Tag Archives: urban

Turned Urban: Raised Rural 5

(If you haven’t read Raised Rural one, two, three, and four, I recommend reading those first. Also consider checking out Ivy Wrapped Around My Throat about how my social life changed along with my politics at this time, and The Music Dies about my college dreams.)

To recap: in college in Philadelphia, I identified myself politically as an Independent, leaning libertarian, embracing social freedoms but concerned mostly with fiscal responsibility, economic freedom, and a watchful foreign policy. I supported moderate Republicans. Then, when I lived in Chicago – outside of the bubble of campus housing that I’d lived in while in Philly – I started seeing the cracks in the social systems that I’d thought were fair and just. This is how I came up close to those cracks, learned a vocabulary to describe them, and if I’m a good enough writer, how it changed me.

 

“Community” is not a word I understood until very recently in my life. Of course, I knew the dictionary definition, but I’d never been shown its actual meaning of community – in fact, I was raised by parents who were at times hostile to the surrounding community, and from a young age I knew the meaning of words like “nonconformist,” “small-minded,” “hypocrite,” and “ignorant.” So naturally, I didn’t invest in community. Not the public school, where I struggled to fit in and felt isolated. Not the church, where my grandmother took me to Sunday school and I prodded the teachers with questions they couldn’t answer to my satisfaction. Not among the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose heritage I shared but racial attitudes and small-town perspective I found abhorrent, and whose stagnation I found stifling. Not at community college, where I knew I would leave after two years, and not at La Salle where I didn’t fit in among the middle-class suburban kids who had attended private religious schools. It sadly wasn’t until 2013, when everyone was excited about the men’s basketball team and there were touching stories about the team members’ families and friendships, that I realized how awesome La Salle’s community was and allowed myself to root for the team and feel like I was part of it.

In Chicago, though, I took trips by myself downtown, for errands and for fun. After work, I walked my dog around the neighborhood and let her run around with puggles and Australian shepherd mutts. We walked her along the lakeshore, and we would pick her up to laugh at the sight of her eating mulberries right off the tree in Washington Park. I borrowed graphic novels and art museum passes from the local library branch. I read classic novels and Augusten Burroughs while riding the Green Line out to my graduate courses in the River Forest suburb, watched my breath come out in frosty puffs while walking and listening to Rilo Kiley and Wolf Parade, sat on a bench with crochet hooks and yarn in the lobby of the botanical garden until my classes in their library started, and wrestled with oversize WPA blueprints in the narrow archive of the African American History museum. A few months before I left, I bought a White Sox hat and wore it to represent the South Side. I could have lived there, happily, for much longer than two years. However, as in so many other places, I knew my time in Chicago had an expiration date. I was a temporary visitor, and my opinions wouldn’t mean much. And as a white 22-year-old student living in largely Black and then mixed neighborhoods, who couldn’t find Chicago on a map until after the lease was signed, I didn’t think it was truly my space to claim.

But I went to New Haven knowing I would be here at least six years, the minimum amount of time it would take my husband to get his doctorate in history from Yale, and with the possibility that he would need an extra year, or that we would land good jobs that would keep us in the area. I had a reason to care more about my community here.

Again, though, I’m jumping ahead. Thinking about community and involvement in these terms was something I had to learn. And I learned it from my job.

When we moved to New Haven in August 2011, I had hoped I would get a job in archives or special collections, or maybe a museum. I had the MLIS that qualified me for professional work as a librarian. We hoped that Yale might take an extra look at my resume, if I dropped in my cover letter that I lived in town because my fiancee was getting a Ph.D. from them. I applied to every position in the university’s library system that I could (not the ones that required fluent Japanese or an advanced degree in GIS), and I got a pile of rejection emails, and an interview for a job at the second-lowest tier of library clerk work, which amounted to nothing. I luckily found a temporary part-time job at a corporation in Stamford after a few months, and when it was extended from 3 months to 6 months, we finally set a date for our wedding and knew we could pay for it. For work, I was limited by what I could reach by the local bus system and Metro North, and when several part-time positions opened up in the city library a month after the temporary job ended, I had no choice but to go for it and keep applying for full-time jobs that would allow me to afford a car. That’s how, after a year in New Haven, I came to public libraries.

