Diversity or lack thereof

I grew up in an area of the Midwest that had little diversity in its population. I don’t think there were any non-white residents of Sheboygan Falls when I lived there. There is a concentrated community of Asians in Sheboygan, though. When the United States fought in Vietnam, our government recruited many Hmong natives from neighboring Laos to assist in a secret part of the war being waged there. Various historical accounts debate what promises were made to the Hmong, but the general consensus was that we would assist these people at the end of the war. When we left, however, we abandoned the Hmong, who were then persecuted, victims of intended genocide by the Vietnamese and Thai. Eventually, we granted many Hmong refugee status in the United States in a feeble attempt to make up for our misdeeds.

This was a people from southeastern Asia, though, and why our government chose to settle them primarily in Wisconsin and Minnesota is absolutely beyond me. Their adjustment to life in the United States would be hard enough – why place them in a harsh and bitterly cold climate that couldn’t be more different than the tropics they came from? Large communities of Hmong were settled in cities like Sheboygan and Kenosha, but they were persecuted for their different cultural beliefs, and viewed as incapable people that were only here to live off of welfare. They were ridiculed openly, and still face discrimination today. I never personally knew any Hmong people, but they do reflect one of my earliest senses of cultural difference living in an area full of white people of mostly European descent.

The only other cultural subgroup I knew of while growing up was the Indian. There is a rich history of Native Americans in Wisconsin, and many of the towns and cities carry Native American names, such as Menominee, Winnebago, Waukesha, Kewaunee, Waupaca, Manitowoc, Ozaukee, and Oconomowoc. There are two rivers with the name Kinnickinnic, which referred to a blend of tobacco and other plants, or literally, “what is mixed” in Ojibwa. Sheboygan has Native American origins as well, though many scholars debate the correct translation of the name. These names roll off my tongue with ease, but whenever I speak them aloud to others that are unfamiliar with them, I often have to repeat myself and even spell the words for people to make sense of the sounds.

I learned at a young age I wasn’t supposed to talk about Indians. I didn’t understand why it might offend someone. There are eleven federally recognized Native American tribes still in Wisconsin, but unfortunately, people like my grandparents and great-grandparents were not far enough removed from their ancestors that they had forgotten the clashes between the white man and the Indian. Still, there has been some effort to preserve sacred burial grounds, and there have been some significant archaeological finds, too. There’s a park on the south side of Sheboygan called Indian Mound Park. It contains effigy mounds created by the Native Americans. They were burial sites, and mounds of earth were built over graves in the shapes of animals the Native Americans held sacred – deer, turtles, panthers. Effigy mounds can be found outside of Wisconsin, but the largest concentration of them is in Southern Wisconsin.

There’s also an old family homestead, owned by the Henschels, which operates a small Indian museum. Their property near the Sheboygan Marsh, once a glacial lake, is the site of Wisconsin’s oldest red ochre burial ground, and dates somewhere between 600 and 800 B.C. The ancient burial site was accidentally discovered when a farmer was plowing and his horses fell through the ground into a big hole. A number of Native Americans were positioned, seated in a circle, and buried together in what was surely an ancient ritual practice. I found I am related to the Henchels by marriage in my genealogy research. The farmer whose horses fell through the hole is the uncle of the husband of my second great-grand aunt. This family is said to have co-existed with the Indians in the mid-1850s, and their museum is full of artifacts found on their property.

Many of the people I knew in Wisconsin took all this rich history for granted. I didn’t begin to appreciate it until I had been away for more than a decade, myself. I never understood all the prejudice against anyone that wasn’t white and German or maybe Nordic, but we were never confronted with much difference, either, so like many people, I didn’t give it a lot of thought until I got older. I realized at a young age that I had a real interest in other cultures. I’d always wanted to travel, but never thought it would be possible. Almost no one I knew of in my family had ever travelled far. It was a big deal to go to out of state – most people rarely leave the immediate area, let alone travel outside the Midwest.

I did eventually figure out how to get out of the Midwest, and I’ve traveled internationally some, though not as much as I’d like.  I’ve been to Thailand, Costa Rica, London, and Amsterdam.  My genealogy research has set my sights on Eastern Europe.  I have had a hard time digging up information on my father’s grandfather, the stowaway from Romania, before his life in the states, so I hope one day to go to the village he came from to see what I can uncover about his family. Of course, living in the Bay Area, I’m surrounded by diversity now, and that’s a good thing.

What were some of your early lessons about diversity? International travel experiences?

