27. Financial Literacy

By my own miscalculation, I had booked myself into a series of seminars exactly 11 minutes away from my office at a brisk walk. These meetings were set to begin at the exact minute I was allowed to leave the office, rendering me perpetually late since my Google mapping had led me to expect a mere 5-minute stroll.

The financial literacy seminars were designed to empower the residents of the surrounding low-cost housing to take control of their finances by introducing them to the basics of savings and investment. I have no financial background whatsoever, but I have always been resourceful enough to get by on pennies – (Flashback, last February: Ashley on a subway platform at three in the morning, sniffling miserably and unable to spend her last 20 dollars on a cab home to Brooklyn in case the long-awaited first paycheck encounters a delay) – and pretty much do what I please, and have the humility to know when I shouldn’t be offering advice. These combined factors, I hoped, would be sufficient for the program.

Seven unsmiling volunteers were evenly spaced around a conference table when I arrived, and as I took the course content packet from the team leader, I thanked my good fortune in having erred on the business side of “business casual” while dressing that morning. As I settled into my seat, the leader asked us to introduce ourselves to the group.

Two CPAs and a young man who stressed that he had taken a strong business course load spoke up before all eyes turned to me. I lifted my chin and made eye contact with the woman across from me.

I’m a writer and media consultant, I announced to mild disapproval from the CPAs. I hoped they had noticed the stress on consultant, intended to lend my presence some legitimacy. The young representative from Hudson Guild perked up. A writer!, he exhorted. We’ll have to talk later. I wondered if he, too, was in the market for a publishing deal.

Introductions complete, the team leader, a sturdy woman possibly of Taiwanese origin, stepped to the front of the room.

She spoke in a highly irregular cadence, her voice rising and falling like the fourth Mandarin tone with each breath. Her penciled eyebrows followed suit, dancing a slow, distracting waltz up the length of her forehead at narrow intervals. It was as if she were caught in a pantomime for an audience of children. I found this upsetting.

I averted my eyes to the packet in front of me. We looked to be covering the rough equivalent of a full, four-year business course load, finishing with futures and credit-default swaps  in just over eight weeks. The idea that our little group was going to explain the intricacies of a vast trading scheme that brought down the global economy to adults who didn’t know how to open a checking account was entertaining enough to quell the tide of inadequacy that had been rising in my stomach.

When she glanced up from her sheet and asked if any of us knew how to explain the differences between stocks and bonds, I knew I would do just fine.

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