My life up until this point had included little contact with the public library world. My mom got my brother and I library cards when I was eight or so, and we used them to check out old stories from the libraries near Allentown while my mother gathered sources for a community college paper. Sometimes in junior high school, I would spend my Wednesday afternoon in my hometown library, asking one of the two librarians for help finding Stephen King novels, or reading books on ghosts and the supernatural until a parent picked me up on the way home from work. I didn’t return until my senior year of college when I needed to use a scanner to complete a graduate school application for an academic program, several months before I considered turning my work-study archives job into a career path. This library was still a single room with a small staff, but I had been happy to see they had a number of modern computers and a group of boys playing games on them. A couple years later, I would run into the librarian at a summer fair in town, and her husband would step into the conversation and complain about the boys’ preference for Spanish, stating, “This is America. Speak English or get out!” with a violent thumbjerk. I had been too stunned to ask why he thought it was any of his business. In hindsight, I might have formed my response in Spanish.

I knew the issues facing city libraries from what I learned in library school out in Chicago, and from visiting my neighborhood branches and the big downtown Harold Washington Library for a weekly class. New Haven was an education unto itself. I got to know the regular patrons – disabled women who borrowed hundreds of books a year and ran a library out of their apartment for their neighbors, men who harmlessly flirted with the women workers and called my hijab-wearing coworker “sister,” elementary school girls in uniforms from the nearby private school whose appetites for books challenged my readers’ advisory skills, orthodox Jewish families with mothers who often seemed tired, exhausted elderly wives acting as constant caregivers to their husbands who were deteriorating from Alzheimer’s, young autistic adults who lived down the street and sometimes couldn’t control their emotions, single mothers who borrowed DVDs, retired Yale professors, men who used the computers every day to search for jobs, smiling middle-aged women who called me “honey,” high-functioning alcoholics, people who talked to themselves or who chronically spoke too loudly, quiet kids who weren’t in school and who hung out at the library all day until their parents returned home after work, and refugee families who barely knew English.

I was a very rule-oriented person for most of my life, an extension of my father’s parenting and his black-and-white worldview. It carried over into my work for years, and the public library challenged that. Adherence to the rules meant collecting sometimes exorbitant fines from people who I knew were receiving assistance or were unemployed. It meant stopping a child or homebound adult from borrowing a pile of books because of the limit on materials borrowed. It meant not getting interlibrary loans to curious adults because the limit was too low for their information needs. It took me years, and the wonderful example of my boss (who was also trying to balance internal problems in the workplace), as well as bosses and coworkers in other library systems, to learn the best way to deliver library services. You override the book limit. You waive the overdue fines, even if the person on the phone or in front of you might be lying about their extended hospital stay. You waive half the fees and let them borrow the book in their hand, even though their balance is technically still too high to allow borrowing. You let the wife take the newspaper out to her husband waiting in the car, even though the newspaper isn’t supposed to leave the library. When the city hasn’t plowed the street and your tiny parking spot is the only place where parents at the nearby preschool can put their cars, you talk to the head of the preschool instead of shouting at the parents. You let the person whose phone has run out of minutes make a call from your branch’s phone. You tell people you just want the books back that have been overdue for the past year, and you heap them with gratitude  when they return them while you waive their bill. The kid who is hanging out in front of your library in below freezing temperatures an hour before you open, you start a conversation with him and call his parents to feel out his situation. You order the rap CD or the Sister Souljah book even though you know it’s going to be stolen. You let the person you’ve never seen before pay you back next time for their printouts. You let the ESL learner, who takes classes in the basement meeting room with the literacy volunteers, renew the English-Arabic dictionary over and over and over.

