Saturday, November 24, 2012

How I learned to hate

I grew up in a vibrant, diverse, working class community in the suburbs of Boston. My neighborhood was overflowing with kids cutting through yards and filling up the local park at all hours. My parents rented the first floor of a two-family home from an angry landlord who had a fun playground in her yard that we weren’t allowed to play on but did anyway.

I was a loud, overactive student of the Butler Elementary School, where many of the kid’s parents were immigrants, minorities, and families just getting on their feet. I wouldn’t say I was poor by any means. Every morning I woke up in a warm bed, and every night I went to bed with a hot meal in my stomach. I was in a comfortable enough environment that created sufficient conditions for me to grow. But our parents were money conscious enough to remind us that there was a lot we couldn’t afford too.

Every parent worked hard, and the mothers set up a foolproof network to negotiate childcare, exchange babysitter numbers and trade outgrown clothing.  Through this strong community, us kids were able to defy our less than optimal circumstances and grow and learn as we should, while being blind to the reality that some families were struggling more than others.

I remember being so jealous of my friends whose grandparents lived with them. How lucky they were to have their family so close, I thought. Little did I know, many of the parents were really young and had to move in with their parents in order to secure a stable environment for the children.

There was one kid who wore the same sweatpants to school everyday, and when other parents found this out, they shifted their focus on his needs and offered his mom extra clothing in his size. In place of judgment was action backed by a genuine desire to provide where one could give.

I was hardly deprived of anything I needed, although with two diabetics in our family, I would like to point out bluntly that sweets in the house were scarce. I often reminded my mom that my lunches were lacking sugary apple pies. And I proudly adopted the nickname “garbage disposal,” because I would go from table to table at lunch asking for leftover sweets—particularly the sugary apple pies. This became my staple behavior. I had no idea that it involved implications of neediness for I lacked the knowledge that dignity could be lost. Soon, other parents would pack additional snacks for me in their children’s lunches.

I was a particularly zealous kid, who was proud of the fact that I didn’t fit in any particular category. I was a tomboy at heart, and found it my conviction to prove that I could do anything that the boys could. I once spent an entire summer playing basketball with my shirt off, because, in a seven-year-old’s eyes, all was equal. It wasn’t until my mom saw me playing on the playground that she put an end to it. But for me, I had won. I had shut up all the boys who said I couldn’t do something.

Growing up in a diverse community means learning that not every parent can or should pronounce your name as you do. And when you walk into another kid’s home, you shouldn’t expect their families to have the same routine as yours. My mom was a nurse and worked some odd shifts, but we made it work, just like my friend’s family. Her dad worked nights at a packaging warehouse. It was truly a blessing to learn that not every adult had a nine-to-five job as every 80’s sitcom suggested they should.

Butler Elementary School taught me a lot about how to treat people with respect, but it wasn’t perfect. Sometimes, there were factors that seemed extraneous to us that teachers would use to treat kids unfairly. It was as if the education of some kids didn’t matter as much as others’. But despite the values that the teachers brought into our environment, it’s important for me to note that the kids knew better. After all, we spent the earlier years relying on each other’s families for safety and support. Why would some kids matter less if they were part of the fabric of our community?

I spent my fourth grade sitting next to Jonathan. We sat so close to each other that when we took standardized tests, I once snuck a peek at his test just so I could see him check off “African American.” I had only taken a test in my name, and it was a novelty for me to see something other than “Caucasian” checked.

I didn’t cheat again until the division cards. Our goal was to answer all 30 division questions in the fastest time and I was the class winner, but another student was gaining on me, and my fast time had plateaued. In a desperate attempt to maintain my stance, I started the questions before the timer went off, and Jonathan noticed. When he raised his hand, my stomach was in my throat, and the blood rushed to my head. I had never been caught for something of this magnitude before. But when he told the teacher what had happened, somehow the teacher stopped listening to the truth, and she told Jonathan to stop lying, even after I had confirmed my fault. Her words didn’t make sense. Why did she not believe my friend?

I was stunned. I was also 9 years old and wasn’t going to yell, “I was wrong! Aren’t you going to punish me?” For whatever reason the teacher had to take my side, I knew what I did was wrong. Although, the teacher never acknowledged any wrongdoing, the disappointment that Jonathan had in me for cheating and not confronting her was far greater punishment than anything the teacher could have said or done. For the rest of that day, there was a fear and disruption of comfort within the class. This was not the atmosphere that we grew up in. I would discover, later in my years, that in many places, this behavior was considered acceptable.

That night, I confessed in tears that I cheated to my parents without mentioning how the teacher handled the situation. Through my guilt, I was seeking a fair punishment and feared that my parents would dismiss fairness if I brought up Jonathan’s role, just as my teacher had.

