My Parents were Bohemians, but I was White Trash

04/19/2017 05:48 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2017

Sure, all three of us lived in the same house and shared the same resources, but only one of us received an education from my elementary school.

In the early 70’s, having purchased a cheap piece of rural land, my parents moved to a small boating town by the water to escape the city of Houston. My father envisioned it as something of a artists’ colony, while my Los Angeles born mother sat on a lawn chair in her gravel driveway, drinking iced tea (sweet or unsweet?) with our neighbor, lamenting her fate with every drag from a bummed cigarette.

Nevertheless, my father’s intuition about the property proved true. Over the years, more and more creatives and craftsmen moved in and by the time I was in high school, we lived in a mini Key West, full of parties, drinks, music, and reverie.

In the meantime, however, I attended elementary school without them.

I loved my school. It was red brick and small, with covered sidewalks attaching the buildings. Our principal and teachers were genuinely invested in the success of each tiny attendee and filled our classrooms with joy and passion for learning.

But we were poor. And in my school, being a poor kid with artsy parents was no different than being a poor kid with different types of parents, be they blue collar workers, newly immigrated entrepreneurs, unsavory alcoholics, or members of the Ku Klux Klan, which was still brazenly active in the area during my childhood.

So while there was a sense of equality and friendship among the students, there was also a dark undercurrent of violence that permeated our school days, carried from the homes of some of the students, tucked into torn backpacks and patched pockets, hidden under bandaids and grimy baseball caps.

Groups of children traveled together on foot to and from the school, and it was in these sunlit classrooms, filled with cockle burrs and wildflowers, that the remainder of our education was solidified. The groups operated as scared schools of fish, turning on each other quickly and without warning.

On one such walk, the large group I was with circled a lone boy who had used a racial slur to address a newly immigrated student from Vietnam. As the boy’s back was pinned against a wooden fence, we collectively threw rocks at him. Big rocks. And hard. In essence, we stoned him, until he lay in a small and shivering heap, his hands covering his head and face.

(Justice carried out swiftly and violently was something I witnessed very early on, and these images form my argument against such corporal punishment. I’ve seen children, after running through fields towards an outbreak of violence, arrive upon the scene breathless and, without so much as a question, start hurling rocks. I know, first hand, what mindless joiners we humans are.)

It was best for the girls of my neighborhood to travel together and walk the long and snaking pathway under the blazing sun in order to deliver each of us home safely, one at a time. The last girl had to walk home alone, and I marvel now, as an adult, at the naive bravery needed to walk those last few blocks by herself.

Although my home was a safe haven, a portion of these walks to and from school were not. While my parents and I dreamt of renovations and vacations, I was also spending a fair amount of my day trying to not get my “ass beat”. At home, I set the table, washed up, played with stuffed animals and did homework. I’m not sure if my parents ever knew the toughness my school was imbuing me with.

The other night, I was in a dance class and a woman walked in who bore a striking resemblance to one of these small, tough fighters. I immediately experienced a fuzzy and formless flashback of the two of us yelling at some foe I cannot remember now. What I can remember was the sense of righteousness I felt in protecting my person.

Though I’ve grown into someone who is typically calm and thoughtful, this toughness is still on hair trigger reserve, and can erupt as violently as it did under that hot sun, cheeks blazing with indignation and voice howling threats. I was a tiny, angry Ramona Quimby, and because of my size and appearance, I learned to fight verbally instead of physically. I never laid a hand on anyone, but boy could I scare some folks.

As I grew older, this fiery violence was conditioned out of me. I was taught that to be a polite lady, my boundaries must erase completely. That I mustn’t speak up against these boundaries being crossed. That I must “go with the flow” (this phrase usually spoken to me by whatever man I was dating). That I must let each aggression against my person, be it mental or physical, pile up in a secret room in my heart, never to be spoken of again.

When I think of these aggressions now, I would give anything to have that little Ramona Quimby fighter occupy the scenes instead of the “polite lady” I learned to be.

I can only think of one instance where I allowed her to save me, when a man approached me at an ATM, wearing boxer shorts from which he had pulled his erection. As he walked towards me with a sneering grin, I let the little fighter fly, screaming cruel and merciless threats in a ferocious growl. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve never seen a man in his condition run so fast, wobbling hurriedly into the night, away from this diminutive demon who was raised with one hell of an education.

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