By Ron Lieber
Each year, we post a casting call for writers and their college application essays that have something to do with money. Nearly 300 people responded this year. Below, you’ll find five that stood out for their sensitivity, depth of insight and sheer geekiness. Who would have imagined, for instance, that there was a high school student out there helping people with their tax returns — or that she could learn so much about the world by doing so?
My grandmother hovers over the stove flame, fanning it as she melodically hums Kikuyu spirituals. She kneads the dough and places it on the stove, her veins throbbing with every movement: a living masterpiece painted by a life of poverty and motherhood. The air becomes thick with smoke and I am soon forced out of the walls of the mud-brick house while she laughs.
As for me, I wander down to the small stream at the ridge on the farm’s edge, remembering my father’s stories of rising up early to feed the cows and my mother’s memories of the sweat on her brow from hours of picking coffee at a local plantation.
Life here juxtaposes itself profoundly against the life I live in America; the scourge of poverty and flickering prosperity that never seem to coalesce. But these are the two worlds I have inherited, and my existence in one is not possible without the other. At the stream, I recollect my other life beyond this place. In America, I watch my father come home every night, beaten yet resilient from another day of hard work on the road. He sits me and my sister down, and though weary-eyed, he manages the soft smile I know him for and asks about our day.
My sister is quick to oblige, speaking wildly of learning and mischief. In that moment, I realize that she is too young to remember our original home: the old dust of barren apartment walls and the constant roar outside of life in the nighttime.
Soon after, I find myself lying in bed, my thoughts and the soft throb of my head the only audible things in the room. I ponder whether my parents — dregs floating across a diasporic sea before my time — would have imagined their sacrifices for us would come with sharp pains in their backs and newfound worries, tear-soaked nights and early mornings. But, it is too much to process. Instead, I dream of them and the future I will build with the tools they have given me.
Realizing I have mused far too long by the water’s edge, I begin to make my way back to the house. The climb up the ridge is taxing, so I carefully grip the soil beneath me, feeling its warmth surge between my fingers. Finally, I see my younger cousins running around barefoot endlessly and I decide to join their game of soccer, but they all laugh at the awkwardness of the ball between my feet. They play, scream and chant, fully unaware of the world beyond this village or even Nairobi, but I cannot blame them. My iPhone fascinates them and they ask to see my braces, intently questioning how many “shillings” they cost. I open my mouth to satisfy their curiosity, but my grandmother calls out, and we all rush to see what she has made.
When I return, the chapatis are neatly stacked on one another, golden-brown disks of sweet bread that are the completion of every Kenyan meal. Before my grandmother can ridicule me in a torrent of Kikuyu, I grab a chapati and escape to find a patch of silky grass, where I take my first bite. Each mouthful is a reminder that my time here will not last forever, and that my success or failure will become a defining example for my sister and relatives.
The rift between high school and college is wide, but it is one I must cross for those who have carried me to this point. The same hope that carried my parents over an ocean of uncertainty is now my fuel for the journey toward my future, and I go forward with the radical idea that I, too, can make it. Savoring each bite, I listen to the sound of neighbors calling out and children chasing a dog ridden with fleas, letting the cool heat cling to my skin.
I always assumed my father wished I had been born a boy.
Now, please don’t assume that my father is some rampant rural sexist. The fact is, when you live in an area and have a career where success is largely determined by your ability to provide and maintain nearly insurmountable feats of physical labor, you typically prefer a person with a bigger frame.
When I was younger, I liked green tractors better than red tractors because that was what my father drove, and I preferred black and white cows over brown ones because those were the kind he raised. I wore coveralls in the winter and wore holes in my mud boots in weeks. With my still fragile masculinity, I crossed my arms over my chest when I talked to new people, and I filled my toy box exclusively with miniature farm implements. In third grade, I cut my hair very short, and my father smiled and rubbed my head.
I never strove to roll smoother pie crusts or iron exquisitely stiff collars. Instead, I idolized my father’s patient hands. On a cow’s neck, trying to find the right vein to stick a needle in. In the strength of the grip it took to hold down an injured heifer. In the finesse with which they habitually spun the steering wheel as he backed up to the livestock trailer.
And I grew to do those things myself. When on my 10th birthday I received my first show cow, a rite of passage in the Hess family, I named her Missy. As I spoke to her in an unnaturally low voice, I failed to realize one thing: Missy did not care that I was a girl. She did not think I was acting especially boyish or notice when I adamantly refused to wear pink clothing (she was colorblind anyway). And she did not blink an eyelash at her new caretaker’s slightly smaller frame. All she cared about was her balanced daily feed of cottonseed and ground corn and that she got an extra pat on the head. As I sat next to her polishing her white leather show halter, she appreciated my meticulous diligence and not my sex.
