Friday, August 8, 2014

Big City - Small Town

In a previous post, I began the story of my own understanding of diversity and social justice.  I said then that I was not sure when or if I would be ready to tell part 2.  However, I have had time in the past seven weeks to think about it, and to begin to tell the story.  This is turning into a longer series than I thought.

As a child, I wished I grew up in a small town, the kind of place where I might have a teacher who had taught one or both of my parents, where aunts and uncles were around, and where people knew who I / my family was.  Not that we needed to be famous, popular, or rich.  Just, I wanted to be in a place where my family belonged.

My sophomore year of high school, my father was discharged from the Air Force.  Dad finished his degree (a second Bachelor's), and over the summer they began job hunting in earnest.  When he was hired for a job in rural Indiana, we moved.

Culture Shock


The military was one of the first U.S. institutions to integrate.  Even in the 1980s, I don't believe it was perfect.  There are some sayings that I will not teach my son... but I also know that there were many racist statements I did NOT hear in the neighborhood or quarters of my childhood.  One of the legacies of being a military brat, I have read (Mary Edwards Wertsch is one author), is a greater awareness of difference.  Some of it is social class: the military I grew up with was still highly segregated between officers and enlisted.  Some of it is also ethnic, an awareness of the ideal of integration.

I grew up aware that "house rules" could vary from place to place.  That some of my neighbors, whether they were Asian or had simply been stationed in Asia for a time, asked us to leave shoes at the door.  Other neighbors, just as firmly, believed that shoes stayed on in the house (no exposing stinky socks!).  In the 8 years at Offutt, we had neighbors on our street of every ethnicity.

Not only the military, though, Omaha was even then a city with cultural festivals, and my parents worked to foster our education through attending these events.  (Nothing is perfect, and I know there was still an element of exotification to these visits.  They were trying.)  While I spent a summer with an Aunt & Uncle in Florida, my siblings went to a gathering remembering Malcolm X.

Then we moved.

While moving off base had reduced our contact with military culture, my younger siblings finished out the school year at St. Mary's, and we still occasionally went to Mass there.  Moving to Indiana effectively severed that link.

I found myself in a co-educational public high school for two very small towns.  My classmates had either grown up together their entire lives, or met in middle school.  Most of whom expected to stay in town for the rest of their lives.  A few planned to go on to college, but not many.  We were close enough to Chicago that many of them had visited... but even my fashion-ignorant eye felt like I had gone 10 or 20 years back in time.

Language shifts.  Most jarring was the use of words I didn't know (the p-word), and words that I knew better than to use (that n-word).  The attitudes, too.  The town was homogeneous, the school was homogeneous, and I often heard assumptions that life everywhere was just like live there.  I knew differently.

Economic shifts.  Picking up our free lunch ticket each week.  Knowing that even if we wanted to drive the hour to see a movie, we didn't have the money to pay for movie tickets.

Culture shifts.  Catholic schools try to instill respect for everyone, and dissuade bullying.  (Nothing is perfect, not even Catholic schools).  Public schools... approach it differently.  In Catholic schools, taking care of each other is part of living a moral life.  In Public schools, they don't teach religion.  There is... more freedom, I suppose.  More tolerance for disrespectful behaviors.

In Catholic literature classes, I was taught to write 5-paragraph formal essays, that NEVER used the word "I" to convey what I thought.  Anything I thought about a story had to be backed up by lines and phrases from the book.

In Public literature classes, we were encouraged to use "I think," and "I feel," and free-write our responses to the stories.

Cultural norms.  There were different assumptions for "how life works" than I had grown up with.

It was a rough year, a rough transition.  Moving again the next summer was both another trauma and a relief.