I am the oldest of eleven and have seven brothers and three sisters. We lived in a house in the country, but it wasn’t a farmhouse. The house sat out the middle of a field. My father built this house with materials from a house that was torn down. We did not have indoor plumbing or running water until the utility room was added on to the house. I don’t remember how we survived without running water, but we did. Unfortunately, because the house sat in a gully on a concrete foundation, when the snow melted in the spring, water ran through the house. Thirteen of us lived in this small, three- bedroom, one bathroom house. It was not unusual for the septic tank to “back up” and we stepped in raw sewage to get to the bathroom. Because the septic system did not work properly, we were not permitted to flush the toilet. We went for days without running water when the pipes froze up during the harsh Wisconsin winters. No wonder we had pinworms. Try going to school and acting normally with pinworms!
Going to confirmation classes on Saturday morning was important. Walter Cloud (I called him Mr. Cloud) drove his daughter and me to class. Sometimes, he and his wife, took me to Sunday church. Walter, who owned a paper mill, lived with his family in a stone home on the Fox River. One morning, they picked me up in a new robin’s egg blue Corvair. Wow! Often, he and Mrs. Cloud sang hymns in the car. Sometimes they took me to lunch and I deliberately selected the least expensive item on the menu. Another time, they invited me to stay overnight at their home for a clambake. I was expecting clams! Before Walter died, I thanked him and his wife for these gifts:
1. They demonstrated a relationship based on love and mutual respect.
2. They showed me there is room to love someone outside the immediate family.
3. They showed me that hard work could pay off and having elegant things could be a good thing.
4. They showed me a neat and clean home.
5. They showed me the positive side of routine.
6. They accepted me, believed in me, and complimented me for being smart.
7. They modeled faith in action.
8. They never made me feel small or poor and spoke of my family with respect.
Educators in my world talk about providing poor kids with enriching experiences like field trips. The Clouds provided a “field trip” into a functional family. I believe that role models offer poor children a glimpse into what might be. They offer hope. To make a lasting difference, it is my belief that role models must understand that many poor children live a life shrouded in secrecy marked by inexplicable loyalty.
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