What It Costs To Be Different
When I was growing up, America was very prosperous. We lived in rural area, dotted with successful dairy farms that were well-kept and orderly. I went to a central school; all the grades from kindergarten through high school were all in the same building.
Everyone else seemed very rich to me; we lived very poor. My dad, though he worked hard and was generally speaking successful, was a miser of sorts. He saved everything for his retirement. So I grew up very much poorer than the rest of my class.
I was set apart from my peer group also, because of the obscure religion my parents practiced, and compelled their children to practice. My parents belonged to a fundamentalist sect called the Church of the Pilgrim Fathers. It is a harsh, joyless religion. No dancing, no cards, no movies. Mortify the flesh to exalt the spirit. We couldn't have a Christmas tree--that was idolatry.
I really suffered at school, from being so "different". I think the worst thing was the clothes, that's what really put me outside the fence with my peers.
Girls couldn't wear blue jeans, according to my parents' religion. Girls had to wear dresses: only boys wore pants. So, while everyone else was clad fashionably in blue jeans and bell bottoms, I wore long, dowdy dresses that were hand-me-downs, goodwill clothes, or factory seconds. Mini skirts and go-go boots (like everyone else had) were out of the question! Prostitute clothes on sixth grade girls! Shameful! An abomination to the Lord! Sometimes my sister and I would roll our skirts up at the waist to make them shorter after we got on the school bus.
It didn't matter. I still looked awful. I was wearing "grandmother clothes" that didn't fit and were definitely the opposite of "cool".
I definitely walked to a different drummer.
I did have a couple of friends in the neighborhood, though. I had a rusty old monster of a bicycle that was handed down to me from my oldest brother Jerry. I loved that thing. I'd ride for miles and miles, the creaky old bike underneath me and the blue sky above. I'd visit my friends, who were outcasts, too, but for different reasons.
One of my friends was a foster child. This set her apart in ways that weren't fair. Remember, this is a small, closed, rural community. I don't think she would have been an outcast in a more cosmopolitan system.
Another of my friends was the daughter of a dairy farm laborer. He just worked on one of the big dairy farms around where we grew up. He didn't own any land....ergo, you guessed it, his daughter was "different", not accepted. I don't think she would have been outside the fence in a more cosmopolitan community either.
We formed our own small clique of outcasts. We rode the school bus together; we survived gym class together; we sat together in the cafeteria. The only thing we really had in common was being outsiders, but it was enough. Three was better than one. We could trade stories of our home lives. We could tell the truth to each other and be ourselves. It was ok.
I liked school anyway, even though I sometimes got picked on unmercifully and all the time felt shut out. I was good at school; I read a lot; I got good grades, and that made me feel successful. Sometimes the teachers were so kind to me it'd move me to tears. I wasn't much used to kindness.
My classmates rejected me for all kinds of reasons during grade school: not only my clothes, but everything else about me seemed to bug my classmates. I had my nose in a book all the time. I knew all the answers in class. (Believe me, that can make you a very hated person--no one likes a know-it-all, and I'm afraid I was one.) I looked so differently and dressed so differently and badly that it isn't a surprise I was shunned and harassed. I was definitely not "in"; not "cool".
We had a dysfunctional household. Dad beat us unmercifully at the smallest infraction. Part of mortifying the flesh, I suppose. He could rationalize anything he did as right. The rest of the world was wrong. He broke the stick on me one Sunday, for laughing on Sunday. I didn't even know that was against the rules until he got angry and started beating on me with a cane.
Mom tried to cover for him, but people knew. Dad discouraged any socializing; we always visited our friends at their houses, they never came to ours. No one was encouraged to visit us. But people knew, anyway. It was a small community and word got around.
People knew, and generally speaking, they shunned us. We were too "different". It was an unpleasant situation that made people uncomfortable. It was also a situation where people didn't feel entitled to interfere or do anything about it. Family matters are delicate issues. And, you know, people have their own problems and concerns; they have their own families to raise and take care of . So, if the community turned a blind eye to what was happening and just stayed away, I can understand it.
If my peer group at school was quite cruel in their ways of showing me I was an outcast, I can understand that too. They didn't know what it was like. They were brought up in a much more conventional manner. And it made them just as uncomfortable with us as their parents were.