When Missy and I won Best of Show a few months later, my father’s heart nearly exploded. I learned to stick my chest out whenever I felt proud. While I then associated my conquests with “being a better boy,” I now realize what I was really working toward was becoming a better farmer. I learned I could do everything my father could do, and in some tasks, such as the taxing chore of feeding newborn calves or the herculean task of halter-breaking a heifer, I surpassed him. It has taken me four years to realize this: I proved a better farmer than he in those moments, not despite my sex, but despite my invalid and ignorant assumption that the best farmer was the one with the most testosterone.
My freshman year, I left the farm for boarding school, where I was surrounded by the better-off and the better-educated — the vast majority of whom had heard the word ‘feminism’ before. I began to pick up just what the word meant from my antagonizing English teacher and my incisive friends’ furrowed brows when I described my hometown. Four years of education and weekly argumentative essays taught me the academic jargon. I learned the Latin roots of the word “feminism,” its cognates and its historical consequences.
But the more I read about it in books, and the more I used it in my essays, the more I realized I already knew what it meant. I had already embodied the reality of feminism on the farm. I had lived it. My cow had taught it to me.
Not all sons of doctors raise baby ducks and chickens in their kitchen. But I do. My dad taught me.
While my childhood was spent in a deteriorating industrial town, my dad was raised during the onset of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. After forgoing university so his sister could attend, my dad worked on a commune as a farmer. So while I grew up immersed in airy Beethoven melodies each morning, my dad grew up amid the earthy aromas of hay and livestock. Every time that I look between our grand piano and our baby chickens, I’m amazed by the stark differences between our childhoods, and how in raising livestock, my dad shares a piece of his own rural upbringing with me.
Embracing these differences, my dad has introduced me to diverse experiences, from molding statues out of toilet paper plaster to building greenhouses from the ground up. So you might be wondering: What does he do for a traditional 9-to-5 job? He’s already captained a research vessel that’s navigated across the Pacific, designed three patentable wind turbines and held every position imaginable, from sous chef to Motorola technician.
The answer? Nothing. He’s actually a stay-at-home dad right now.
My family is a matriarchy in a patriarchal community. Accordingly, I’m greeted with astonishment whenever I try to explain my dad’s financial status. “How lazy and unmotivated he must be!” Many try to hide their surprise, but their furtive glances say it all. In a society that places economic value at the forefront of worth, these assumptions might apply to other individuals, but not to my dad.
When I look at the media, whether it be the front cover of a newspaper or a featured story in a website article, I often see highlights of parents who work incredible hours and odd jobs to ensure their children receive a good upbringing. While those stories are certainly worthy of praise, they often overshadow the less visible, equally important actions of people like my dad.
I realize now that my dad has sacrificed his promising career and financial pride to ensure that his son would get all of the proper attention, care and moral upbringing he needed. Through his quiet, selfless actions, my dad has given me more than can be bought from a paycheck and redefined my understanding of how we, as people, can choose to live our lives.
I’m proud to say that my dad is the richest man I know — rich not in capital, but in character. Infused with the ingenuity to tear down complex physics and calculus problems, electrified with the vigor of a young entrepreneur (despite beginning his fledgling windmill start-up at the age of 50) and imbued with the kindness to shuttle his son to practices and rehearsals. At the end of the day, it’s those traits in people that matter more to me than who they are on paper.
Stories like my dad’s remind me that worth can come in forms other than a six-figure salary. He’s an inspiration, reminding me that optimism, passion and creativity can make a difference in a life as young as mine. It’s those unspoken virtues that define me. Whether it’s when I fold napkin lotuses for my soup kitchen’s Christmas dinner, or bake challah bread French toast sticks for my chemistry class, I’m aware that achievement doesn’t have to be measured empirically. It’s that entrepreneurial, self-driven determination to bring ideas to life that drives me. My dad lives life off the beaten path. I, too, hope to bring that unorthodox attitude to other people and communities.
All too often I’m left with the seemingly unanswerable question: “What does my dad do?” But the answer, all too simply, is that he does what he does best: Inspire his son.
“Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Not only do Benjamin Franklin’s words still resonate today, but, if you are like most, filing income taxes is simply unpleasant. For me, however, preparing taxes has been a telescopic lens with which to observe the disparate economic realities present in our society. In looking through this lens, I have seen firsthand how low wages and, at times, regressive public policy can adversely impact the financially fragile, and how I can make a difference.
This coming year will be my third volunteering every Saturday during tax season with AARP’s Tax-Aide Program. In the basement of the Morningside Heights Library in Manhattan, we help the elderly and low-income individuals file their taxes. During my first season, I handled organizational tasks and assisted intake counselors with the initial interview process.
When I told the AARP manager that I wanted to return the following season and do actual tax preparation, she was skeptical, especially since the next youngest tax preparer at my location was 37. That, however, did not deter me: Though I would be just 16 before the start of the season, I diligently studied the material and passed the advanced I.R.S. qualification test.
