulder to where my husband was standing. He was watching me at the bathroom sink as I scrubbed my face with an exfoliating pad covered in toothpaste.

“Giving myself a facial. What does it look like?”

“With toothpaste?”

“Of course.”

I went back to it, but I could see him in the mirror, obviously very confused. I thought about it for a minute, a little annoyed that he didn’t immediately understand. Then I figured it out. He grew up in the middle class. He never used toothpaste on his acne.

I turned around again. “Noxema?”


“What’d you use in high school? Noxema or Clearasil? Or did you order that Proactiv crap off TV?”

“Oh. Neutrogena, mostly. I stole it from my sister.”

I smiled, and my face tingled with mint.

Sometimes I feel like those of us who grew up economically disadvantaged speak our language and have our own culture. We share these habits and passwords that persist even as circumstances change. Lil Wayne is a multimillionaire with a drug problem, and he can afford high-grade heroin or kilos of cocaine, but he prefers the street drug of the neighborhood he grew up in: cough syrup. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz is an Ivy League graduate, but his most powerful stories are written in the native voice of his Dominican neighborhood of New Jersey poverty. Their art is elite, but it signals in that secret language to those of us who have been there. We would know if they were pretending; this secret handshake cannot be faked.

Everybody thinks he or she is the only one. We’ve all had an experience that isolated us, that made it hard to believe that we would see eye to eye with anyone at Berkeley. Steven Czifra spoke to us from extreme isolation, sharing his experience of solitary confinement before coming to UC Berkeley. Sofie Karasek told the entire story of her experience of rape and injustice. They spoke out from isolation and the world spoke back: Me too.

I’ve met Berkeley students with kids, those with parents in prison and people who came out of the foster system. I’ve had classes with students from all over the world — some who came to visit and others who came to stay. I’ve met people who are legitimately just like me in one way or another. I’ve seen the ingrained discipline of military brats and the unquenchable ambition of transfer students. I’ve met and returned the knowing smiles of my fellow nontraditional students; together, we acknowledge what it is to be a little older, a little wiser, and still belong among the green undergrads who are sometimes half our age. Most of all, I’ve connected with people who grew up in poverty. Nobody said anything, but I looked around and saw the tricks and signals. I saw backpacks lined with trash bags and people who never pass up anything free. I caught the scent of toothpaste facials and overheard the discussions of the cheapest safe neighborhoods around this school. I started to write about experiences I’ve held in, speaking from shame and that same isolationm and the world wrote back: Me too.

Writing “Broke in Berkeley” has connected me with people from all over. They’ve written to me with heartfelt and earnest connection — people whose lives were vastly different from my own but united by the experience of poverty. Dear Meg, my family emigrated from China, and we lived in a motel. Dear Meg, I slept in my car for two semesters because I couldn’t afford my commute. Dear Meg, I went to UC Berkeley 30 years ago, and I promise you this experience will shape who you will be for the better. Dear Meg, we are just like you.

I never wanted to write about being poor. I wrote my application essay for UC Berkeley four times, each time carefully skirting the part where I dropped out of high school to live on the street, abandoned by my parents without a dime. I had good grades, and I had worked hard in community college. Who I had been didn’t matter to me anymore; I was all about who I was becoming and who I am still becoming now. The final draft of that essay included those details because I was desperate to be seen whole, and accepted. My first year on campus brought that acceptance full circle. I am not who I was, but where I have been is important to my identity and always will be. I was broke when I came to Berkeley, and I heard you when you said “me too.” We are growing up together even now, and we will leave here better than we came. What was broken can be mended; what we lost, we will replace. I am so much more now than my former self could ever imagine, and getting out of poverty is just the beginning.

Say it one more time, loud enough for somebody to hear. Me too.

Meg Elison writes the Monday column on financial issues affecting UC Berkeley students. Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].