Ruby Payne Interview notes - Lincoln Memorial University

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April 17, 2008

Interview: Multicultural Dimensions of some of the Poverty Issues addressed by Ruby

in “A Framework for Understanding Poverty”

Dr. Murphree


I am Dr. Patricia Murphree, Professor of Curriculum and
Instruction in th
e Graduate Education Department of Lincoln Memorial University. And
this is Ms. Nuzhat Nadvi
, who is the Guidance Counselor at the J. Frank White Academy
of LMU. Ms. Nadvi
received her Masters in Guidance and Counseling as well as her Ed.

Memorial. As a student Ms. Nadvi was very affected by our study of poverty
issues and Ruby Payne, because she could see how universally applicable those issues
were, even in her own life.

Dr. Ruby K. Payne

a pioneer in helping us understand the ‘cul
ture of poverty’, how it
affects children as well as adults in various ways, and how we as educators and
professionals can work with them effectively and help prepare them for the world we all
have to live in. Her book,
‘A Framework for Understanding Pove

outlines the hidden
rules of different economic classes, and teaches that in spite of obstacles one
rise above
. In this respect
have an important role to play, not only in teaching children
coming from poverty the hidden rules of the mi
ddle class, but to let them know too that
they have the choice as well as the ability, to lead a happier, more fulfilling and productive
life, and be comfortable doing so.


stats about poverty here).

Dr. Payne’s work has

local, n
ational and global impli
, and

she herself


poverty is a global issue, even though



as apparent in wealthy nations as it
is in the economically impoverished nations. Thus it is an issue that educators and
professionals have to deal with everywh
ere. And her theory that poverty and wealth exist
on a continuum

with people often moving up and down that continuum
, is something


of us can relate to. Her theory of generational versus situational poverty raises
interesting issues as well.


is here to talk about
some of tho
se issues
, how they

have played out in her own life
and how she can relate to so much of what Ruby Payne is all about.

So Nuzhat, tell me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and your childhood and



Hi Dr. Murphree, and thank you so much for allo
wing me to share my
as well as my deep admiration and appreciation of Dr. R
uby Payne and her
work on poverty issues. I would like to share some of
s that I have noticed
between my own life, which I always thought was a roller
coaster until you introduced me
to Ruby Payne, and the continuum of poverty and wealth that s
he talks about, as well

of generational versus situational poverty and how that has played out in my own


life. To tell you the truth,
my personal journey with
Ruby Payne has helped me understand

in a way tha
t I probably never would have.

nd for that I am deeply grateful to

and to you as well for introducing
my class

to her works.

My story is not

I believe that each and every one of us has led a unique life,
and we only have to look at
some of
our experiences in the fra
mework of
Ruby Payne’s

in order to have a better understanding of ourselves. My story is also reflected in
the stories of millions of refugees and immigrants down the ages, many of whom have
traveled the continuum of wealth and poverty.

So as I

continue to try to understand my own journey in life, I hope this will help others
understand themselves better, as well as those around them, especially the precious
children who are our students.

I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and spent most of my childhood there. Pakistan at that
time was a very young country, and like thousands of others my parents had migrated as
refugees from India, with not much more tha
n the clothes on

their backs. But let me start
with my grandparents and India in the 30s and 40s
, while it was still a part of the British

This will help explain where my parents were coming from.

On my Mom’s side
her grandfather

my great

a well
known lawyer,
state prosecutor and member of the university senate committee
, among other things

also had the title of Khan Bahadur
, which was a title awarded
by th
e British rule

various services to the Empire.
My Mom’s

my grandfathe

came to the U.S. during
the 20s and got a degree in Engineering from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
, MI,

and held a prestigious position in a
company in India.

Both men had their own
cars, chauffeurs and personal valets, and serva
nts galore.
They owned a dairy
and an
in the countryside,
as well as land on which they grew various

So in short
my Mom came from a very well
educated and well
urban family

On my Dad’s side, his

my grandfather

was a f
eudal landlord who had tenant
farmers working on his vast tracts of land.

My grandfather loved hunting and riding, and
had a stable of prized horses, as well as his own pet elephant. He led

life of the wealthy
landed gentry,

but made sure his sons go
t a modern education; two of them went into law
while my Dad went into Economics and Banking.

My parents got married in the mid
, as WW II was coming to an end. Sadly,

own country
was in turmoil,
and the way of life as they had known
it was a

ng to an
My Mom’s dad and grandfather both died within months of each other, leaving
behind a houseful of women and children, and a country in the midst of war.
Pakistan was
created in 1947 and as I said, my parents and their families along
with thousands of others
fled India with little more than the clothes on their backs. In fact they were lucky to get out
alive; thousands lost their lives
trying to flee.