It became clear to me that, contrary to what I’d believed before, we were not all on an equal playing field. I met people, primarily working-class African Americans from the area around the library, who searched for jobs for months and even years unsuccessfully, though I saw them in the library every day, and their friendliness never wavered. I saw cover letters rife with so many grammatical errors and so simple in tone compared to my own letters, that I didn’t feel like it was worth commenting, especially when my workday didn’t allow me the time I would have needed to help them. I once helped a young man try to navigate the online system to expunge a drug conviction from his record, and I heard over and over again from men in their 40s and 50s about how they had made mistakes in their past that prevented them from getting good jobs, or any jobs. I helped – or tried to help – a woman get on the waitlist for section 8 housing, a needlessly labyrinthine process that involved a hunt through the local newspapers to find the announcement that listed the website that would be open for a week, and the specific times she needed to be online to apply, times that didn’t coordinate with our open hours.

And my institution was playing a part in keeping that playing field uneven. The kids with unstable home environments, who walked to the library by themselves and who couldn’t give a permanent home address, were kids who might take materials out and never return them, but they were also the kids who needed the library the most. Those who couldn’t afford a home computer and internet connection, let alone a printer, had to pay high printing fees for paper applications for food or housing assistance. Many libraries don’t put much of their budget into hip-hop albums or urban fiction or blockbuster films due to the high rate of theft, even though they often reflect the interests of many patrons more accurately than National Book Award winners and foreign films. Computers filled up fast at the main branch, so people would take the bus to our branch – but the time limits on the computers were too low for those who were looking for jobs, and there were still too few computers for us to always extend their sessions. And I noticed that patrons who didn’t share my skin color – the color of most library workers, cops, aldermen, teachers, politicians, and other authorities – were more likely to acquiesce to the rules instead of ask for an exception. I could see in kids’ eyes how they calculated the answer they thought I wanted to hear, or the simplest answer they could give, even if it wasn’t the most truthful answer. I realized that the Dewey Decimal system includes at least 73 numbers for topics in Christianity, but only one – 297 – for Islam, that most books on racial discrimination usually get filed under current events instead of under history, that it gives preferential treatment to Western European languages and even ancient languages over those from Asia, and that it shows its limits as the product of a 19th century British Christian male.

I fucked up, plenty of times, and perpetuated the injustices that I was only beginning to understand. I waived the fines for the patrons who challenged them and let meeker patrons pay them. When I had to reiterate library policies to unfamiliar patrons, I sometimes lapsed into a casual tone with who looked like me and stayed formal with those who didn’t. The well-behaved kid who wasn’t in school and obviously had a chaotic home life, once when he hit his daily computer limit and he jumped on somebody else’s computer session after she stepped away for a moment, I canceled the session from the admin computer and without a word he got up and wandered the stacks, when I should have just let him use the computer to play games and been happy he had a warm place to be, or better yet, I should have asked him if there were books or movies I could get him and show him I was a safe adult. I let one of the autistic young adults have a meltdown because I told her she needed to wait her turn when the desk was busy. I didn’t always give my full attention to reference questions from patrons whose minds jumped from one subject to another before my first search was over. When I heard two boys calling another boy stupid, I should have stepped in and told them that treating people well was much more important than intelligence. Sometimes, I myself struggled to kill with kindness.

But I know I made a difference in lives, too. I would talk to one of the regular ladies about movies, and when I found her a certain film one day, she was so happy she gave me a hug. One of the curious adults spent a long time in the local hospital, and he gave us medallions with the Serenity Prayer from the hospital shop when he came back. I gave directions to GameStop to a refugee family’s father who wanted to buy one of his children the handheld game system they had seen their friends playing. I made friends with another refugee family’s daughter, a six-year-old with moxie to spare who asked me to help her with her math homework. I looked up services that were available to full-time caregivers and printed them out for the exhausted wife. I found a food pantry for a patron who had lost his housing and who couldn’t get some necessary medication, and he appeared several months later looking much healthier and holding down a steady job.

