Monday, August 31, 2015

And the trashiest parent award goes to...

Spoiler alert: my dad. Just kidding, sort of. Ultimately the reason I'm giving it to my dad is because I think he'll be proud of it. But I might be unwittingly providing fairly stiff competition...

When my father and stepmother moved our family, including eight-year-old me as well as my then-newborn sister, to a Houston suburb, I think my dad quickly regretted the decision, and perhaps didn't even agree with the decision to begin with. I can't imagine that he thought it would lead to his own personal happiness. I'm sure he did think it would offer his kids some advantages. I'm also sure he hated it from day one. I can remember his scathing commentary on the "new rich" class of people from  as early as third grade. These people, he explained, felt like they had to prove they had money, by acting a certain way, and that certain way really added up to being jerks. Whereas "old money" has had plenty of money long enough to not care what image is perpetuated, and members of the lower-income-class haven't got the resources to create any kind of image whatsoever, the "new money" income class - the middle class - gets really wrapped up in how things look. I gotta say, every middle-class suburb I've been in has fit that description. He was right. What he was wrong about was thinking that it would be an advantage for his daughters to be there - me in particular. I think my sister did okay while she was there, but she didn't have to spend a significant number of school years there, either.

What Dad did to rebel against this environment that he had chosen, yet abhorred, is something I sympathize with in my thirties but was something that royally pissed me off when I was in my twenties. I always wondered why, when I rode my bike around the neighborhood, knocking on kids' doors asking if they could come out and play (something that we lower-class kids did on a regular basis, ya know, especially in apartment complexes and trailer parks, both of which I'd had previous fun living in), parents would look at me strangely and say that kid so-and-so couldn't come out and play. And this is partly attributable to things like overscheduling childhood in order to try to keep your child competitive with the best advantages possible so that he or she can continue to climb the income-class ladder. Eventually your family will be old money, right?! And then maybe culturally you'll mellow out and become tolerable to the rest of us...

However, that was only part of it, and sometime in my twenties, I realized (after some inebriated admissions on his part) what the other part was, and it is directly related to Dad's great rebellion. What exactly did he do? First, you should know (though you don't want to), my dad doesn't wear underwear. He started refusing when he was about my son's age just to piss his mother off, and he never got over it. Hence, why I've never made it an issue with my kid, and currently, he's a big fan of boxers (at four, ha). The next thing you need to know - or perhaps recall - is that in the 1980s, it was pretty common for guys to wear short, cut-off denim shorts - regardless of sexuality or gender identity. So my Dad, fashionista that he was, would mow our rather large yard in cutoff jean shorts and nothing else. And these jean shorts were really short. I'll do you a favor and leave the rest to your imagination. Trust me, he didn't.

Dad also has never believed in buying new cars. There's significant research to back up his assertions in this department, especially if you are - like he was/is - a person who can do most minor auto repairs yourself. Economically, if you can do minor repairs yourself, a new car is the worst investment in the world. It drops in value so drastically as soon as you drive it off the lot, it's ludicrous. I say this as someone who believes in new cars - because I know absolutely nothing about doing the repairs myself. In the suburbs, however, he was the only person with the anti-new-car view - at least the only one that could be seen. Because whatever 1970s, olive green piece of shit car he had, at any given point, he would park at the curb, displaying it proudly to the entire neighborhood. We had a large garage and a long driveway...but he parked it at the curb. Apparently we used to get notes in our mailbox about it. Bringing down the neighborhood or whatever. I had no idea. I was a kid. Who cared what a car looked like? Apparently the neighbors...

These two things plus a general bad attitude on his part contributed to my being left out of fancy birthday parties and seen as generally verboten in many of the neighborhood parents' eyes. I don't think they knew - I sure as hell didn't - that he and my stepmom grew pot plants behind the garage! As I said though, in my thirties, living far away from that world, I've developed some sympathy for his rebellion. God knows I'd probably have done worse, except that I'm too stubborn to move somewhere like that of my own accord. And maybe Dad's pleased to know that I've learned from one of his mistakes - meaning that I won't ever live in suburbia. Nice when we can pass that on to our children, because most of the time, life doesn't work like that.

I'm also determined that the only embarrassment I will cause my children is that which doesn't truly cause alienation. At least, I'm determined to try my damnedest. I discovered, just the other night, that - perhaps even by virtue of genetics - my efforts may be fruitless. I may just be doomed. 

