Tag Archives: bullying

Raised Rural: Part 2

In part 1, I more or less established what it was like growing up rural, white, and more or less working class. But I didn’t want to stay that way.

I spoke about my father’s Pennsylvania Dutch family in detail. The family name goes back to my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, whose grave I located eight miles from the house where I grew up, and maybe three miles from my grandparents and five from my aunt. Not far from the grave is a little village that bears the family name, where his trading post was.

My mother’s family, also Pennsylvania Dutch with supposedly some Swiss and other assorted heritage, doesn’t have any towns named after them. As they tell it, my grandparents came from alcoholism, neglect, and abuse and managed to rise above it to become fine people. They were active in the Lutheran church in their hometown as long as I can remember, and they frequently packed up their six children for camping trips across the eastern U.S. and Canada. As a young child, it was normal for them to visit places like Alaska, Iceland, Caribbean Islands, and Scotland. My grandfather would have spent a winter in Antarctica like my aunt and cousin, if not for his doctor’s recommendations against it.

My aunts and uncles, like my grandparents, were lively, talkative, funny people when I saw them at family reunions and holidays, and their houses were much newer than mine and nicely decorated. They went to the Renaissance Faire and traveled internationally, wore wooden pendant necklaces, and one of my older cousins got a Bachelor’s degree. She, as well as all my older cousins, moved away to different states or south into the cities or suburbs. The second wave of cousins – the wave to which I belong – quoted the Simpsons and Seinfeld, had tarantulas and ball pythons as pets (we asked for years to get a python too, and after my brother spent his own summer at the amusement park he bought his own), and owned current game systems like Sega Genesis and PlayStation. They introduced me to Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, and Final Fantasy 7. Most of us have wandered around different parts of the country, too, or managed to get a work visa to New Zealand for a couple years.

Awareness of the world outside of rural Pennsylvania is what I inherited from this side of the family. It bordered on – no, it crossed over into arrogance, and I remember an occasion as a teen when an adult outside the family called me out when I said I was better than somebody in town. It was a terrible thing for me to say and think, but I inherited it nonetheless. It might have been given to me as a coping mechanism for my difficulties socializing with other kids. (Or maybe it incited my difficulties. As a 30-year-old who hasn’t had to feel the sting of peer rejection for many years, I can’t tell.) I didn’t have friends in my elementary school, so books filled the void at recess and in my spare time at home.

We had Sesame Street and Disney picture book series, books that I loved from Ollie’s Bargain Outlet on ocean life and natural disasters, world fact books that I read cover to cover, a children’s dictionary that I browsed for him, books on predatory animals and poison dart frogs that I would swipe off my brother’s shelves and read jealously. I would read every word on the cereal boxes, move on to the beaten-up coverless copy of Ferdinand the Bull that appeared in our house from seemingly nowhere and which I was particularly fond of, then I’d go read the cards on F-14 Tomcats and Apache helicopters and B-5 stealth bombers that my grandmother ordered for my brother. I spent hours studying the Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds. When the Scholastic catalogs were distributed at school, sometimes I could beg my mom into ordering a book or two if they could afford it. I read books my grandmother got from church sales, her old encyclopedias, and my father’s Strange But True books we found in the attic one day at her house. I loved my elementary school librarian, and she loved me back, letting me pick out chapter books too advanced for most of my classmates and allowing me a steady diet of Hank the Cowdog and paranormal stories. When she retired, we all made cards, and mine included a drawing of me clinging to her leg and crying with a sign for the Trail of Tears (and recent topic on social studies) in the background.

I was markedly different from the other kids in my elementary school. I dressed like a boy with shapeless jeans and oversized t-shirts and sneakers, and I was seriously absentminded and awkward and prone to daydreaming, but I also got straight As, won a poetry contest run by the local newspaper, and after a couple tests I was put into the gifted program. The three other gifted kids in my grade had entered the program before me, the trail possibly blazed for them by older, academically successful siblings. We never became friends. I was teased so badly, there were times when I pleaded with my mom to somehow get me into a private school, thinking it would be better socially. My mom pointed out that the kids in private school would probably be worse.

In junior high, the kids from the township and borough were thrown together with kids from the district’s other elementary school – which was adjacent to the “rich” suburban school district – and I found acceptance among the kids from the mobile home park and eventually formed my clan with anime nerds and fellow marching band members, choir members, and the people in their orbit. Most of the band kids lived in housing developments from the 70s and 80s, and like me, many of them had been in gifted. We would quote Monty Python sketches and Mel Brooks movies. Most of us played the student instruments we’d rented in fourth grade and eventually bought, or instruments that had been living in the band closet for years, but once in a while an unblemished, rose-tinted piece of brass would appear.

Though most people in my school district who continued their education went to community college or commuted to the rural state university 40 minutes away, the band kids with the newer houses tended to choose places like Penn State, Gettysburg, Muhlenberg, Temple, West Chester. Big state universities or private colleges where they’d live on campus. When I attended my future husband’s Baccalaureate, there was a palpable gasp when it was announced that one of the graduates – not even the valedictorian or salutatorian – was going to the University of Pennsylvania. It was unheard of that someone from our district would get to go to an Ivy League.

A prestigious university wouldn’t be in my own future, either. When I toured potential transfer colleges in the Philadelphia area to be close to my now-husband, I did visit Penn (I even remember the short Catholic school-inspired skirt from Kohl’s I wore, because it seemed academic), who might have taken some of my college credits but couldn’t offer me a scholarship. Neither could Bryn Mawr, who wanted to count my father’s income in their need-based scholarship calculations despite my parents’ divorce and my complete lack of financial support from him. Haverford had a 3% acceptance rate for transfer students so I didn’t bother applying, and Swarthmore wouldn’t have accepted any of my transfer credits.