Throughout this whole time, I had become deeply curious about issues of race, and I started seeking explanations for the realities that I’d only started seeing at 20 years old when I moved to cities. Freakonomics had included a chapter by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, and I finally got my hands on his book Gang Leader for a Day, where he talked about the economic system of gangs in one of the decrepit housing projects not far from where I’d lived in Chicago. I learned in Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. that being able to code-switch between street language and school language hinted at a linguistic prowess that I, as somebody who speaks in one mode, do not possess – and I also learned that when I’d said Obama was articulate, it came with an unspoken asterisk: “for a Black man.” At one of my library jobs I was lucky enough to maintain that current events nonfiction section, and I pulled together a display on racial discrimination in our country after Michael Brown was shot, and I earnestly scouted new titles to add to the collection. I read Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and learned how she received messages of her sub-worthiness as a Black girl, and listened to audiobook versions of Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore and Alex Haley’s gigantic Roots: The Saga of an American Family. I watched documentaries and read Wikipedia articles on Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, the more violent parts of the civil rights movement which had never, ever been discussed in my high school, ever, and which had been spoken of with negative, dismissive, or hostile tones when the terms were used in rural Pennsylvania. I came to understand the necessity of those radical strains within the fight for civil rights. I learned the phrase “making a way out of no way” and how it related to the perseverance of African Americans. I learned how nuclear families were intentionally separated in public housing projects, shedding understanding on the statistic I’d heard that African-American women have a high rate of single parenthood. I learned that the non-charter public high schools in New Haven graduate less than 70% of their students, and that it was a significant improvement from five years before.

In 2008 I started embracing my formerly secret love of hip-hop, and with burned CDs from my husband’s brother (who people had called some stupid racist words in high school for his love of Black rappers) and my husband’s admission of his own love of rap, I began understanding how it worked: some rappers spoke to a reality they’d faced, some used the language and imagery of samurai films to express violence in their neighborhoods, some sold fantasies of endless money the same way rock bands sold fantasies of endless sex, some were fascinated with gang life the way the rest of our culture was fascinated with the Italian mob. I channeled Jay-Z’s swagger before going into interviews, felt trapped with Tupac when I thought I’d never escape working shitty jobs and living in shitty apartments, got angry with Nas, and blew off steam with ridiculous Ludacris songs. Parts of Black culture became my culture.

 

After two years working part-time in the city library, and living in the city myself, I could no longer ignore the realities of my patrons and my neighbors. I could no longer believe in equality. And that’s why I could no longer subscribe to libertarianism, or vote only for fiscal issues while ignoring the social.

 

Addition on February 20 when I realized I completely forgot to talk about the neighborhoods in New Haven:

During this time, I saved money by mostly walking the mile and a half from my downtown apartment to my workplace, instead of constantly taking the bus. My path down the major street took me past multiple Dunkin Donuts, hair braiding salons, chain pharmacies, soul food and fried chicken stands, liquor stores, bank branches, quiet rowhomes, and a Jamaican place that pulled a gigantic smoker out onto the sidewalk on the weekends for jerk chicken and made the block smell heavenly. The neighborhood visibly changed when I got close to my branch, to brunch places, art galleries, salons with European models on their signage, the section of the large park that held a weekly farmer’s market, an optometrist, yarn-bombed bicycle racks, and pubs beloved by longtime residents. On my lunch breaks, I would take walks around the neighborhood, passing cute single homes with cats lazing on porches, Tudor woodwork, magnolia trees, and bougainvillea spilling from planters.

