I’d taken the bus across town transferred to another and then arrived an hour ahead of my appointment. The lines were always long and being late only made it worse. I knew the routine, even though I hated it.
I pushed open the double doors and scanned the sea of faces now staring at me. We seemed to check one another out, seeing if we really deserved food stamps. At least that’s what I was thinking. All the chairs were taken, so I leaned against the wall.
The huge clock above my head ticked annoyingly as I watched people file up to the cubicles to receive their monthly allotment. Children played on the floor while moms or dads thumbed through the old magazines. I had envisioned many things about college, but welfare hadn’t been one of them. Each month I pledged that I’d somehow make more money.
I pulled out some homework and waited my turn. In the muffled background, I heard my name. I looked around, but the voice didn’t come from the counter. A woman my age was smiling a bit tentatively at me. It took a few seconds of mental rewinding …clear back to the fifth grade. Denise.
She had been new to my school and we’d quickly become good friends. We both struggled academically. Somehow her happy-go-lucky spirit when she got another ‘D’ made me feel better about my poor grades. Denise made no excuses though—and she always claimed that next time we’d do better. By mid-school year she was right. I was doing better. By the end of fifth grade, I was getting mostly A’s. Denise always celebrated my success even though her grades remained low. I worried about sixth grade, and Denise said, “You’ll be okay, you know how to make it now.“ She moved away and we hadn’t seen one another until now…. in a food stamp office.
We stepped outside into the cloudy fall day. It was easy to pick up where we left off—she had continued to bounce from school to school—following her army family. Now we were both struggling young adults. But for a brief time we were two young girls at recess, reassuring one another that next time we’d do better. I told her I didn’t like having to get food stamps. She assured me I wouldn’t need them long and she was right.
I never saw Denise again. I've thought about her sometimes—when I faced job or financial struggles. “You’ll be okay, you know how to make it now.“ Those words made me feel better in the fifth grade—and again years later outside a food stamp office. Thanks, Denise. It’s a good reminder. Sometimes the words of a friend come at the wrong place but at just the right time.