Let’s Talk about the Last Taboo.

My most embarrassing school memory wasn’t the time I peed my Bluebird tights in first grade.

It wasn’t when I slipped in the high school hallway and grabbed onto the long, lush mane of the girl in front of me in a desperate attempt to steady myself.

No, my most embarrassing moment happened in Mrs. Price’s high school philosophy class, and almost 30 years later, I can still feel the shame steaming up my neck.

We’d been talking about socioeconomic classes.

“So there’s the lower middle class sitting above lower class,” the teacher said, pointing to a crooked white pyramid on her chalkboard. I glanced up at the triangle, then returned to doodling little spirals on the margins of my notebook.

“And then we get to the middle class. There’s lower middle class, middle class, and upper middle class. And, we only have one upper middle class family in our town—and that’s Lynn’s family,” she said, pointing at me.

My classmates whipped around in their desks so quickly, I could almost hear the sound of their torsos cutting through the air. With all eyes on me, I gaped at my teacher for a split second, then back down at the swirls of ink on my paper.

“Hey, Lynn, will you marry me?” the boy sitting in front of me cracked. Giggles erupted, slicing through the tension, but also magnifying the hot twist of feelings brewing inside me.

As an introverted and insecure adolescent, I loathed being the center of attention. Mrs. Price’s loaded proclamation had placed me firmly in the hot seat.

Secondly, part of the teacher’s proclamation was untrue. I hadn’t known it at the time, but my family was indeed solidly upper-middle class. But I was pretty sure we weren’t the only family in our small town with that status. And even if we had been, how did Mrs. Price know that? Had she perused the bank statements of our entire town of 35,000 people? And how could she single me out like that? Would she have done the same thing if she thought my family was the poorest family in town?

For the rest of the day, I walked around resenting the teacher. She had a reputation for being outrageous—she’d sometimes plop down on the lap of a male student, and she had barked at me for chewing gum in class in a tone that suggested a much more serious infraction. But underneath my anger, a wide pool of shame and discomfort waited.

I hadn’t done anything to have the privilege that money brings. And, until that moment, I hadn’t even realized my family’s financial situation might be vastly different than my peers’. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I wouldn’t have to work my way through college or give my parents the money I made from my after-school job to offset the cost of groceries. I didn’t know what it was like to not be able to afford new tennis shoes.

Clearly, I didn’t know anything.

Those few minutes of high school planted a seed of shame in me that I’m still trying, nearly 30 years later, to shake. In that moment, my worldview about money and myself tilted. Having money set me apart from others, at a time in my life when I most wanted to fly under the radar.

Money and shame, for many of us, are deeply entwined. Some of us have loads of debt or low incomes. Or we earn high incomes, but we’ve ratcheted up our lifestyles to meet our incomes and are still living paycheck to paycheck. We inherited money that we did nothing to deserve, or we worked hard for every dollar that’s ever passed through our hands.

We don’t talk about money enough. Maybe it’s still a taboo topic because of the ever-stretching income equality, or because our families taught us it wasn’t polite to talk about it, or because in more mindful and spiritual communities, the pursuit of financial abundance is sometimes considered to be selling out or unholy. In silence, the shame tends to linger.

But money isn’t good or bad, spiritual or toxic. It’s a tool, and one that, if we seek mastery of it, requires tending to our wounds and stripping away our unhealthy stories.

In that moment in high school, I absorbed a host of unpleasant money stories: money set me apart, I was spoiled, I was undeserving. Even my classmate’s joke proposal contributed to the stories: having money was a big enough deal that people might be interested in me only because of it.

These stories have played out in my life in deep feelings of guilt and unworthiness, years of underearning and embarrassment for any financial blessings I’ve experienced along the way.

By being open and vulnerable about our life experiences, we begin to shape away the shame, which allows us to change our stories. For years I felt that was true when it came to topics like mental illness, parenting, and addiction—but not money.

Money was too personal, too uncomfortable, too polarizing to talk about. I’m ready to start talking about it. Are you?

What are your money stories or money memories?

author: Lynn Shattuck

Image: Clueless/YouTube

Editor: Lieselle Davidson

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Lynn Shattuck Jul 13, 2018 12:50pm

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, David.

Lynn Shattuck Jul 13, 2018 12:48pm

Oof, that's a tough one, Teresa. Thanks for sharing it.

Teresa Covell Jul 1, 2018 3:26pm

Unfortunately, I was brainwashed as a chid by the Cathoic Church to believe money was the root of all evil, it's harder for a rich man to get into heaven than it is for a camel to go through an eye of a needle, blesses are the poor etc. As a child, not knowing any better, after all who am I to question the Almighty, absorbed this concept like a sponge and it has had an unfortunate mpact on my career choices.

David Ferguson Jul 1, 2018 12:37am

Class, you're talking about class. If that word makes you uncomfortable, then that, and not money, is the last taboo. It's been said that those in the comfortable classes are the last ones to develop class awareness, and it has always been so. You don't have to tell the poor single mum that there are people better off and they are often so because of inherited wealth and opportunity (being in a good neighbourhood, going to summer camp, wearing Jordans etc), but those who have grown up around privilege often have no idea that others do not have any of their opportunities, which you have alluded to. It sounds like you're in the nascent phase of class awareness, which must be quite a tough existential place to be. I grew up in one of the poorer houses, so my class awareness has more of a righteous anger to it, an emotion which is easier to give houseroom to than guilt. Being a member of the affluent class and being aware that you live in a class system means that you realise that for the society to be happy and fair you have to give something up, or share your opportunities. This is often the barrier to class awareness as people do not want to do this. It sounds like you're taking some steps though, so chapeau.

Lynn Shattuck Jul 1, 2018 12:04am

Corinna, you're absolutely right that my obliviousness was a result of my privilege. Thanks for your comment.

Corinna Hall Jun 30, 2018 5:48am

I agree that our overall society does not talk about money enough. In particular, the conversation that is often missing is the interplay between class/financial-well being and opportunity, and how those factors play out across gender and race . We like to perpetuate the illusion that in America all people are given the same opportunities, when the truth is that there is a huge disparity of possibilities available depending on the class into which you are born. Lynn - I suspect not talking about money in your family is a sign of the privilege you grew up with...of having more than enough. I grew up extremely poor, one of three children raised by a single mother, and money was a constant conversation in our house. We were acutely aware of what we had or didn’t have, and who had more or less than we did. This is often the experience of children growing up in poverty. I suspect your not realizing there was a difference between your more affluent parents and those of your peers was similar to men not realizing that they make more money then women, take up more space, are automatically given certain kinds of respect, until someone points it out to them. I don’t condone the actions of your teacher - it’s never ok to shame a child - but I do think your lack of awareness is a huge indicator of exactly how privileged you were.

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Lynn Shattuck

Lynn Shattuck lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two young children. Lynn is currently writing a memoir about her brother’s death. She writes about grief, parenting, imperfection, spirit, and truth telling—you can connect with her through her website or find her on Facebook.