Though this was difficult to experience as a kid, this story is a reminder of how grateful I am that I grew up in a community where I learned to discern right from wrong. Of course to this day, I wish I told an adult the whole story.

The summer before fifth grade, my dad found out that there was asbestos on our pipes and lead paint on the walls. It angered him even more to know that our landlord knew this without telling us. He refused to pay rent until the landlord agreed to fix the problem, but instead we were evicted. As a child, I didn’t understand the importance of living in an environmentally safe home, but in hindsight, I remember beating the pipes with a tennis racket to watch the dust explode up into the air, and snacking on paint chips when I was bored.

My dad’s an entrepreneur, and luck happen to be on his side, when he landed some big start-up company role. With extra cash in hand, we were moving to the wealthy side of town.

Just as expected, friends from our community came together to help us move. My friend’s dad, who plowed our driveway every winter, lent us his truck. “Wow Liz, you’re rich," my friends said as we crossed the train tracks into the wealthy side. I ebbed back in the truck with my hands behind my head thinking, "yeah, I guess I am."

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this new elementary school called WinnBrook. I was looking forward to being the new kid. My parents were happy to be sending their kids to a “better school.”

I had a good feeling about this new life we were about to embark on. The way my parents talked about the new neighborhood, it was as if they had spent their whole lives aspiring to live on this block and be amongst these people. I adopted their excitement.

My sister and I quickly dismissed the suggestion that our new school may not be as welcoming, when my dad recalled a time at the town pool when a parent whose children went to WinnBrook, struck up a conversation with him. After my dad told her that we went to Butler, she got up and left, mid-sentence.

My first day at Winn Brook fulfilled the glory that I expected it to. I was a new kid. Everyone wanted to know who I was and where I was from. I immediately noticed the lack of diversity in this new school, but figured it would be easier for all of our parents to make friends, since I was sure they all spoke English.

But day two took a dark turn when a girl named Kim asked me what my back-to-school budget was. Without caution, the free-spirited me shined through. When I started to brag about my hand-me-downs coming from the cooler older kids from my mom’s work, Kim’s mouth dropped. She blurted out that her budget was $600 and walked away.

With this and other information-slipping missteps, I had already established myself as the poor kid in the neighborhood, but one thing I was sure could not be doubted was my intelligence. I credit the warm environment of the Butler school, which served as an ideal incubator for kids of all backgrounds to grow and learn at their highest potential. But I didn’t take into account that WinnBrook was a “better school” and my high performance at Butler translated into poor performance, which only got worse as I began to identify myself as a “poor kid”, which in reality was far from the truth.

In Belmont and other surrounding Boston towns, there is a voluntary desegregation program called METCO, which gives African American students from underperforming school districts the opportunity to attend a high-performing school and decrease racial isolation within the school district. At Butler, METCO students were well integrated into the school and community, perhaps because the school was already pretty diverse.

Being different was not revered at WinnBrook. Even as a young kid in elementary school, one still heard the word “faggot” pinned on every tomboy and non-athletic boy in class.  Putting down and isolating those that weren’t like you seemed encouraged, and my next lesson proved to be damaging—

“If a community tells you that you’re a 'dumb, poor, faggot' long enough, sooner or later, you begin to believe them.”

What made the WinnBrook school so different from Butler?
Was it simply the homogenous neighborhood that led to fear of the unknown or was there more to it?
Is this community capable of changing this perception and corresponding actions?

When all of the elementary schools in the town fed into one middle and high school, the desire to be judgmental, hateful and hurtful was contagious and took over. Soon, even the kids from Butler were displaying this mean-spirited behavior, despite what they had been taught.

And I turned too.

One day, a confrontation with a kid, who I knew from Butler resulted with him throwing money at my face and telling me to buy myself a pair of pants that fit, because I dressed like a faggot. The spirit inside us both caved as our souls chased after the bills in desperation, before the wind took them away. But I just stood there, pretending that the five-dollar bill and the three singles were no more important than old cash receipts. And he just stood there with anger in his eyes, trying not to think about the government-funded lunch he ate earlier that day.

I would have kept standing, but this moment had piled on many others. This was my breaking point. I struck hard with the very insult that I knew would make him collapse, and it did. The open culture at Butler revealed secrets that the insecure high school environment would hound over. I belted out offensive rhetoric with conviction, and his angry eyes softened and teared up as the child I remembered before we learned to hate.

For the free-spirited, non-judgmental us were overtaken by fear. And fear destroys all.

I know I am capable of transforming into a hurtful and harmful person. But love, honesty, non-judgment, inclusiveness, service and standing up for what I know is right, is the only way I have found to create and maintain the environment for which I want to live in.

For many years I rejected the American whitebread community, because that is where I first learned how to hate, but now I’m learning that being inclusive means including the majority too.