Small Town Life: Growing Up “Other”

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One undeniable thing about small-town life is if you weren’t born there, you’ll never really belong. People will always look at you funny. They’re raised from the cradle to give side eye to anyone who doesn’t quite fit their mold. This experience of rural life increases exponentially when one attends parochial school.

Watching my grandson in his very first year of public grammar school, I look on as he forms new friendships—boys running down the sidewalk, conquering invisible villains with their first-finger laser beam guns.  None of the boys question if he was born here. They don’t care if he is Lutheran or Methodist, or who his daddy or grandpa are. All they care about is if he knows the details of the latest Batman game. I sleep a little easier hoping he’ll never know what it means to be an outsider.

I was in second grade when we moved to my tiny town. Diversity was defined only by the crops grown in any given season. Skin color only differed during the summer when migrant workers moved in. Thinking about it, I don’t think we ever really spoke of them. They were our invisible population—not quite slaves, but not even close to our equals. One might suppose I was lucky. I was a transplant, too, but my skin and language matched. At least I had that going for me.

Although my grandparents were farmers, my first seven years found me living far from them, so I never really knew the ins and outs of agriculture. Sure, I knew what cows were, and I knew about home grown vegetables, or at least I knew about eating them. It took some time before I warmed up to farming.

I was a city girl—a business man’s daughter. I cut my teeth in the press room of a print shop, interacting with customers more than kids, and maintaining the appearance of an entrepreneur’s child. I learned, though.

My first trip to the dairy farm owned by my friends’ and classmates’ family was in 2nd grade. I loved animals, so I loved the vibe of the farm. Being an only child, the interaction with the other kids was challenging.

During an innocent game of hide and seek in their grandparents’ farm house, they hid and I was supposed to seek. When I realized I’d have to explore rooms beyond the kitchen, living room, and bathroom, I panicked. I couldn’t go into the bedrooms. That just wouldn’t be polite. Surely they must know these things, right? My friends had abandoned me. I was just sure of it.

I cried to call my parents. I was terrified. These girls didn’t like me. I knew that as sure as I knew if I went into their grandparents’ bedroom I’d be chided by their elders. Worse, my parents would find out, and I’d be grounded for not having decorum attributable to a young lady.

As it turns, everything would have been fine. They were playing. I overreacted—a trait that would follow me into adulthood. What also followed me, rearing its ugly head about 9th grade was the fact I did not, in fact, belong in that house.

There was no Deutsch blood coursing through my veins. I was not Lutheran by birth. My parents weren’t farmers. What my best friends and I had in common was youth and our school desks. Nothing more. Once we no longer shared the tiny rooms in our protected bubble of a school, and once we blossomed into young women, I was out.

It’s questionable if my 3 best buddies abandoned me by their own choices, or if it was filial piety that forced our break. I became pregnant at 15—something I’m sure struck terror in their parents, especially when one of the other girls-a fellow towny, but still blood related,  followed suit shortly thereafter.

She was accepted, embraced even. I was not.

I became Patient Zero; The bringer of all things evil on their whitewashed, puritanical town. Even the tan-skinned souls working the fields that summer were held in higher regard. They couldn’t “contaminate” their daughters. They’d never be allowed close enough. But me? I’d been in their homes. I’d laughed and played Barbies and Four-Square with those girls. I could ruin them all. I was an alien being in small-town USA, and was thusly cast aside like the rotten melons that would be left lying in the field after the harvest.

All we learned in our morning devotions about loving one another, and letting our Triune God hold all the stones to be cast went flying out the window. I wasn’t fit to be a scarecrow in their fields. Not because I’d committed a sin worse than what their own daughters had committed behind their backs, but because I’d been caught.

My pregnant belly would give me away. Their self-appointed court could condemn me with the only evidence of my “sin” they needed, just as they sat in judgment over the people who were here to make an honest man’s dollar working in their fields.

If I’d have had any sense, I would’ve left back then with the caravan of “others” when fall became winter.

I didn’t. To this day I live in this small town. I’m not sure why other than leaving is easier said than done when you’re responsible for more than yourself.

With the advent of social media and with my children having attended the same high school as my former friends and I, I’ve had occasion to reconnect with the girls who used to jump Double Dutch with me. We only connect in pleasantries, though.

“How are you? The kids? You parents?”

My attempts to reach out to them beyond that have been denied. I’m still not up to par, I suppose. Sometimes that bothers me. Most of the time I don’t think of it.

Until, that is, I see those laughing little faces playing make believe laser tag on the sidewalk as they wait for the bus. Then my mind transports me back to four little girls giggling about everything imaginable whilst camping out in someone’s living room, watching scary movies, and eating rubbish.

I miss those little girls, including myself. We were so innocent and untouched by the cruel judgmental world that would encompass our lives so few years later.

None of my school mates followed me into adulthood fully. A couple high school friends remained friends with me until I married. Then they were gone.

Sometimes I cry for the little girl I was who knew she didn’t fit in, who was alone and afraid. Then I ask myself “Jesus, did anything really change?”

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