This was the first steep plunge from wealth

to poverty. Since Pakistan itself had just been
created, there were hardly any services in place to take care of the needs of thousands of


refugees. Families, friends, neighbors and strangers basically helped each other. My Mom’s
grandmother had stayed o
n in India, and when she came to visit the family in Pakistan

following year, I am sure she must have been appalled to see crowded apartments housing
three families each, strict rationing of food and essential items, and her daughter, my
grandmother, s
laving over a coal stove in a kitchen
her servants would have looked
down upon. And not a servant in sight either, except for a maid who came

to sweep
the floors and clean the bathroom.

I remember that maid. It made me realize there were


Poverty is relative, as
Ruby Payne reminds us. I didn’t know we were poor

I thought the maid was poor
later I was reading something by Maya Angelou I believe, and there was mention of having
to eat yams every day because they were so poor
, and it just hit me: was that why my
grandmother served us yams so often, because we were poor? She used to put the yams to
roast in the ashes after breakfast, which we kids had for our mid
morning snack, and we
loved it so much. I thought she did it bec
ause she loved us, because she knew that we liked
it. I never heard my grandmother complain even once that they were poor, or talk about the
life they had known.

I would never have known some of the things if my Mom had not talked
about it
so much.
r world turned upside down at the age of 16

losing her dad,
grandfather and then
her grandmother, the three people she had been closest to; getting pulled out of

and being married off because there was no
male in the house

and the
country was in
the midst of war; leaving her home and all her belongings and feeling lucky just to be alive
and to be able to sleep in peace

learning to cook, wash

run a household. That
was a lot to deal with for anyone, and telling us stories
of her childhood was probably her
way of saving her own sanity. Not just that; as she moved on the continuum of wealth to
poverty to wealth she learned lessons and made observations that helped shape my own
thinking and awareness. E.g. as we eased back in
to middle class and then wealth, both my
parents were determined that their children were always going to do their chores
themselves. No servant was going to make their beds, polish their shoes or iron their
clothes. As my Mom would remind us, if we had a

staff of 10 we should know how to
handle them, and if we had none we shoul
d know how to do it ourselves.

My Dad worked at the State
Bank of Pakistan, which is
the Federal Reserve Bank
. H
e and
his col


helped to create the banking industry of the country.
And in spite of
my parents’

education remained a top priority for the whole family. It was the
golden rope to pull ourselves out of poverty.

my Mom’s s
iblings finished s
chool and
most went on to college. Her brother got a Ph.D. and her sister became the first woman in
the family to get a Masters

in the late 60s
. And the expectations were just as high for
. My parents sacrificed a lot in order to send us to the b
est schools they could afford,
and by now

I am talking about the late 50s

we were very much a middle class family,
with a beautiful bungalow sitting on a large lot in a newly developing suburb.

We not only had indoor plumbing and running hot and cold
water, we also had western
style toilets as opposed to the Indian style. We had a very 50s
kitchen with shiny
red oilcloth dinette set,
and a
up kerosene stove with 4 burners and an oven.


owned a car, a
n Admiral

fridge and a wringer washe
r, and my Mom was very proud of her
sewing machine.

In fact by Pakistani standards we were definitely upper
middle class, but only


one or two servants.

I remember Mom’s comment about the car
and especially the driver


She said

as a child she was used to seeing their
chauffeur taking care of their car or changing the tires. Her dad knew all about cars, but
would never have dreamed of changing the tires himself and getting his hands dirty. It
bothered her that Dad thought nothing

of popping the hood and changing tires. Hidden
rules again.

And then we

into wealth, or at least a wealthier lifestyle.
We flew
first class
Bangladesh, which was at that time known as East Pakistan
, where my Dad assumed the
position of ma
nager at the
State Bank of Pakistan
. We were required to live on the bank’s
premises, which was a huge place. We had a cook and house servant, plus two cars and
chauffeurs that belonged to the bank
, as well as our own car.

We had one servant whose
only jo
b was to dust every item in every room every day. Plus we had a huge garden and a
as well

My Mom taught us to treat the servants, especially the chauffeurs with respect
, because
they were about my Dad’s age.

Do you know that even among servants

there is a
hierarchy? Chauffeurs are right up there, and those who clean the bathrooms rank the
And we had to be

not to play with the chauffeurs’ kids


ecause my siblings
and I had not been born in wealth, so the concept that it was inappro
priate for the master’s
kids to mingle with the kids of the
staff and servants had to be taught! Aha! A
Ruby Payne moment!! The hidden rules…!

