I Need a Dollar, Dollar

The financial literacy seminar had woefully low attendance from the start, to the extent that we volunteers had been advised to pick just one session and forget the rest.

I had immediately booked new activities to fill the void, rendering myself unable to attend until the final session. The subject matter for this session was both broad and complex, and I worried on my pitched walk through the subsidized housing toward Hudson Guild that my knowledge would be found lacking. We were set to cover investment vehicles in all iterations, a staggering leap from the content of the first session, which had posed the question, Why should you open a checking account?

To make matters worse, my course outline had remained buried beneath a pile of purse debris in my room since that initial session, and I had no more than a faint idea as to what we would discuss that day. I decided, as at dinner parties with people vastly more intelligent and accomplished, to keep my mouth shut unless I was certain of my ability to add value to the discussion.

The group assembled inside the conference room was worse than expected. Four volunteers, including the team leader, were squared off around one very nervous-looking “student.” One of the CPAs was back, as well as a woman in pearls whom I recognized from the previous session and the enthusiastic guy from the guild.

I introduced myself to the sole woman in the neighborhood determined to better her financial standing, and when caught unable to pronounce her name (J-something), settled for what I hoped was an encouraging smile. As the session got underway, I immediately noticed a glitch in the modus operandi: everyone was speaking over her.

This is an often foreign concept for my East Coast friends, men and women reared to extoll accomplishments and expertise as articulately as can be mustered. Company is assumed to come from similar backgrounds, and thus, everyone can speak the same language to one another.

The same cannot be said for my upbringing. Texans are judged on the language of cordiality, and at risk of offending many of the people I love most, are apt to criticize those who are perceived to be talking over them. Some of my earliest memories involve classmates taunting my vocabulary. Ashley’s usin’ big words again, they would say. And so I learned to speak the language of my audience – a skill exercised only half effectively by George W. Bush.

The CPA had just brought up day trading, which Team Leader immediately declared a “wonderful way to make a lot of money over a short time,” when my internal hazard lights went into flash mode. A quick glance at J-‘s furrowed brow confirmed that she was listening intently, and I had a violent urge to avert a future scene in which J- stared in disbelief at her computer screen, wondering how her nest egg had disappeared into the recesses of E*Trade in under an hour. For God’s sake, J- had just asked what the NASDAQ was.

The sudden volume of my voice startled the group.

“Of course, I think we should strongly emphasize here that day trading is best left to people with a very strong knowledge of the industry,” I blurted.

Not wishing J- to feel that I was insulting her intelligence, I continued.

“I mean, many people with advanced financial backgrounds have lost millions day trading. Millions. It’s not something to play with, and I think a lot of people get a nasty surprise when they try.”

The CPA looked relieved at my intervention, and I settled back into my seat, value added.

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