I still liked school. I had my friends--our tiny little group of three expanded to five or six people by the time I reached 6th grade. I absorbed information like a sponge. Being an outcast made me a better student. I felt safe from Dad at school, too, and I can tell you, that was a big digit on the plus side for school.
As time went on, the harassment seemed to die down. Maybe I lost a little of the know-it-all thing. Maybe we all just got used to each other. Maybe we were slowly becoming more civilized as we grew up. Gym class was still torture but the snide comments seemed to abate and no one pulled my hair anymore. It wasn't so bad.
Until the 8th grade. I made a new friend. His name was Pete. He was new in school; he had a great voice and was a good singer; he was really a nice guy--very open, very friendly. He was one of the very few people (at the time) that could make me laugh. He was a lot cooler person than me, and he liked me anyway. He was friends with me anyway. I was so glad to have him for a friend and so flattered by his friendship! We weren't boyfriend and girlfriend. We were just friends.
I was oblivious to what was going on behind my back, until one day I walked into school and looked at my locker and saw "Nigger Lover" spray painted on my locker in black spray paint. i got pushed around in the hall, that same day, by five big jocks. They dumped my books from my arms and shoved me back and forth, making threats, pushing me back and forth between them like a rag doll.
It just never occurred to me before then that we'd get harassed because Pete was black and I was white. It seemed to make so little difference as a person. Pete made some friends of his own, and was quite popular, even though he was one of only three black people in the whole school and his father drove a school bus and didn't own any land, and he was new. It didn't make that much difference before, people seemed to like him anyway because he was such a great guy.
It was 1972, in America. The American Civil rights movement had come and mostly gone; leaving behind it a national awareness of the mistreatment and abuse of our black citizens; a national guilt on the part of white people in America for having been a party to this gross injustice; and an underlying groundswell of bitter resentment on both sides.
It is so hard to eradicate bigotry once it is socially entrenched. People may pay lip service to the current trend of what is socially acceptable or politically correct, but underneath, something else is going on. It takes a new generation, or maybe two, or maybe even three to look at bigotry and see it for what it actually is, and to reject it completely.
I had already learned in grade school how to cope with being "different". I felt rejected by most of my peer group but there was peace, or at least a truce, until this incident. I had got used to being picked on for things I had no control over and weren't my fault. This seemed like more of the same to me, except I knew it wasn't.
Still, I ignored the situation as best I could and went about my business. The janitor re-painted my locker door. The jocks got a talking-to by the school principal after the coach had come along in the hall and broken up the party.
People didn't say too much to me directly. As far as I could tell, Pete was being treated OK and just about the same. He wasn't taking too much flak on my account--or, at least he said he wasn't.
Pete and I stayed friends until we both graduated from high school. We lost track of each other then; we both went on to college in different states.
I sometimes wonder about Pete and about a couple of people, friends from high school. But I have really good reasons for not wanting to go back there.
It costs me a lot to be different. There were many sad times and many tears; there were a lot of hurt feelings. The pain of rejection by your peer group never quite leaves a person completely.
If you can stand up to it at the time, there are some compensations. It makes you stronger. It makes you less afraid of public opinion, it makes you less afraid to espouse unconventional views.
I'm more tempted to dig out what facts I can gather rather than go by public opinion or what other people say on an issue, and then make up my own mind.
As an adult, I find I gravitate towards open-minded people. Many of these people are from more conventional backgrounds than my own. You don't have to go through what I went through to be open-minded or to think independently. Sometimes I think this quality is also formed from education; or it's a function of exposure to a variety of places, people and situations. Sometimes I think reading opens one's mind to a terrific extent. I feel a lot safer with open-minded people.
I'm also attracted to artists, musicians and writers. People with these gifts tend to naturally think outside the box. That's part of their gift, being "different".
It's part of their curse, too. So many gifted, talented people in different fields of the arts are tortured souls. Some even commit suicide! These beautiful gifts they leave behind for all of us to enjoy have come at great expense to the individual who created them, often.
Yet, these people are so much admired and respected, often. Sometimes artists are hero-worshipped and recognized as not only "different", but special, too.
It seems there are two opposite internal forces at work: we want to be different and assert ourselves as individuals; yet we want to be accepted by our communities and our peers. We want to conform enough to fit in and be liked; yet we want our individual uniqueness appreciated.
Centripetal and centrifugal forces find a balance; we seek a balance, find some common ground, and we get along.
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