It all started, ironically, with my determination to be a better parent. I will not use the name of my child's school, because I think highly of it, and they get uber-sensitive if you're complaining about anything - even your own child or your own parenting, rather than them - and use their name. Suffice it to say, the school is really awesome, James has been going there for a year and a half now, and if I win the lottery, I'll keep him in there all the way through fifth grade. The school has an all-parent meeting at the beginning of each school year, to talk about everything from curriculum to fundraising and volunteering. I didn't go to last year's meeting, for a good reason: I had a baby who was just a few months old who was extremely demanding and completely not cool with me going out in the evening. She would have screamed the entire time, whether she had gone with me or stayed home. However, I also didn't volunteer at his school at all last year, which I regret more than missing the stupid meeting. Again, baby. 

This year, baby is now nearing one and a half and is much less lecherous. So, I want to put serious energy into my son's school. Since we're a single-income family now (plus some extra I get for editing jobs here and there, hopefully increasing this year) I also want to be able to not forever rely upon my in-laws' generosity, and I'd like to pursue financial aid through the school. My motives are not therefore entirely altruistic...but really, my primary motivation, above all of this, is that I know it means a lot to James when I participate in his life, including school. I thought I'd start the school year out right by actually attending the all-parent meeting, which happened one evening last week.

I know many of the parents of James' school friends from last year. None of us have really become close, yet - quite a few of the moms were pregnant and then had infants at about the same time, so it's not like we were busy or anything. But for the most part it seems like we've all shared a fairly typical Maine lifestyle, semi-rural, unpretentious. 

When I first moved here, my grandmother, originally from Atlanta, came to visit. She looked around when she got here and said, "Well, no wonder you love it here. Everyone here looks like you." This was not a compliment, to me or to the populace. Yes, we all look like we stepped out of a Goodwill that carries primarily secondhand LL Bean clothes. Jeans, t-shirts, sweatshirts, flannels. Two pairs of shoes: boots and crocs. What else do you need, really? 

It stands to reason, therefore, that at the evening's meeting, I wore my typical jeans and t-shirt of summer, and had spent some time playing with my kids in the dirt before I left. I didn't look awful, or anything, and I wasn't filthy...I looked like everyone else in Belfast, Maine, who has small children. Or so I thought.

I got to this meeting and everyone was dressed up, in office attire. Do you know how many office jobs there are in Maine? Okay, I don't either, and we do have Athena Health in Belfast, but most of the parents I know who send their kids to this school or homesteaders or organic farmers or some other off-the-grid sort. I often look fashionable in comparison because my mom-in-law magically finds stuff that I'm comfortable in - jeans and t-shirts - that actually look somewhat stylish. At this meeting, though, I didn't. I also didn't see any faces I recognized, beyond the teachers, at least at first. Later, I saw one couple I knew, and they were dressed up more than me - she always wears long, flowy hippie skirts - but I could have fit in with them. With just us, we all would have fit in at a music festival. Somehow they managed to look upscale enough to fit in with this crowd, though. 

What could I do? Go home and change clothes? I hid in a corner, keeping my mouth conveniently full of hors d'ouvres. That's right, I may be trashy, but I know how to spell hors d'ouvres. 

Several of the teachers tried to draw me out, but basically, I signed up for a committee and shut down. I tried to escape early, but the interim director, who I like quite a bit, cut me off and told me I had to stay. I was already uncomfortable enough, so I meekly obeyed in order to avoid feeling any further below the acceptable status quo. Trashy Parent Award, here I come, watch out, Dad!

And that's the thing that flipped me out the most - I began to second-guess all of my decisions regarding my son. What have I already done that might alienate me from his friends' parents? Until now, I would have said that actually dressing up would be the one thing that might alienate them all. We all seriously look alike here. But this room - the image was unrelenting. Why was I even there?! Was I wrong? Was this school the place that attracted the few people who dress up in this state? 

Maybe there's some truth to is a private school, after all. However, it wasn't until I got out to the parking lot that I realized the truth (or at least what I hope is the truth). There were several cars with Massachussets license plates! Maine has been invaded by the gentry! And then I talked to other parents that I know, and I realized that most of the kids' parents hadn't shown up to this meeting at all. In fact, the majority of those who had shown up had kids who were not only new to the school, but new to the area. They'll live through one rural winter and then look like the rest of us.

What a relief. Maybe Dad gets to keep his badge of pride, after all.  

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