Sometimes coworkers or Yale students I knew mentioned locking their car doors at night when driving through other neighborhoods at night, or avoiding them entirely. They were neighborhoods whose mostly African-American demographics were similar to the neighborhood I passed through on my commute, where I had never felt in any danger. Passing those supposedly dangerous neighborhoods during the day, I felt bad for the people who had to live next to decrepit abandoned houses, without a trash can or a bus route or a well-stocked grocery store in sight. One night in my early days of running, I ended up taking a wrong turn and passed right through a street that people avoided. My big takeaway from my journey – aside from noticing the crumbling sidewalks that characterized every block in New Haven that wasn’t part of Yale – was that there were a lot of churches. Another day, when I stopped for groceries on my way home from work, I saw a memorial for a teenage boy who had been killed by gunfire from a rival gang outside the store a few days before. I put some money into a collection at checkout for funeral costs, knowing it wouldn’t lift the grief from his family and classmates – and not once having the thought cross my mind that my store was unsafe.

When conversations drifted to the high rate of violent crime in New Haven and eyebrows shot up in disbelief at where I walked, I brushed off my conversation partners’ concerns by reminding them that I’d lived in south side Chicago and north Philadelphia. And I remembered an orientation at La Salle, when an older student pointed out that the neighborhood around the university was working-class regular people and the threat of looming danger was blown out of proportion. There was crime against students, for sure, but most of the incident reports related muggings late at night against kids who were almost definitely coming back from parties. I wasn’t wandering around backstreets drunk out of my mind at two in the morning, and potential muggers would have been disappointed to find only a few dollars in my wallet anyway.

 

Raised Rural 4: Rural Politics

I’ve been trying for weeks to get to the point where I can talk about how my culture and politics have fundamentally changed. Before I get there, though, I think I have to spell out exactly where my politics were. I have to take a step back so I can dissect exactly how they changed.

At home, I had a politically disengaged mother who would have voted for Ralph Nader if she had been registered, and a father who was deeply distrustful of government. He told my younger brother and I, in no uncertain terms, that we should never trust a government that wanted to take guns away from the people. On his desk, he had a “stop scabs” button protesting the temporary workers who come in when unions go on strike, and a MAD magazine cartoon picturing a museum docent in the background, explaining to a tour group that vikings believed they would be rewarded in heaven for their barbaric and violent behavior, and in the foreground, a crazed-looking man with “Arab terrorist” written across his machine gun strap exclaiming “Sounds perfectly reasonable to me!” The desk was a heavy metal thing that looked like it belonged in an office somewhere, and though I remember seeing his business textbooks from his courses at community college sitting on the desk, I have no memories of my mom using the desk when she was enrolled.

Sometime after we got a computer in 1996 or 1997, but before my father started taking online classes at the University of Phoenix, he shared a printout of racist jokes with my brother and me. It wasn’t our first time encountering them, of course. I had heard them traded at holiday dinners, especially when the pastor of my grandparents’ UCC church would join us. The pastor recited his contributions with a slight Pennsylvania Dutch accent, one that wasn’t nearly as heavy as my grandfather’s accent was when he interjected comments while listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Or when he told me to “turn that crap off” when found me watching Janet Jackson’s “You Want This” on MTV in the living room one afternoon. Or when my brother and I overheard mutterings about “the Mexicans” drifting back to us from the passenger seat of my grandmother’s minivan. We had learned about the evils of racism and prejudice in school when we studied the Civil War, and we were both shocked that it still existed, let alone in our own family and in the leader of the church where we went to Sunday school. Coupled with statements from my parents about how the Pennsylvania Dutch around me were ignorant and backward, it bred in me a low-grade revulsion that lasted for years and years.

In school I learned that the Republican Party was business-focused and the Democratic Party was people-focused, and at home I learned that all politicians were corrupt. In the high school sociology elective that I took after my parents’ sociology and philosophy textbooks piqued my interest, I got more information in the the form of a handout explaining the demographics of each political party. Republicans were generally rural, had a high school education, and were working-class. By contrast, Democrats were generally urban, had college degrees, made more money, and/or were often non-white.  In my interactions with outspoken high school girls who were dressed in trendier clothing than me and had “the only bush I trust is my own” on their MySpace pages, I also learned that Democrats tended toward self-righteousness.

