fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

Close this search box.

fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

Close this search box.
  1. Home
  2. /
  3. Stories
  4. /
  5. The Nightstand

The Nightstand

Editor’s Note: This piece was a finalist in the Pulse writing contest, “On Being Different.”

Poverty has many ways of marking a child.

Growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s in a Southern cotton-mill town, I was the fourth of six children of a single mother who did the best that she could; but her job as a hemmer of washcloths in Plant #1 paid little, and six children had many necessities that shut the door on nonessentials.

Growing up in the textile town, I was reminded of my poverty by what I could not have. I was aware that my family’s poverty marked me as different, and I came to accept that my mother barely had the quarters needed for the daily school lunch, much less the half-dollar for admission to the Friday-night football game. I came to believe that in asking her for any extra, I would be hurting her, because she would see my adolescent want as a shortcoming. My mother gave all that she could, but sometimes a growing boy wanted more, because he suffered from a dangerous emotion—envy.

During my eighth-grade year, each boy was required to take a semester-long woodworking class taught by Mr. Miller in a small, separate building behind Cannon Junior High School. He conducted classes about safety and making things with wood, and we each had to produce a piece of furniture to demonstrate our gained knowledge and skill. Coffee tables of mahogany were most popular for my classmates to build, but my project could not be one of those fine wooden tables. The superb wood was too expensive for my mother to buy, so I built a nightstand—out of plywood. Its dimensions were those of a standard nightstand, and the only solid wooden piece was the drawer front, which was poplar. I still remember finding a gold-plated knob in Montgomery Ward for the drawer pull, and the price of it was a hurdle to clear, but my mother somehow found the necessary fifty cents. Mr. Miller helped me assemble the nightstand, and I learned its weight as I carried it across town to our home, two miles away. It was an awkward, heavy weight for a small boy—a weight that is with me still.

Just like Randy’s car coat.

During the early 1960s, high-school students were allowed to walk downtown for lunch. One winter day I had gone with some classmates to the YMCA, where for a quarter you could get a bottled drink and two oatmeal cookies. While not nutritious, it was a lunch many fifteen-year-old boys enjoyed. On that warming day, an older boy named Randy asked me to take his car coat to school.

Wow, I remember thinking, I get to wear a coat like the ones rich kids wear, and off I went to return to school, wearing that wonderful car coat.

When I strutted into the student common room, just before afternoon classes, a girl who happened to be a relative saw me and asked, “Why, Roger, whose coat is that?” Embarrassed by her all-too-knowing insult, I walked away, pining for the day when I could work after school and buy such clothes for myself.

Our small town had a generous variety of stores, and especially clothing ones. So when I did get an after-school job the following year, I was able to buy my own clothes, and I became a regular customer at either Haney & Holbrook or Query Brothers. They sold the most popular styles and brands in our town, and for several reasons I will always remember my original Gant shirt.

The first day I wore that Oxford blue, button-down shirt to school, I felt like a pilgrim who had reached the promised land.

A photograph was being taken of the male varsity athletes (of which I was one) on the steps of the athletic building. Most everyone in the group wore his varsity jacket. Because of the expense, I had no jacket, but I was wearing my first Gant shirt. As we waited for the photographer to take the photograph, a fellow behind me hooked his index finger through the locker loop of my shirt, gave it a tug and said, “Where’d ya get this shirt, Roger?” My poverty had followed me.

But the bubble called high school, which sometimes had felt like fishhooks embedded in my flesh, eventually ended, and I left my hometown for college.

Entering college was akin to being the first to walk on fresh snow. I was not carrying the reputation with which poverty had marked me. Yet I had those barbs to deal with, even as I was beginning a fresh phase.

Over time, and with a few minor successes in college, I came to realize that my high-school envy of what other students possessed, such as clothes, had only hurt me, because I had focused on them and not myself.

I came to understand the wisdom of William Hazlitt, who writes, “Those who are most distrustful of themselves are the most envious of others; as the most weak and cowardly are the most revengeful.” I came to realize that sometimes those lives of luxury were not always luxurious, and that Gant shirts could mask a life of sorrow. As I began studying to become an educator, I began to trust and value myself, leaving what others possessed to themselves.

My first students, seventh-graders who lived in a rural county and mostly in abject poverty, were wonderful teachers. Though I was with them for only one year, I carried their lessons for more than forty years in my roles as a teacher, coach and school administrator. But no matter the kind of school in which I worked, from that poor rural one to a tony urban one in our nation’s capital, I always looked for any marginalized student, who came in many forms in every school, because no school was immune to what I began to refer to as “the culture of the hallways,” where a marginalized student, away from supervision, could be subjected to ridicule from other students.

Over my years as an educator, I learned that the best way to help such students was to teach all students that kindness and a generous spirit benefited them all—and their schools. I used that nightstand and my Gant shirt as constant reminders of how it felt to be marginalized and as inspirations to follow the words of singer Tim McGraw: “Always stay humble and kind.”

The barbed fishhooks of envy and experience afflict us all. Even the envied students who wore Gant shirts, I had learnt, also struggled.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator living in Woodstock, Virginia, with his wife, one hound and four cats. His words have appeared in the Washington Post, the Birmingham Arts Journal, Page & Spine, Memoir Magazine, Rain Taxi, Potato Soup Magazine, Ailment, New Southern Fugitive and other publications. His poetry chapbook Applewood Street was published in 2022 by Plan B Press. He is a regular contributor to The Sports Column and


6 thoughts on “The Nightstand”

  1. Sandra Seyfarth Lechner

    Thank you for sharing your wise message of the gift of kindness and role modeling of character. Job well done Sir.

  2. Gant was a think, wasn’t it? But, in an odd way, that little loop in the back yanked you right into a lifetime of serving others.

    Rog Bowen

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Stories

Popular Tags
Scroll to Top