“Fall is here, hear the yell
Back to school, ring the bell
Brand new shoes, walking blues
Climb the fence, books and pens,
I can tell that we are going to be friends…”
Jack White perfectly captured the walk through my childhood ‘end of summer, back to school’ feelings with these lyrics. Every time I hear them, I am transported back in time, flooded with sensory information about each new school year. In elementary, I walked to school every day. It was a fairly short walk, made with friends from the neighborhood, and probably my sister, Chauncey, (though I was likely too wrapped up in trying to ‘impress’ the people around me to pay her much attention). I was part of a large group of kids who had to walk home together, past several of my friends' houses, to our babysitter’s home. It was a one-way street, and we always walked in the middle of the street, unless we had to move for a car. Something in that ‘defiant’ act of walking IN the street every day made me feel overly powerful, spurred my active imagination, and occasionally got me into some trouble.
As a young adult, I wouldn’t have considered a lot of the many people I traveled to and from school with as ‘important’ to me, but when I look back on the memories now, I know that their opinions and reactions often informed my behavior, and I can see the roots of ‘meaning’ in my decisions. I was the oldest of the group, and it makes me exhale deeply to think about what kinds of inappropriate things I said and did in front of the younger kids I was trusted to walk with. I really hope I left them with mostly good feelings and memories about me (and themselves), but the truth is, we can’t really know how our actions and behaviors affect and shape other people.
I was always a tall kid, athletic enough and pretty damn bossy; often leading the charge on ‘our’ choices. I know I was ‘pushing’ strong energies–both positive and negative–into the collective mix on a daily basis. It makes rooted sense: by third grade my family was divorced, I was disassociated from my feelings about it, and I was pressing on a set of mostly undefined boundaries. When I look at the names on my Mentors List, I realize that some of these kids I spent time with had a definite impact on me, but there’s no way I could/would have recognized that at the time. In the second half of my childhood, I was much too concerned with affecting others to realize how many people were having an effect on me. I have always placed significant value on my friendships, probably ‘slighting’ my family and the other ‘regulars’ in my life on occasion. The wisdom of perspective has shown me that the people (and environments) I spent the most time around were things I often took for granted and thus failed to appreciate. I certainly believed I had full autonomy over what I let in and out of my awareness, and that it was only my unreasonable parents who stood in my way, even though nothing was farther from the truth. Surprisingly, that delusion served me well in a lot of ways…
I just learned from Google that my Junior High was 1.7 miles from my house and unless someone’s parents took pity on me, I was hoofing it both ways. Something about that really bothered my inner self, resulting in a bizarre form of embarrassment that I handled by basically avoiding it. I would generally wake up early and walk to a friend’s house in the morning – waiting for her to get ready before we walked the rest of the way to school. One of these friends, new to our school, had the entire Clinique line of make-up and not only did she teach me a lot about how to wear it, she inadvertently nurtured my ‘keeping up with the Jones’ intentions. I became much more aware of what I didn’t have than what I did, but it was such a subtle shift that I didn’t really feel it take hold – I just noticed that my opinions had become more judgmental - to myself and others. I’m confident that my subscription to Seventeen Magazine further fostered those feelings, growing a desire for things I couldn’t afford that probably didn’t fully subside until I turned 40. The upside was that I felt ‘current’ when I finished reading it cover to cover each month, which held a lot of importance for me at the time.
During those years, there were two kids in my class who walked my direction home, so we sometimes walked together. Neither of these people were part of my friend group, per se, but because of all the walking and talking, they definitely became my confidants. One of them I still see very irregularly, and we reminisce about ‘the old times’. He was one of very few black students in our district, but (to me) that never seemed a factor that defined him. I’m able to see it all very differently now, but I was a little resistant (and therefore a little late) to the ‘systemic racism’ conversation because my own experiences clouded the realities of ‘truth’ that other people were living. It was a comforting bubble of ignorance, but as soon as it burst, I saw all the ‘invisible’ dots connecting… At 53, he’s a lot more vocal about his experiences now, and I’m glad he feels confident sharing his thoughts and feelings in a world that’s just beginning to listen…
Two of my cousins are black, and to this day, the Sesame Street song Skin from the album We Are All Earthlings still plays in my head, unbidden. The short, simple tune always made me feel good and connected–so much so that for much of my childhood, I mistakenly believed we all shared that illusionary viewpoint. I continue to lean into my ignorance regarding ‘racial and cultural awareness’ because I very clearly lived in a lot of privilege that I was unwittingly taking for granted while being very busy with such things as coveting designer styles and manipulating whatever I could manage around me.
