Floyd, a chunky twelve-year-old blubbering inconsolably over the shame of being sent to in-school suspension, was sputtering an excuse through tell-tale grammatical indicators of blue collar-dom. Caught and incarcerated for the crime of no belt, he desperately needed to air his side of the story.
The morning had been chaotic as his father had “overslept for work and was in a big hurry because this is his fourth demerit.” I thought Floyd was headed into a complex cause-and-effect relationship: a description of how his father’s hasty departure for work affected his ability to put on a belt. But the causal chain abruptly snapped, and Floyd suddenly began to track the intricacies of his father’s work at a chicken processing plant.
His father had done little to shield his family from the dire consequences of the dread chicken plant demerit system: at seven demerits he would be required to meet with the plant manager to “discuss his employment future.” Floyd knew disturbing stories of people “let go” during such meetings.
Unsure of his twelve-year-old narrative powers, Floyd seemed anxious that I fully grasp the import of these harsh disclosures. He decided to add some needed details. His father made “only $14.50 per hour” and his stepmom was only able to supplement this with an additional $700.00 a month, a sum instantly consumed by a seven-hundred-dollar-a-month duplex rental.
The more Floyd verbally controlled the facts and figures of the family economy, the calmer he became. I let him ramble on. He wiped away his tears with a chubby little paw and snuffled and choked his way through a rather tedious inventory of the food currently available in the seven-hundred-a-month duplex’s cupboards. Right then they had “mostly canned stuff and noodles…and chicken”…of course.
These revelations about food prompted other important memories about tenuous parental and step-parental employment and, more importantly, its immediate effects on the quality and quantity of food he would soon be eating. One particularly chilling story involved the sudden firing of a close family friend caught stealing chicken from the plant. Floyd’s defense of this fellow seemed a little too practiced: “But it was because his family didn’t have nothin’ to eat for a while and he only done it once or twict.” Or, so I thought I heard him say. My head was starting to spin. What was he in here for? Oh, yeah, the f’in belt.
Floyd intuited how drawn I was to his narrative abilities and launched into the genre reserved for moments requiring major audience impact: juicy, gory industrial accident stories. Nothing could eclipse the time-tested Dickensian dismemberment and industrial snuff story. Unfortunately, omissions of important details contributing to rising action and denouement hinted at overfamiliarity with his subject. Floyd rushed the narrative of the extra skinny construction worker sent into the tight place, the ominous jammed dozer scooper. (Oh, no! What’s going to happen?) He tripped the scooper-support levers, was crushed, but survived. “Good thang he war so skinny,” Floyd grinned upon the hasty delivery of the O. Henry-esque punch line that no-one could have anticipated.
I was in love with this kid and had to hear more—even if in doing so I jeopardized the proper execution of my own somber job, a job which involves its own cruel little system of demerits, strictly enforced silence and isolation which, when violated, land kids in full, boot-in-the-arse suspension. I was this school’s version of getting fired from the chicken plant. The creepy similarity between chicken factory and school flittered briefly across my mind, but I quickly repressed the evil thought so I could attend more fully to Floyd’s endless disclosures. With no prompting, he returned to his detailed report of the grim economic situation at home, a tedious comparative accounting of the contents of cupboards relative to the employment status of parents. I drifted off. I tried to remember if I had been this conscious of the nuances of family finances at age twelve…or any age for that matter.
No doubt there were moments when things were tight– with seven mouths to feed on a preacher’s pay. As an adult, I once asked my mother how she prepared one of my favorite meals, jarred chip beef in flour gravy on toast. Instead of giving me the recipe, Mother rather bitterly explained that it was what she had made to fill seven hungry mouths when the cupboards were bare. She had only made such a big deal over what a special meal it was to disguise the desperation hovering at the edges of this meal’s marginally nutritious value. It was a recipe that came from her arsenal of poor-Appalachian, depression-era, filler meals. She saw this particular meal as an indictment of her budgeting abilities. My father, having grown up on a prosperous livestock farm, where freshly butchered meat was always on the table, was particularly insulted when jarred beef appeared on his dinner plate. The insult was compounded by the fact that chipped beef jars made great juice glasses, the previous evening’s indictment of his provider abilities materializing as veiled threat at the breakfast table. Thankfully, I was blithely unaware of all of this as a child…and felt a little pang of resentment at Mother troubling me with this information at this late date.
Fascinated at the proficiency with which Floyd inventoried the meat selections currently available in his seven-hundred-a-month duplex, I thought I detected special anxieties around the subject of chicken. They ate a lot of chicken. I guessed that chicken had become a reliable source of family protein for reasons that transcended its relative cheapness to other meats.
Little wonder this child had such an alarming over-reaction to the demerit he had received today at school. Amassing demerits spelled certain disaster in Floyd’s world. Demerits meant a dangerous focus on his father’s work behaviors. Demerits spelled the end to a suspiciously dependable source of protein: Chicken.
I shifted uncomfortably as it dawned on me that I had ineluctably become part of the demerit-system reality that was preparing this kid for his future chicken-plant destiny. While I can’t really blame his parents for sucking Floyd into their mundane, quotidienne struggle for survival, I felt guilty complicity in priming him to fulfill Plato’s f’d up version of ideal Justice, knowing one’s proper place in society. Apropos of nothing, it occurred to me that I had not been fully cognizant of how laundry got done until I was in my late twenties. Suddenly I remembered recent hard times when understanding how to budget a meager income might have come in handy.
Why, then, had my depression-era parents so thoroughly shielded five children from the economic realities of life? Was this a conscious, child-rearing decision, collaborated upon and jointly reinforced? Or, was it an unconscious banishment of worries they’d endured during lean depression years? Only in my late twenties, when it appeared that I might be a hopeless dumbass, did my mother encourage me to acquire some job skills. Until then, I had lived with the utterly confusing belief that I could achieve absolute success in virtually anything to which I set my mind. I dabbled in philosophy, my father’s college major, and then acquired a master’s in English literature, my mother’s first love– year upon wonderful year spent wallowing around in abstract la-la land with nary a chicken concern on my mind.
Mystified by Floyd’s near hysteria over a missing belt, I began to look at the catalogue of fears his dress-code demerit point had triggered: fears of industrial accidents; fears of parental unemployment; fears over tenuous step-mom incomes; and, most importantly, fears over the suspicious frequency of chicken on the family menu. Floyd’s ability to index the intricacies of this worrisome household economy both amazed and depressed me. What a mind for fact and figures he had. What a waste of intellectual capital. What a luxury to have had parents who shut down the noise about basic survival so that their five children could focus on the utterly useless, but intensely interesting abstractions of philosophy and literature.
I was heartbroken when my vice-principal arrived with a belt. I’d fallen hard for this kid. Without so much as a goodbye, he raced breathlessly after the VP because, even after two weeks of school, he had no clue how to find his classroom. As his noisy presence drifted off down the hallway, I drifted off into utterly useless philosophic abstractions: to Plato’s social “hive,” the Republic, replete with drones for whom ideal justice constitutes knowing one’s proper place in the social system; to thoughts of my complicity in an education system that shapes children for ineluctable, inescapable servitude; to my favorite J. Krishnamurti quote, “where there is fear there is no intelligence.”
And while I may have sometimes cursed my parents for leaving me so unprepared for the realities of existence, I felt sudden warmth in my heart that chipped beef on toast was so celebrated in my household. It was a special meal for special occasions when special people were special enough to enjoy special poor-people food. I also felt a growing appreciation that I had never once suspected my parents of risking unemployment by stealing chickens.