I also r
lessons on how to set the table

and fold and place the napkins

just right
, to
know th
e salad
and dessert
fork from the fish fork and the main fork, to know the butter
knife from the steak knife,
the soup

spoon from the tea

spoon and table spoon, and so on.
The di
ner plate from the breakfast plate

and the bread and salad plate, the soup b
versus the cereal bowl. And oh the table manners! Don’t load your plate, and don’t take the
last item of any food from the serving bowl or plate. Don’t spill, don’t slurp
breathe into your glass
. Keep your elbows off the table; don’t speak w
ith food in your
mouth, and don’t speak at all if possible when we have company.
And my parents loved to
we had lots of company!

It’s not that we had not been taught manners; we knew them, but now the rules were more
You have to

that in
middle class
the rules regarding the dinner table are
more lax
, comparatively speaking
. You don’t normally set out three different forks and two
different knives. The company you have is not so ‘upper class’

and they are not judging
you in c
ase you

out of line
, so you are more relaxed. It doesn’t matter if you tap your
boiled eggs daintily or chop off the top with a spoon
, as long as you don’t whack it off with

a knife.
You also have to know that in our culture we normally eat with our f
ingers, and
think nothing of sitting on the carpet and having the tablecloth spread on the carpet. Knives
and forks have no place in such a setting, and given the right company and atmosphere,
even the rich will think nothing of sitting and eating like thi
s. It’s all about not forgetting
your roots, even if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth.


I remember an incident that happened in
Bangladesh, which

I didn’t fully understand
I read Ruby Payne. And then it was an Aha! moment!! I was about 11 years old and
heading home from some place, with my younger sister in the car with me. The chauffeur
was driving, when we saw a crowd of people up ahead on

the side of the road. We slowed
down, both because of the crowd and to see what was going on. Now Bangladesh is a very
poor and a very wet country, with ponds, lakes and streams everywhere. Kids learn to swim
as soon as they learn to walk.
Still, drowning
s occur. Apparently a boy of about 12 or 13
had drowned in a pond, and they had just pulled his body out of the water. With no car
nearby and no phone to call the ambulance, the people were frantic. A man came running
up to our car and told us what had hap
pened. He asked if we could help take the boy to the
hospital. And the chauffeur turned around to me and asked: “Ma’am, is it alright if we t
this boy to the hospital?”. I froze, but had sense enough to say yes. So we took the boy to
the hospital, but

my heart was pounding the whole way. That was a very grownup decision
and a very grownup responsibility. I would have been quite content for the chauffeur to
have made that decision, but by asking me he had put me on the spot, and I wasn’t sure at
all if
I had made the right decision. We finally got home and I was still quite shaken by the
whole incident. We told Mom what had happened, and my
main concern was
, “d
id I do the
right thing?

Mom reassured me that I had, and I breathed easier.

Enter Ruby Pa
yne, and I could finally understand that incident. You see, I had not been
born in wealth. Taking on roles, responsibilities and command were not part of my life

the idea that I was always above the servants and
domestic staff
, no matter
w old they were or how young I was. The chauffeur had been born in poverty
, and

knew the pecking order: if the master was not there the lady of the house was in charge,
and if neither were there the children were in charge, starting with the oldest. Th
ey were
the ones he obeyed and answered to; it would not have occurred to him to make

decision on his own

After a few years we returned to Karachi,
but our house was rented out

so we spent a few

with my grandmother. She had moved out of her
little apartment long ago,
into a
small house in another suburb
, where she lived with 3 of

my Mom’s siblings
. When my
parents moved in with 4 kids, the
house was bursting at the seams. But any other
alternative was unthinkable; families stuck toget

As many new
suburbs went in those
there was

neither running water nor indoor plumbing, which meant no indoor toilet,
not even the Indian style.
It was more like an outhouse.

when it rained the house
Well, back into poverty.

Good thi
ng we had always done our own chores.

The most interesting thing I remember from those days is the weekly visit of the water
tanker. We had to buy the week’s supply of water, and store it in

drums. We used it for
drinking, washing and bathing in, a
s well as watering my grandmother’s bushes and vines.
And there was an order of priorities here too. To have enough water for drinking,


washing pots
pans and dishes
, and washing/bathing
was most important, in that order.
Laundry and the bushes we
re at the bottom of the list. In fact we did not start the laundry
(all of which we did by hand, for 10 people), until we saw the water tanker coming down
the street. Because sometimes it might be delayed for a day or two


In the meantime, my

Dad had another house built for us, so we finally moved back into the
comforts of middle class, with indoor plumbing, running hot and cold water, and the much
appreciated wringer washer. And that wa
s whe

I finished high school.