The other girl who walked home from Junior High with us remains kind of superhuman in my mind. She exists in my memory as someone who didn’t concern herself with what people thought of her. She was fair and kind, two qualities I struggled to hold at that age, and I found myself admiring her and feeling pity for her at the same time. She seemed secure, a feeling that often evaded me as I spent more time worrying about what other people thought of me than who I actually wanted to be. Her security was a grounding force and I always felt more real when I was talking with her, even though I remember thinking she wasn’t ‘cool’ enough to actually be my friend. I like to think my current approach to ‘fashion’ is modeled from her comfortable, effortless ease in whatever ‘not cool’ thing she happened to be wearing, and I can easily laugh at my younger, more judgmental self for being so out of touch.
Our lessons show up in our everyday routines, even though we take more notice of the impact from our bigger events. Interestingly, I have had a few people tell me that they felt that same kind of admiration about me that I felt about her when they first met me, supporting the ‘indisputable truth’ that we each see the world from uniquely different perspectives. Even with our best intentions, our communications are always distorted by the filter our minds run them through. Although I was pretty good at covering up my insecurities, I believe that came more from living in a constant state of denial than being part of an actual skill set. Looking back, I can recognize that ‘denial’ as a form of universal support and protection. Had I been privy to the actual truth, I would likely have crumbled under the shame, guilt and pressure that comes with ‘not measuring up’. Luckily, I usually had no idea how from the mark I really was until much later!
By sophomore year, I was getting rides from friends or driving my thirsty-for-brake-fluid, $400 1971 VW Beetle–which could not have passed any safety inspection under any circumstances. The way I determined that it needed brake fluid was when I began needing a lot of extra time to stop. It was very important to get out and put it in right then, or there would be no brakes with the next attempt. I’m having an actual body memory of the feeling of trying to stop as I’m writing this and it’s a little unsettling, like post-traumatic stress. Thank goodness Prairie Village doesn’t have many hills! It seems a miracle that I never caused an accident in that car, but the universe has had my back in some pretty fantastic ways.
My junior year, I rode to school with my friend and neighbor who was a year older than me, plus three of his friends. There was a strange hierarchy to the drive, wherein I was the first pick up, so I’d get in the front seat. The next pick up was a guy I had a crush on in elementary. He definitely did not return my feelings, and even in high school was too embarrassed about it to talk to me much so he’d get straight in the back. The street we took to the next guy’s house, Lee Boulevard, is probably my favorite street in Kansas. I used to daydream about these homes daily, imagining what life might be like from the perspective of the ones I favored. If anyone wonders where all the extra supplies went during the pandemic, there’s about 20 blocks of full to partial gorgeous remodels on display. Truly a sight to behold!
A few blocks off of that street was our last pickup. I can’t call this guy a friend, but he’s definitely a Mentor/Tormentor. He’d arrive at the car, open the door, and say “move” or “get in back” and I would. My one attempt to resist it resulted in me being pulled from the car and pushed into the backseat. This sounds a lot more violent than it felt… It was more like a sibling interaction than an abusive act, but it definitely established my place in the pecking order. I was a girl. I was younger. And I was lucky to be getting a ride with them at all…at least that’s how he saw it. My friend that drove us was good at making me feel important when that guy wasn’t around, but it’s a clear sign of the times that I was okay with it.
Senior year I switched high schools because we moved. For the first week, I was walking. I still remember being excited about the black sweater, black and red plaid skirt and black boots that I wore on the first day. It was cold inside the school but blistering hot as I walked home, deeply regretting my choice. My disappointment had nothing to do with the heat and everything to do with the fact that all of the other senior girls were wearing white boxer shorts with the number 87 screen printed on the butt. I would have given anything to be wearing a pair of those boxers, but since I was new, I didn’t get the memo… Unbeknownst to me, my fashion ‘faux pas’ had made me stand out in a way that made people curious about me, and some of those people wound up being my friends and mentors, despite my strong belief that I would never recover from how ‘friendless’ I felt walking home all by myself on that last first day of school.