The Reading: Within the Walls
“For much of my life, the word ‘exclusive’ brought warm, fuzzy feelings.”
Hunh. To me, it always meant “too good for you” – places I would not be allowed into.
“I never considered that the space I was taking, or the resources I was using, might be being withheld from another to make it all possible.”
Until you need something that you can’t get – and you see other people take it for granted or piss it away, there’s no reason to be aware of that, is there? I was always aware that “there was only so much to go around” and other people had bigger – and some, smaller – shares than we did.
“The rest [of the guidelines] were implicit – learned by feedback. If I stuck to conversation within my culture’s conversational norms, I’d get a laugh or a follow-up question. If I said something outside the norms, the tension, silence, or swift change of topic would tell me I’d made a misstep.”
Some days, it was OK to talk. Mostly it was safer just to sit in a corner and read and try not to be in the way or make anyone mad. The follow-up to your talking would depend more on who was present and how long they had been drinking, than what you said. After a certain amount of time, it was best just to bring people new cans of beer and scurry away.
“Don’t discuss religion, politics, money, negative emotions, fears, resentments, vulnerabilities, or bodily functions. Do Discuss weather, hopes and dreams, …travels, who you know, who’s doing what where, commuting routes and times, consumer products you’ve tried, where you go to school, sports, and music.”
Nope. never really learned this. When mom took me to the bar where she was singing, I discussed religion with “Saint Clyde”, the man in the toga who sat with me to ‘babysit’ for her. When she sent me away to her mom for two months (the summer my sister left, so I was the only kid still weighing her down), my great-uncle didn’t hesitate to stay up late and talk with me about everything form the Bible to celestial mechanics. Sailors discussed bodily functions. A lot. When I moved to live with my Dad at 16, I would ask him questions about the nightly news (I still remember him explaining the invasion of Grenada to me: that the Russians wanted missiles there but it was too close to us and we didn’t want them there. He showed me the tiny island on a map – without so much as a raised eyebrow at the idea that two big countries would devastate this tiny island to further their own disputes. Years later, I’d read Thucididydes, but I already understood his words: “the strong do what they will, while the weak suffer what they must”). The only subject that I learned was “off limits” was money. People didn’t need to know how much we owed, or how much we didn’t have.
“For most of my life the idea of unearned privileges remained unheard of, an unfamiliar concept from an unknown American reality.”
I won’t actually share my initial reaction to this – it was extremely unkind to the author. Fair to say – I can’t even imagine how someone gets to that place. It had never occurred to me that the people who had everything from the day they were born didn’t have a concept of “unearned privilege.” I guess, when Americans rejected the idea of nobility and royalty, they also blew off the concept of noblesse oblige or something…
The Study Question
How connected to or disconnected from the larger world was your family, your school, your town?
Which school? Which town? The first time I remember being in the same school for a whole school year was the 6th grade. We lived in Mission Valley that year. I remember three of the places we lived in Poway, and I think I could find two of them even today. But I was older then. I don’t remember “home” in National City – just that Sweetwater Roller Rink was nearby. I remember the names of three of my elementary schools, and two of the middle schools/junior highs. I tried to get a copy of my full school record once, thinking it would help me figure out the places we had lived – but I changed states when I went to live with Dad. All my high school could provide was a transcript. The only things I was “connected” to were my brother (when he was there) and my sister (until she was emancipated and left when I was 11).
How much did you understand about conflict and struggle in your world or beyond?
Poverty, domestic violence, lack of stability, neglect (personal and systemic), occasional homelessness. Does experiencing these things mean you “understand” them?
How did you make sense of people who had material wealth and people who didn’t?
There wasn’t any “sense” to it. It was just “the way things were.” Some people were born with stuff, and would always have it. Some were born with nothing and never would have anything else. And a lucky or unlucky few might move from one group to the other. (Moving down was your own fault. Moving up required hard work but was ultimately pure luck. Staying wherever you started was just ‘the way things are’.)
What was your family’s attitude about the people in power?
Mostly a vague sense that they were crooked or corrupt, but that they were the ones in charge – and, no matter how bad it was, it was still better than most other places. (That feeling was reinforced when I joined the military. I focused on the Soviets, and got glimpses into the Eastern Bloc countries. Whatever might suck – it was worse elsewhere, even in the “other biggest and most powerful country in the world.”)
I remember being very excited when I registered to vote my senior year of high school. I came home from school and showed my dad my shiny new voter’s registration card. He told me that in all his life, he had never voted for anyone – just against the other guy.
Even when you could have a voice in who was in charge – it was choosing the lesser of the evils.