860: Learning Money in Reverse

860: Learning Money in Reverse

860: Learning Money in Reverse


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Once I was called into a meeting with a donor at my nonprofit job. In a moment that I witnessed as an education in noblesse oblige, the donor had brought along his college-aged son, who was slightly younger than me. He was teaching him how to be a philanthropist, a moment that stuck with me for a long time. I often shared this story with my son.

On the eve of his last birthday, I called and jokingly said, “So, should we talk about money?” We both laughed, hysterically. Where I’m from, a child of working-class people, money wasn’t discussed in the home; it was argued about. And we definitely did not have conversations about giving money away.

I hated the pall money cast over my parents, and the desperation it created in my community, how it set the agenda for how neighbors lived their lives, and how their children treated others either less fortunate or more affluent, even more sadly, how it became a wedge between people, and how it divorced them from their better selves.

When my son first moved to Brooklyn, his recently-landed job did not start for two months; until then, he worked in a wine store. He loved it. During this period, I’d offer to buy dinner whenever I traveled to New York City. With its rising rents, I knew the financial challenges he faced living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. He readily accepted.

We dined at starred restaurants. I cherished those dinners discussing the drama of our extended family, music, and his widening circle of friends. Of course, the more settled into his work he became, the busier his life did, too. Understandably, our nights laughing over bucatini carbonara and glasses of Nebbiolo grew less frequent. He launched into his career and, according to our country’s cherished precepts, began the long journey of accumulating wealth.

One night as we were leaving a restaurant together, I felt guilty about the potential example I was setting. This was New York City; one could not look away from the homelessness and indigency. Ever since, whenever we eat out, I seek budget-friendly dining options and encourage him to alternately pay. I want to share the practice of thoughtful financial habits, to encourage his self-reliance.

Today’s ingenious poem calls attention to the lived realities of financial literacy, how it’s touch and go, and how it’s thrust upon us if we are not fortunate to receive those lessons in our home.

Learning Money in Reverse
by Stephanie Niu

My mother can still afford to retire.
She withdraws her offer on the foreclosed house.

My drunken signature vanishes from a receipt.
Friends dodge disappearing plates of sushi.

The word bitcoin has never buzzed in my brain.
Boxes of takeout repackage themselves.

I return my first pair of full-priced boots.
I un-sign my first lease. I go home.

My parents remarry. I have not yet chosen
the school that will cost their life savings.

I close and seal the scholarship rejections.
My first paystub folds back into the letter.

My forehead unkisses the floor and I pass
the red envelope back to my mother.

We move into a smaller, more crowded house,
where I fry sesame seeds with Lao Lao, and the HOA

reprimands us for growing winter melon on the porch.
I pedal backwards on my sister’s bike. I hand back

her worn clothes. We put coins from our palms
back into our father’s coat, having just told him good job

because we think this is what he earns in a day,
and it is enough. He’s about to come home.

"Learning Money in Reverse" by Stephanie Niu. Used by permission of the poet.