“The Greatest Poverty is the Poverty of the Mind,” read Jonas from the board.
“What sort of a title is that?”
“It’s a reflection, something to think about, and to write on,” replied his teacher, “I’d like an essay from each of you on the subject by Monday.”
The class grumbled as usual and packed up their books, eager to be out of the hot school, and off to weekend pursuits.
“That’s dumb,” said Jonas to his friend Matt, as they strolled down the dusty road, “How can you have a poor mind?”
“Well, I’d say you have a pretty poor mind when it comes to math! Ouch!” Max dodged out of the way of Jonas’ fist, and ran off up the road towards his house, yelling taunting comments all the way.
Jonas made a face at his departing friend, then sighed and trudged home, wishing he could have something easy for homework, like building a model of Mars or something.
Dropping his backpack inside the door Jonas went in search of something to eat.
“Hey, Mum,” he asked, slathering jam on a piece of bread, “what’s the greatest poverty?”
“Hm?” asked Jonas’ mother, who was paying bills at the computer, “what’s that?”
“The greatest poverty?” repeated Jonas.
“Why, not having enough money to cover your expenses, like food, and heating, and the mortgage, and all your clothes and shoes and hockey gear,” answered his mother.
Jonas nodded. That is what he had thought too, but he did not think his teacher was after that sort of a reply. Leaving the kife stuck in the jam he wiped his sticky fingers on his jeans and wandered into the next room. His father had just finished an early shift and was relaxing in front of the TV, drink in one hand, remote in the other.
“Hi, Dad,” said Jonas.
“Hello son,” said his father.
“Dad, what do you think is the worst kind of poverty?”
“Poverty? Is that what you’re asking about?” Jonas’ father was only half listening, his eyes glued to a TV game.
“Poverty is where you don’t have as much as the guy next door, or the rich crooks that run everything. The government is always talking about poverty, and people being below the poverty line. If they carry on wasting our tax money like this we’ll all be below the poverty line.”
He flicked the channel, muttering, “nothing good on TV anymore.”
Jonas gave his father a high five and wandered out of the room. His sister was in the office, giggling on the phone while she typed furiously on the computer, keeping up two conversations at once. Jonas mouthed at her that he wanted some help.
“What?” she took the phone away from her ear and covered the mouthpiece with her hand.
“Poverty,” said Jonas, “what-”
“Oh no, you don’t,” answered his sister loudly, “you borrowed ten bucks from me last week and you haven’t paid it back yet, so nothing doing.”
“I meant–,” Jonas began, but it was no use, she wasn’t listening.
Jonas gave up and went to his room. He picked up his Game Boy and played a few rounds of his latest game. It was too easy: he had already beaten the level several times. He wondered what it would be like not to have all the things they had, like a house and a TV and a car. Different, he supposed. Like some of those people they saw on TV sometimes, the ones who only lived in houses made of sticks. He remembered seeing some people who had had to leave their home, or lost it for some reason, he could not remember. They must be really poor. Surely that must be the worst thing. Maybe their school got washed away too; Jonas wished his school could be washed away.
After a while Jonas got up and wandered downstairs again. His grandmother had turned up, and was sitting at the table with a cup of tea, talking to his mother, who was rushing around, only half listening. His father was asleep in front of the TV.
“Jonas, there you are,” said his mother, “I have to go and take these papers to the office. Will you sit with Nana?”
“Don’t mind me,” said his grandmother, “off you go, I’ll be here when you get back,” and she smiled at Jonas as the kitchen door banged behind his mother.
“What’s up? Hard day at school?” Jonas’ grandmother could always tell when somebody was bothered.
“I have to write about poverty,” Jonas said, pulling out a chair and sitting at the table.
“Ah, not easy, is it?”
“What kind of poverty?”
Jonas looked up. “What do you mean?”
“What exactly do you have to write?”
“The greatest poverty is the poverty of the mind,” recited Jonas.
His grandmother closed her eyes and thought for a bit.
“Hope,” she said.
“Hope what?” Jonas asked, “hope I don’t have to do it? Hope I’ll get an A?”
“Hope,” repeated his grandmother. “What happens when you don’t have hope?”
“Um, then I guess everything looks pretty bad.”
“Exactly. That’s the greatest poverty. If you don’t have hope, you can’t imagine that things will get better; you have nothing left to live for. No matter what you’re missing, or what you’ve lost, if you have hope, then you’re not poor.”
“Oh,” said Jonas, “what about the people who have no food, or no house?”
“They can still hope, they can still dream,” said his grandmother, “so long as they can imagine a future, they can work to make it a better one. But once you give up hope, you have nothing.”
Jonas nodded. He thought he understood.
“Thanks, Nana,” he patted her hand, “you’ve been a great help.”