Monday, August 14, 2017

What Story Will You Tell A 6th Grader?

Mrs. Dorozinky's 8th Grade Class, 1984
St. Margaret's School, Waterbury CT
I'd say that 5th grade was approximately the age when a poor-to-middling American Catholic school began to escort my group of plaid-clad, doe-eyed whelps outward into the news and show us how current events connect us to history. We had brains of soft clay when we first began to engage with the outside world. I respect teachers in general, but threefold for those Catholics that helmed the U.S.S. Gen X from 4th through 8th grades. It was a wild, windy, sticky affair.

History was not a real thing before 4th grade. They gave us this Bible as big as our history book. Both books had pictures and stories and dates. We wove red, white and blue construction paper flags for July 4th and we hunted eggs on Easter, right after singing the "Christ has died, Christ has risen" songs at church. On Christmas Eve we went to bed leaving milk and cookies for Santa, then we squirmed all through mass on Christmas morning.  We played Cowboys & Indians and they had us putting on plays dressed as pilgrims. George Washington and Jesus and Santa all figured into the narrative about the same, more or less. They had us tracing our hands to draw Thanksgiving turkeys and those nuns yadda yadda'd over some key facts. Our world view was a disaster.

More On THAT Later

I had so many questions. Including why such a big a deal was constantly being made over our knees. They'd line us up and use a ruler to measure our uniform skirt hems. Hey nuns, guess what? At no time in life, as it turns out, were my knees ever the thing about me that got me into trouble. Would that it were so, but thanks for contributing to creepy lifelong body issues for generations of girls. You made us wear skirts and then you shamed us daily. You know what would have covered our knees? Pants. You could have simply let us wear pants.

I have a lot to say about overcoming the mindfuck that was my early Catholic education. What I will say right now is that the answers to my questions always led to more questions. Some I'm still asking. This is not about that. This is about when we first started to connect our tiny little world with the big outside world.

What Story Will You Tell?

So by 6th grade, they'd moved us past rote memorization, names and dates. It was around this time that we were given an assignment to write a history essay from a personal point of view. That meant interviewing a person who was there during this Major Event We Children Shall Drone On About Very Importantly.

My mother suggested Grandma DiPoala. My grandmother had apparently been quite a snappily dressed good time gal who liked to go dancing, until she was left alone to raise three kids after the war. Grandpa DiPoala was "shell shocked," in the parlance of the time, and spent the rest of his life hospitalized. None of us ever met him, then he died. To make ends sort of almost meet, Grandma DiPoala had worked in factories, waited tables and did other jobs to put food on the table.

I was thrilled. I was Lois Lane at last. I came up with a studious list of questions for Maggie. I wanted to write the best essay Mrs. Signori had ever read. I had daydreams like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. 

The whole thing turned out to be a disaster.

I think I started by asking my grandmother what was the most memorable headline she could remember from when she was my age? She said "That's when I was a girl." I asked about the places she had worked. She said "That's when I was a girl." I asked what exactly she did there every day, and what she thought about unions. She said she did "piece work." She had no thoughts about unions. I still don't know what "piece work" means.

I had to fudge that whole essay. I was pissed. How do you live through those fraught decades and have no story to tell? Didn't you care? Weren't you paying attention?

On every other day, Madge DiPoala was a non-stop talker. A small, doughy banshee of a woman, Maggie kept up a steady commentary. She veered from complaining about the neighbors to the high price of bracciole. She'd make you sit and listen to turn-by-turn directions to places you'll never visit. She'd tell you the whole back-and-forth over a dime with the nun at the church tag sale. On every other day, Maggie had opinions except on the day that I asked her about what it was like to be a poor working single mom in 1950s America with immigrant parents. She had no opinion. In fact, she looked vaguely puzzled. It was as though she had lived on the outside of her own life, isolated in the neighborhood and distrusting anyone and everyone else.

She hated black people. So much. And Chinese people and Indian people. She spewed such hateful words. I am scarred for life by my mean, angry grandmother. I have a lot to say about that, too, as soon as I can think of the words, and the right order to put them in...

Are You Paying Attention? 

Boston Common, January 21, 2017
This feels like the worst Monday ever, and what scares the shit out of me is that it's not. There will be so many more worse Mondays, and Wednesdays and Sundays and any other days.

Just so it's clear, what is happening right now is that a growing Trump-emboldened militia has been campaigning for the right to rid America of "defectives." While these people have always been in our country, in our own families even, they have found a new energy in Trump's America. Every person who heard the "Make America Great Again" dog whistle and voted for Mr. Trump is feeling that their time has come at last to hate freely, with the might of the White House on their side. They have no hoods or cloaks this time around.

This weekend they came to Charlottesville brandishing torches and waving the flag of both the Nazi party and the Confederates, who they honor as their patriarchal forebears and whose segregationist traditions they seek to revive and strengthen. They claim they are fighting for their "rights. They equate "rights" and "free speech" with the idea that those freedoms extend to mean "kill Jews" and "kill black people" and by the way, they should have the "right" to feel this way free of consequence.

They call themselves white nationalists. The press calls them Alt-Right. Mr. Trump has obliquely suggested that there are "many sides" to the unfolding story that led us skidding sideways into August 2017. True to his bloviating barrage of campaign promises, here we are barely six months into this fiasco of a presidency and I have to go out to the Boston Common next weekend and literally object to Nazis.

Future grandkids (yours or not) will ask about what is happening right now. They'll look up from their 6th grade homework and ask their elders what it was like going to school in 2017, they'll ask what it was like before Trump. They'll have questions. They'll ask what you thought, what you did, how you voted. Are you paying attention to what you think, what you are doing, and how you are voting? What's your story?

Women's March - Boston
January 21, 2017

I'll Just Leave These Boots Right Here By The Door

There's gonna be a lot more marching.

So about these new Nazis. These people have been riled up by the KKK (yes, those people are still around in 2017) and other extremist leaders and they see Trump as their savior, finally "taking back their country," a paranoid carillon call so absurd that it would be funny except that they literally want to kill my friends.

These are awful people who view the concepts of diversity and equal rights as a a direct threat to them, personally. "You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us" is one of their paranoid battle cries. Hey guys? No one is trying to replace you. That's weird. Your heads are not right.

These toxic torch-bearing individuals claim they're coming to Boston next weekend. Boston -- as much trouble as we still have here with race relations -- always gears up. We do have big problems here, but the difference is that we, as a community, strive to do better. We want to be better. A whole new wave of anger, fear and disappointment has been surging all weekend. Right now, people are canceling plans so that we can gather at the Boston Common again on Saturday, August 19th. Now I need to get a Sharpie and write my mom's phone number on my damn arm again, so they can notify her in case something happens to me. I gotta go back down there again and say "no" to Nazis, because enough people voted for Donald Fucking Trump.

You know, in these increasingly fraught days and weeks, the worst of which is still to come, I think about a friend I used to have. She "broke up with me" on Facebook. Her parting shot, her last word, was a reply to me and my outrageous suggestion that America can do better. She wrote, "Supporting a racist doesn't mean a person is a racist."  To which I replied, "In my opinion, it does." I stand by my words. So too did she, and there's the "divided America" that we now navigate. What a shame.

She's got a kid and when that kid grows up, maybe a grandkid. What story will she tell? What's yours? In my story, I'm firmly against Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. Just so that's clear. Gear up, friends. Pick a side. It's on.∎

Boston always gears up.
(Photo: Uncredited from the Women's March Boston site)