Wednesday, 3 December 2014

All that Glitters

Lately, my son has been mentioning some remarks that have been made by his peers regarding people's wealth and material possessions  - or lack thereof. These comments are usually along the lines of how big somebody's house is, how impressive their car is or how much their shoes cost. I wouldn't go as far as to say these remarks disturb me, but they definitely irk me at times, especially considering my son, who was perfectly happy with our house when we first moved into it, has began making comments about how embarrassing it is to live in such a small home.

He's also convinced that certain members of his peer group have begun leaving him out of things "because they're rich and we're poor". When I accompanied his class on an excursion recently, I actually heard one child in the group I was sitting with at lunchtime announce: "Have you guys seen (such and such's) house?" in a tone that implied repulsion. He was not taking about my son, but it did give me an insight into the kind of talk Ben has been describing to me.

This attitude actually surprises me because this is the lowest socio-economic area we have lived in and yet it's the first time Ben has felt inferior at school on the basis of tangible wealth. Clearly, the kids' comments are reflective of their parents' and possibly precisely because this is a low socio-economic area, some people feel that they have something to prove.

I've done my best to explain to Ben that while our house may be small, we are rich in other ways - in our health, our family and our friends, in the knowledge we have gained through our travels and the strength we have gained by overcoming our adversities. It's a difficult thing though sometimes to explain to a ten-year-old who wants nothing more at this age than to fit in with his peers. I try to help him understand that money doesn't automatically make people happy, or kind or wise.

A few days after I had been on that school excursion, a friend of mine came over for dinner. She always has interesting stories to tell me and that night she told me a story apropos of wealth which I am unlikely to forget.

For the past year, my friend has been employed as a clinical psych registrar, a job that satisfies her intellectually but which is also enormously demanding. While we were eating, she mentioned that there are times when she finds herself wishing she were still employed at The Perth Mint - the job she had while she was a uni student. She had no 'take-home' work and no emotional attachment to the job the way she does now.

It was also an interesting place to work, she said, because each day an array of varied people would walk through the doors. There were tourists from a range of nations, buyers of bullion and connoisseurs of coins. And then there were those who came to peruse the opulent jewellery available for purchase and who had, quite often, too much money to know what to do with it.

Now my friend is restricted in terms of what she can divulge about her current job due to client confidentiality, but there is no reason why she couldn't recount some of her tales from her days at The Mint, including one about a lady who fitted right into the category of customer most recently mentioned.

Being a uni student and living away from home, my friend didn't have an enormous disposable income, but still managed to look fantastic (this is my own observation, not part of the story she told me!). Anyway, even though The Mint offered its employers generous staff discounts she still usually wore jewellery bought elsewhere because, despite the discount, the items were still astronomically expensive.

She had a pair of earrings that she often wore to work because they went well with her uniform and the 'look' she was expected to portray. They were a purchase she had made in a bargain jewellery franchise in a shopping centre which set her back $10. One particular day, she was wearing these earrings at work when a woman came into the jewellery section and began slowly examining the items behind the glass cabinets. My friend had seen her in there before and knew she had money and knew how to spend it.

The woman moved towards the cabinet where pairs of earrings sold for $20 000 and above. She asked to see one of the pairs. She took the box, looked closely at the earrings, took one out, looked in the mirror, shook her head and put it back in the box. She proceeded to repeat this process about half a dozen times, each time with a different pair of earrings priced at $20 000 or more.

Finally, the woman gave an exasperated sign and said: "I just can't find what I'm looking for. Can you show me where the ones you're wearing are kept? What I really want is a pair just like that".