So I applied La Salle University, the same place my husband was attending. A regional Catholic college, not nearly as well-known as St. Joseph’s or Villanova, it was attended primarily by kids in the Philly area who had gone to Catholic school and received a partial grant from the university. Coming from a family of working-class lapsed Catholics from Delaware County, it made sense that he gravitated towards those three colleges. La Salle just happened to offer the best financial aid package to him.

Lucky for me, they also accepted all my transfer credits and gave me a scholarship… even if I was as far from a suburban / urban Catholic as you could imagine. This was apparent before classes even started. I remember I was made to participate in the orientation weekend designed for incoming freshman, and we played Jeopardy. When I correctly answered several questions including one about John James Audubon and the magazine he founded, a frustrated freshman boy burst out some comment about how he didn’t spend all of his time birdwatching. I thought to myself, incredulously, how had he never heard of Audubon mazagine?

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11.12.16

As a Christian, I am heartbroken. Being a disciple of Christ means working within oneself to extend compassion and love to all human beings and especially to vulnerable people – in 2016 United States that means refugees, women, religious and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ, mentally ill, the homeless, the undocumented. Being a Christian to me means possessing a responsibility to make this world a better place for all people in it, not just people who are like me. And this country, one that claims so many other followers of Christ and worshipers of the God who is pure love, has spoken out and voted in defense of myopic self-interest at best, and at worst, the opposite of love: hatred, bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia.

That’s how  I updated my Facebook status on Wednesday, the day after the election. Before this week, I’d sign onto Facebook maybe once a month or so. Since Wednesday, though, I’m on it constantly and putting up multiple posts per day, reading news articles people link to and checking their statuses. I’ve been on Facebook more in the past four days than in the past year. The first day or two were posts like mine, which encouraged me to post my own. Saddened that bigotry won. Unbelieving. Angry and fearful for the LGBT and Muslim and Black and Latino people in their lives. I hoped I’d wake up Wednesday morning, Thursday morning, and it would all be a dream and go away. I felt empty inside, like I had lost something very dear to me. And I had: I’d lost my belief that good would prevail in America, and that we as a nation would act in the best interest of everyone who lived here. After the grief (or rather, concurrent with the grief) came posts about how to fight his policies. How to get active in politics, organizations to donate time and money to, Change.org petitions for the electoral college to follow the popular vote, rallies and marches and community conversations to attend. I donated to Sierra Club and ACLU and shared my story with Planned Parenthood and urged my Facebook followers to do the same. I attended a peaceful protest last night in New Haven, and read the notes for a community conversation that I missed.

The Facebook conversations are changing now to report violence and hate-filled actions. The friend of a friend, an academic in South Philly, had her car keyed and “it’s our pussy now, bitch” or something like that carved into it. Black students in the area of PA where I get up are being bullied and called names. Teachers’ students have gone from asking if their parents will be deported to reporting classmates telling them that their parents will be deported. Somebody opened fire on a protest in Portland. And Donald Trump is silent on the violence that has been condoned by his speech over the past year and that people feel they can come out and say now that he’s won the election.

I understand how the whole “Make America Great Again” message could have resonated. It’s the same reason folks got swept up in Obama’s “Yes We Can” eight years ago. And I treat it with the same deep skepticism that I did Obama’s 2008 campaign. It’s an empty promise with no real path forward. But anyway, Trump was a break from politics as usual, and I know lots of people voted for him as a protest against Hillary Clinton. And in a normal election, protest votes are usually fine. But you can’t deny the racist, sexist underpinnings of his speech, and I cannot forgive those non-racist, non-sexist Trump voters for implicitly giving the green light to the ones who are spray painting swastikas and saying “you’re next” to brown men and women. Especially since his racist and sexist rhetoric was always 1) illegal or 2) unconstitutional. The young, college educated Republicans I know believe the Constitution is a near-sacred document, but lots of them came out and voted for a candidate that doesn’t seem to give a lick about the Constitution. And who endorses racist practices and sexually assaults women. And is a fascist.

I also can’t forgive myself for not fighting harder than I did. I thought we had this. The “sensible” people I talk most with, and the media I consume, told me they and others were going to come out and vote against Trump. I thought I had done my part by participating in social justice stuff at my church and letting some people know about it, posting my photos of a service trip to Nicaragua and sharing a fundraiser link right before our Syrian refugee family came over in July. I should have talked to my grandmothers about how sweet and polite the kids are, and how the parents are desperate to learn English and find work, and how they have shown immense gratitude and hospitality to me and members of my church. I shouldn’t have worried about appearing holier-than-thou if I talked about it. I should have checked the box for ‘Democrat’ instead of ‘Unaffiliated’ when I registered in March so I could vote in the primaries and get on mailing lists to help make phone calls and canvas my town. I should have tried to talk more with my stepdad about what I encountered in Black neighborhoods in Philly, Chicago, and New Haven. I should have convinced my apolitical mom to go out and vote. I should have pushed people to recognize the racist code underpinning some of the phrases they’ve picked up from the political sphere. I should have checked in with my liberal friends and made sure they were registered to vote.

I didn’t though, and now this election started a fire in me to start fighting back as hard as I can. I need to keep that anger to propel me, because once I start waking up in the morning and I don’t feel that burning inside right away, once I no longer want to shout with my husband about injustice, I still need to keep this fight going. For at least the next four years, and throughout my life. It’s only the last two or three years of my life that I’ve realized the sort of power that I have, that I can be the change I want to see in the world. Now it’s time to stand up and do it.