Because of the timing of my 18th birthday, I was late getting in my voter registration, which would have declared me an independent and given me the ability to vote for Bush in 2004. I didn’t do much research aside from a cursory Internet search, but I knew Kerry claimed to represent the interests of of the people while being one of the wealthiest men in Congress. Shortly after the election, my grandfather said something about boycotting Heinz products.

I became slightly more engaged with politics after my boyfriend (and later husband) and I got together that fall. His parents hailed from Catholic working-class and middle-class families in the Philly suburbs, and they moved around the Philly area and the Midwest before landing in our town when my husband was a toddler. We’d first met in the elementary school gifted program when he was a quiet fourth grader and I was an awkward sixth-grader, and in high school he sometimes came to football games and traded Monty Python quotes with mutual friends who sat with me in the marching band section. Instead of music clubs, he pursued debate team and scholastic scrimmage. The way he explains it to me, he was an “elite nerd” who enjoyed arguing with peers, and since his peers were primarily liberal, he had to take a conservative stance in order to have arguments. At some point, he started believing in the persona he had formed. It was reinforced by the beliefs of his parents, who often watched Fox News when we hung out in the evenings, and other respected adults in the area, who presumably understood the world better than teenagers.

My boyfriend/husband read political theorists like Machiavelli and Rousseau, as well as lots of history books, and he argued his stances with refreshing pragmatism instead of the unexamined gut reactions. For example, such-and-such government program sounded great in theory, but it would be prohibitively expensive. Or, so-and-so federal law was basically a good idea, but lawmakers had hidden a bunch of junk in it to appease their constituents. Or, so-and-so senator shouldn’t be writing this bill because he has no expertise, or so-and-so is saying this strategically but he actually votes that way. Or, this-and-this government program targeting that-and-that problem created dependence and actually perpetuated the problem instead of solving the root cause. Socially pretty liberal, but skeptical of implementation of social policies. He rolled his eyes at mainstream conservative media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Bill O’Reilly. He was knowledgeable and impassioned, and his libertarian-esque beliefs and concerns mostly became my own. We believed everyone had equal opportunities for success and just needed to use their own talents accordingly, as we had.

His family ties to the Philly area – and the desire to go somewhere much more exciting than our town – led him to enroll at La Salle University and work towards a history degree, while also working 30 to 40 hours a week at the restaurant his father managed in the suburbs. I needed desperately to get out of our town too, and I joined him at La Salle after I finished up at community college. Through his social circle I met religious conservatives, a branch of conservatism that I hadn’t encountered in our hometown of mainline Protestants whose politics were completely detached from their religion, as well as business-oriented conservatives from well-off families. As mentioned before, I became friends with other socially liberal, fiscally conservative, moderate independents. We wondered at the narrow aims of our outspoken Democrat friends, who seemed solely concerned with social issues. My friends and I liked Obama’s personality but distrusted his message (and felt more than a little alienated by his dismissive “clinging to their guns and religion” statement), and we voted for McCain, the war veteran with years of experience, a message of ‘reaching across the aisle,’ and an immigration policy that was to the left of the GOP party line and more palatable to us and the undocumented workers we knew from our jobs.

During our time in Chicago and in New Haven proper, my husband fell into political nihilism, refusing to acknowledge any position at all. After what I’d experienced in Chicago, I wasn’t sure what to think, either. The Tea Party movement had gained traction within the GOP, and it quickly morphed from a libertarian opposition to excessive taxes into refusal to compromise with Democrats, calls for Obama’s birth certificate, statements that he was a Muslim with the implication that a Muslim president was a bad thing. It was a movement with racist undertones that I did not want to be part of. I didn’t register to vote in 2012, but I found myself somewhat happy that Obama got a second term. Despite my initial hand-wringing and the passing of the controversial Affordable Care Act, he had gotten us out of Iraq and started withdrawal from Afghanistan, slowed and stabilized the economic recession he’d inherited, and he had proved tougher than expected in foreign policy. He hadn’t been terrible, and might have even been good.

Plus I’d liked living in his neighborhood.

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?