As a volunteer, my goal is to help my clients obtain every credit they are entitled to and place vitally needed money in their pockets. To do this, I need much more than just technical knowledge. It is also essential to connect on a human level. I make it a point to put each person at ease by actively listening to his or her story.
For example, the young woman, who is a recently minted United States citizen and barely speaks English, mentions that her disabled grandmother lives with her. Her story allows me to determine she can claim a dependent care credit for her grandmother and a $1,000 earned income credit. These credits represent approximately 20 percent of her income and will go toward buying her grandmother’s medications and other necessities.
I am saddened at times by the palpable stress of those living on the edge of economic subsistence. Basic necessities such as sneakers and dental care, which I had never thought twice about, are out of reach for many. I vividly remember the single mom from Queens who works at Target and spent $400 (a week’s paycheck) at H&R Block last year. By not having to pay for tax preparation this year and the credits she can claim, she confided she will be able to buy her son, who is my age, new shoes for track and hopefully see a dentist for a tooth that has been throbbing for months.
As a volunteer, I have learned the importance of empathizing, listening and communicating complex and technical matters simply. Making my clients feel at ease allows them to understand my explanation of how their money is being taxed. I have also gained insight into how tax policy affects the financial and physical health of the working poor and elderly. While I have not changed the tax system (though someday I plan to), I have changed how my clients interact with it.
Beyond Benjamin Franklin’s two certainties in life of death and taxes, I would add a third: the enduring power of the human spirit. I remember an octogenarian man with a cane who waited two hours in line on a bone-chillingly rainy Saturday in February. He is somehow able to survive in Manhattan on $15,000 of Social Security earnings a year. Even though his income is below the filing requirement, together we claim $77 of school tax and rent credits, which translates into two weeks of groceries.
When we finish, he says to me, “See you next year.” It is at that moment I know I have made a tangible difference.
The way the light shined on her skin as she sewed the quilt emphasized the details of every wrinkle, burn and cut. While she completed the overcast stitch, the thimble on her index finger protected her from the needle pokes. She wore rings on every finger of her right hand, but on her left she only wore her wedding ring. The rings drew the attention away from her age and scars to her cherished possessions.
My grandmother’s rings had not only been stolen by her son, my father, but she was constantly in the state of fear that he would steal from her once again. When my father was incarcerated, she wore her rings every day of the week; however, when he was home, her hands were bare. As it became increasingly common over time, she learned to hide her treasures in a jewelry box under her bed.
As a small child, I watched my grandmother’s hands move in an inward and outward motion, noticing her rhythm. This rhythm was like the cha-cha music I heard every Sunday when I went with her to the pulga, the flea market. Every week, she bargained on the vendor’s products and brought home “unnecessary necessities”; luckily, some weeks it just happened to be thread and new sewing outlines. As my grandma sewed my outfits for school, I was always trying to complete the outline of La Rosa de Guadalupe just so I could impress her. I would sing along to her favorite Prince Royce songs, use the same color of thread as her and try to go at the same cha-cha.
With my father incarcerated, the women in my family went to work. At the age of 11, I started working for the very first time as a cleaning lady with my grandparents. Even though I wanted to help my family, I was ashamed to be a cleaning lady. I argued with my mother against living a life like that, a life in which I gave up my childhood for my family’s stability. After being called “malagradecida” — ungrateful — several times, my grandmother reacquainted me with the idea that “todas las cosas buenas vienen a los que esperan” — all good things come to those who wait. Sewing was no longer a hobby, but a necessity, when it came to making my own apron, seaming together rags and pushing for a better future for my family. My grandmother, too, had to put down her quilt and go to work, but she never complained.
In recent years, my grandmother has become increasingly ill, so I took her unfinished quilt to my home, planning to complete it. My grandmother did not choose to leave this project unfinished; her age and constant contribution to her family through work did not allow her to. Often, obstacles have not only redesigned my course, but have changed my perspective and allowed for me to see greater and better things present within my life. The progression of each patch depicts the instability present within my family. However, when you put all these patches together as one, you have a quilt with several seams and reinforcements keeping it together to depict the obstacles we have faced and have overcome to show resilience.
Now, when she visits our home, as she reaches for her glasses and pushes her walker away from the table, my grandmother asks me to bring her the quilt. The jeweled hands that were once accustomed to constant stitching are now bare, and the scars are hidden under every wrinkle. With a strong grip on the quilt, my grandmother signals me to get her sewing basket that sits in the corner collecting dust. She runs her hands over the patches one last time and finds an unfinished seam. She smiles and says, “Cerrar la costura y hacer una colcha de su propio” — close the seam and make a quilt of your own.
Ron Lieber is the Your Money columnist and author of “The Opposite of Spoiled.” He previously helped develop the personal finance web site FiLife and wrote for The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and Fortune.