That was when
ad joine
d the IMF and we flew off to
Sierra Leone,
West Africa, where I
started college. It was again back to a wealthier lifestyle, with a Mercedes (
chauffeur), a mansion of a house, more servants, a gardener, and a security guard at the
gate. Summer vacati
ons were spent globe
trotting, from Canada and the U.S. to UK,
Europe, the Middle East, Pakistan, and closer to W. Africa

the Canary Islands.

It was interesting to see the different experiences that
air travel involved for economy vs.
first class passe
ngers. Traveling anywhere in the world we were
regular economy
passengers, subject to weight limitations and standing in line at the ticket counter, cramped
seats and mediocre food on plastic trays, dealing with the frustrations of lost luggage and

clearance, flagging our own taxi
, hotels that messed up reservations
But in Sierra
Leone we were big fish in a small pond, with more status etc.
Flying first class was
definitely the way to go. Shorter lines at the ticket counter, more cheerful staff to
deal with,
a more generous luggage allowance, spacious seats on the plane, and delicious meals and
fresh fruit served on china plates with linen napkins

and silverware, more luxurious pillows
and blankets, and steaming hot towels to help freshen up.
And tr
aveling VIP was even
better! We got escorted, or if we were at the airport to meet some dignitaries it was the
same. We got escorted to the VIP Lounge, and were served snacks and drinks while
someone else retrieved the luggage, got it cleared,
got passport
s stamped,
brought the car
around to the front of the airport, and announced that we were ready to go.

So I finished college

and got married in Pakistan over the summer.

After spending a year
with my parents
my husband and I

moved to Newfoundland, Canad
a with our infant son.
And back into poverty
, with a new twist: the immigrant experience
. My husband made
$445 a month as an intern, out of which $225 went for
rent for
which included utilities, thankfully. My Dad bought us a
ar, so add the cost of
insurance, registration and gas, medical books

which are expensive,
winter clothes,
and baby
related expenses.
We would probably have qualified for food stamps and WIC
benefits if we had known about it.
It was more than not kn
owing hidden rules; we didn’t
know what resources were there, especially since we were new to
he country.
So add the
immigrant dimension! How do they find out about resources?

At least we knew
language; how about those who don’t?

Dad also made the do
wn payment on

house, and gave us a cash gift to buy furniture. We
were lucky to get used furniture from friends who were moving away, and got a brand new
washer and dryer. I laugh when I think about
We were afraid

to buy a used washer and
dryer bec
ause we knew we wouldn’t know what to do if it broke down, and we knew that it
was expensive to get things repaired.
We were so clueless! Where were our priorities?
here was the


Part of not knowing the hidden rules of a class also means not
owing what resources are available.
I also discovered through Ruby Payne that when the


rich go down the continuum, there are often other rich relatives or friends ready to help or
bail them out. Talk about resources!

We moved about
7 or 8

times over t
he next 10 years, mostly small towns. That added
another dimension to my interesting life
, since I was a city girl
. It is bad enough being
poor, but when you are the only doctor in a small town who do you turn to and what are
your resources? You are set ri
ght up there with God, can’t apply for fo
od stamps or stand in
line for
government handouts for low
income families

the powdered milk, butter, cheese,
peanut butter, and corn

etc. that others lined up for.
With 3 kids I could have put all
these to g
ood use.

How do I know they even existed? Because caring fri
nds and
neighbors brought them
to us!

** Ask


the times Nuzhat could not pack a lunch for her

on as there was no bread.

learned to bake bread

but still needed the ingredients!


the ‘glass house’ ef
fect that made Nuzhat

** A
the flip side

small town people are

so caring
. C

** Ask

the lessons

from an immigrant Mexican family.

In poverty people are there f
or each other, because that’s all they’ve got, as Ruby Payne
tells us
, and as I discovered

Another issue I battled with every winter in Canada was kids growing out of their winter
clothes, shoes and boots. These were expensive items, and I ordered the
m from the Sears
catalog. Most people shopped in the bigger cities

(I think. I don’t know)
; small town stores
only carried essentials, and little in the way of variety. In spite of my kids using each
other’s hand
downs, some kid always needed something
, usually the oldest one! I had
no idea where the thrift store or church pantry was, and couldn’t have stood in line even if I

where to go. I bravely visited a few yard sales, but didn’t dare buy clothes,
shoes or personal items.

*** Ask

how Nuzhat enlarged her

daughter’s boots!

