A Vintage Contrarian
This originally appeared in NUVO Newsweekly in April of 2001
Couple years back my family converged on the tiny town in Tipton County where we lived when I was small. My younger cousin Becky had been a missionary in the environs of New Guinea for several years and come home to marry a wonderful black South African man she’d met there. The wedding reception was held in a park that was built on the site of the school where I went to first and second grade. It was across the playground from the ball diamond where my big brother played little league, across the street from the house where our doctor lived and saw patients, a half block down from the house where my mother left me with a baby sitter, a block down from the corner diner where we often ate and the volunteer fire department that my father had served with, and a block from the water tower I used to lay under on my back with friends at noon to see if we could stand the ear piercing blast of the siren that was tested each day. But that was nearly forty years ago. It is a different place now.
Beside the park where the wedding reception was held stood the gymnasium, the only part of the old school that was saved. As the wedding reception wore on, as people took pictures of each other with the disposable cameras on the table, my older sister and I wondered into the old gymnasium and studied the giant, framed, black and white photographs of the Pep Club taken more than three decades ago. We searched for my aunt and finally found her in one of the groupings from the early ’60s. She sat in the bleachers among a crowd of teenagers; all seemingly wearing painted corduroys and saddle shoes.
As we wondered through the darkened, cavernous gymnasium, I found myself studying my sister – this remarkable woman, as she walked about. Now in her forties, once she was a little girl taking gym classes here, playing in this innocent place, still unaware that she was a lesbian and that the world would hate her for it.
She and I and my brother and my other sister grew up in this town and went to school in that long gone building that was once next door. My sister and her companion live in California. She’s a nuclear engineer with an MBA – the only woman on her company’s board of directors. My other sister is also a wonderful success in life, a woman who has overcome great struggles to be happy. My brother is a college grad and an incredibly talented artist. I am a schoolteacher, a Realtor, a writer. We four are all college grads, all homeowners, all gamefully employed.
What I was thinking as I studied my sister and remembered this place is that we all found success in life, having been educated at a school that would be considered substandard today. There were no TVs hanging from the classroom walls continuously running PBS specials. There were no computer labs with Internet access, no planetariums or indoor swimming pools. There was no robotics labs, no greenhouse, and no security guards, not even air conditioning. Unlike my own children today, we did not come home each day from elementary school with an hour or more of homework.
When you consider what is believed to be necessary to insure the success of the average child today, my siblings and I should be utter failures.
After school our parents didn’t drive us around to endless enrichment activities - ballet, piano, gymnastics, soccer and baseball (in overlapping seasons), indoor soccer and basketball (in overlapping seasons), computer camps, space camps, horseback riding lessons. Sure, we did some of that, but just a little. In those days summer was 12 weeks long. We filled our spare time riding bikes, flying kites, fiddling with frogs and fish in a stream and playing basketball on a dirt court against our garage. We camped in the back yard and read comic books. We actually played hide and seek and kick the can – games that are foreign to most children today. We had no cable TV, no VCR, no Play Station. When we went on long trips, we didn’t have a mini van with a TV/VCR for the kids to watch, no Game Boys to pass the time. We had to look at the countryside, play word games and use our imagination. Yet, I don’t feel cheated. Quite the contrary.
In that distant town that was once in this place, low calorie diet foods were almost unheard of, yet children then were far less likely to be obese. In this weird world where we grew up there was a commercial area at the edge of our neighborhood that children were free to interact in and we could walk to school – two things that would rarely be designed into the average new community today.
Still, in some ways I know it is a better place now. My sister is less likely to be ostracized here and my white, freckle faced cousin can marry a black man from South Africa in the park and cause little or no commotion.
Yet, in my childhood here, considering we were so deprived of what are considered necessities for any middle class kid today, how did we become computer literate breadwinners who know how to set our VCRs?
My own three children wondered into the old building to find us. They looked about that old 1930s-era gymnasium, that aging temple to a Hoosier God, and wondered at its foreignness. There were no practice gyms off to the side, no state of the art sound systems, no health club-quality weight lifting facilities. The looks on their faces said it all, “What a strange . . . primitive place.” They looked into the old Pep Club pictures and giggled. These children, grown up with fashion trends like the plumber’s-butt, low rider pants of hip hop culture, face piercings and the unfortunate return of bell-bottoms and clogs, dared to say, “Why did they dress so funny?”
With everything my children have I sometimes worry what will become of them. They’ve come to expect so much of life – materially. Granted, they have some very valuable things I didn’t have. I would have never been taken to an interracial wedding in my childhood, nor would two of my most beloved relatives be an “out” lesbian couple. Still, as we left that old gym, I wished I could give my children what little I had when I was their age. In some ways it looks more valuable than the material things they have. Less is more? Perhaps.
Later, as I sat among the wedding crowd looking at what remained of the place I once new so well, I thought that perhaps the worst thing we could give our children is the best of everything.