So we finally moved to the States; the grass seemed greener on the other side of the border,
or so we thought. After a few years of the same routine in small towns we moved to
Chicago, and spent a few more y
ears moving about its various suburbs.

On the continuum
we vacillated between poverty and lower middle class at best.

I remember a time when things got so bad I finally applied for food stamps. That was when
they looked like Monopoly money. Being anonymou
s in a big city certainly helped!
It was
uncomfortable enough b
eing stared at and given dirty looks at the checkout

especially since I dressed in a traditional Muslim outfit

the scarf and long coat. The looks
I got shouted out: “Look at these i
mmigrants bleeding us dry!”. But for my oldest two kids
that was the final, tangible proof of our poverty. They viewed it as charity at its worst, and
refused to go into the stores with me. That hurt. I

them that it was better than


starvation, and th
at if they didn’t like it then to make sure they got a good education and a
good job making decent money; that was the only way I knew of avoiding it.

I remember friends bringing food from their church pantry to help us out. God Bless them.

And I discover
ed where the bakery outlets were, where I could get 3 loaves for a dollar, 4 if
I didn’t mind them being past the due date. I remember my depression when the price went
up by a dime, because when you are counting pennies even a dime has value.

That was

when I realized that poverty is a full time job. Until then I had always thought
that the poor were poor because that was what they wanted
or were happy or comfortable
that maybe that was all they knew,
that at best they didn’
t know how to get out
of it,
or didn’t know they had better choices. I thought all they had to do was get a good
education and find a good job. How naive of me! Of course I never saw myself in that
picture. All the times I was struggling with poverty

I was too focused on just
trying to
survive and make the best of a bad situation, even though there seemed
to be no end to the
bad situation.

My oldest son graduated from high school, which was his 12

school, and in fact the rest
had each attended 8 to 10 schools by the time t
hey graduated. I never had time to think
about how schools viewed these constant moves, when my kids would show up with no
school records, and by the time the records arrived my kids would have moved on.

*** Ask
s ‘cut and paste’ inci
dent in Kindergarten

So after a couple of more moves we ended up in Middlesboro. Nice town, friendly people,
nice house, good pay... and we started to move up the continuum again. Poverty

holds people together, right? Well,
we now had
our own Cessna. With no glue the
relationship fell apart and I filed for divorce.

If you have ever had Sociology 100 you will know that divorce is a ‘povertizing’
experience for women and children. So my kids and I plunged back into poverty. My

paid the alimony for a while, hoping I would come to my senses. When that didn’t
happen he quit his job and left town. I was already in the Masters program (God Bless
LMU for taking me in...!), but with


qualifications, experience or job skills

I had
owhere to go and no one to turn to.

So it was back to food stamps (it was a nifty credit
card now!), and yard sales every weekend. I continued into the Ed. S. program, probably
the only welfare Mom in the class!

** Ask
the first

thing Nuzhat d
id when she

landed this job.

These are some of my observations:


In spite of 3 generations swinging up and down the continuum, with migrati
different countries

and experiencing extreme poverty

(relatively speaking; we never
really starved!)
, I don
’t see it as generational poverty.
On the one hand we might fit
into Ruby Payne’s definition, but as she points out, the key indicator is the


‘prevailing attitude’ and resources (p.64), especially what we bring from the upper
level. E.g. the focus on educ
ation, the insistence on good manners and speech, the
use of
the formal register that enabled

success in school, even if my kids had to do
their homework on the floor


I would define it as ‘g
enteel poverty

, when the rich move

middle class

to poverty
, and struggle to stay even in middle class. Yet you know they are ‘out

of their class’, because of the way they hang on to those attitudes and resources,

the way they hang on to the formal register and the refined manners and

courtesies of the class they grew up in.

t may be a generation or two before they

really fit into the class

where fate has deposited them,
depending on the family and

where they move along the continuum


These resources also help to p
rovide buoyancy, hope, that golden rope. They know

they can work towards a better future.


I believe that p
eople in situational poverty suffer more,


they are

out of their class
’ and therefore feel out of place

not really fitting i


lack knowledge of hidden rules


they lack
knowledge of resources


they are very self

with saving face


public opinion


may often feel like failures

One thing I have learned from my family

we never complain when we ar
e down, and
never strut about when we are up!

My Mom’s advice also rings in my ears: ‘Always be
adaptable’! Today we call it resiliency.


where does Nuzhat see herself on the continuum? (her

son’s smoking

I live for ‘Ruby Payne
’ moments.

Thank you, Dr. Murphree, for this opportunity.