Remembering teachers

Well, I’ve had to skip another writing prompt from Old Friend from Far Away.  This one was : “Give me a picture of a teacher you had in elementary school.”  I don’t remember a single teacher from elementary school.  In fact, I can barely remember any from junior high, either.  I do have some high school teacher memories, though.

Falls High School was the kind of place that teachers stayed at for entire careers.  A handful of my teachers had also taught my step-dad twenty years earlier.  One of the more colorful characters was our algebra teacher, who proclaimed loudly every day that there were only three certainties in life – death, taxes, and algebra homework.  His motivation techniques were a bit suspect, though.  Almost daily, he yelled at the class, telling us if we didn’t get our act together in algebra, we’d grow up to be nothing more than basket weavers.  His comb over prevented us from taking him too seriously.  My sister had an English teacher she had wrapped around her finger.  She regularly told him she had a headache and could she put her head down on her desk during class.  Every time, he agreed, and often went so far as to ask the rest of the students in class to be quieter in their discussions so they didn’t disturb her while she was resting.  Every couple weeks he told her she should have her mom take her to see a doctor because she had so many headaches.

In my senior year, my Spanish teacher had to take most of the year off for health reasons, so we got a long-term substitute.  Our sub was an elderly lady who had already retired from teaching, and she had no interest in actually teaching us any Spanish.  Every single day we played bingo in Spanish – yelling “¡Loteria!” when we filled a row on a card.  Most kids couldn’t even get that part of the game right.  It was too instinctive to yell “Bingo!”  Spanish was my first class of the day, and occasionally, I skipped it.  A good friend of mine wasn’t in school anymore, and she picked me up in the morning so we could run to McDonald’s and get breakfast.  The nearest McDonald’s was in Sheboygan – a 15-minute drive one way.  We had just enough time to get to there, run through the drive-through, and make it back to school as my first period was ending.  After missing class a couple times, my teacher asked me what was going on.  I told her that I was going to McDonald’s to get breakfast and, since we were only playing ¡Loteria!, I didn’t think I was missing much.  I wasn’t disrespectful in my tone.  I was just being honest.  She agreed, and told me that as long as I brought her a danish, she wouldn’t mark me absent.

My chemistry teacher was by far the quirkiest of them all.  He must have owned a half dozen of the exact same suit – or he literally wore the same suit to work every single day – it’s hard to say which.  The suit was a dark navy blue, and hung big and baggy on his tall but hunched over frame.  He had white, disheveled hair, thinning on the top of his head.  His glasses were a little crooked, low on his nose, and he personified the cartoonish figure of a mad scientist.  He was known to be a packrat and filled his pockets with oddities.  Rumor had it his need for large pants pockets was satisfied only when his wife replaced them by sewing tube socks into his pants.  These new pockets were constantly filled to the top, so his legs looked lumpy from the knee up.  He was also a photographer, and for some reason, he needed to have a few cameras on his person at all times.  He slung the camera straps over his shoulders underneath his suit jacket, which added another odd bulkiness to his appearance.  He drove a small pickup truck with a camper in the bed of the truck that extended over the cab.  We could never figure out why, but the thing must have had a dozen antennae sticking off the roof.  We could imagine having one or two for a CB radio or something, but why so many?

He was the hardest teacher in school, and graded strictly on many things besides the actual content of the course.  Most of the time, he had us grade each other’s papers.  We’d pass our papers one person back in the row, and we had to use red pen to mark each other’s answers wrong.  If, as a grader, we didn’t use a red pen, that resulted in a dock on our own test scores.  If we didn’t write our names on our assignments in exactly the right way, we’d get docked for that, too.  He was also a pilot, so we had an aviation class in school, an odd elective for a small rural high school.  I took the course because I thought I wanted to learn to fly one day, and part-way into the first term, I dropped the class, because no matter how hard I worked, the grades I got made me think I was going to fail.  He graded on a curve, and I found out after I dropped the class that I was getting an A, because despite my low percentages scores, they were still at the top of the class.  Our assignments often seemed impossible.  Make a paper airplane that will sail down the stairs at the end of the hallway.  The stairs doubled back halfway down, though, so the plane had to somehow make a 180 degree turn halfway through its course.  No one succeeded.

Living in Falls

Sheboygan Falls is a little town north of Milwaukee, near Lake Michigan, and was built around the falls of the Sheboygan River in the mid-1800s.  The water over the falls was harnessed to provide power when settlement and industry first came to the area around 1835.  I graduated high school in 1991, and Falls had a population of slightly over 5000 people when I lived there.  With a total area of about 4 square miles, it’s a small community, with a quaint little main street that’s a block long, lined with cream city brick buildings, some with bands of stained glass windows across the tops of the stores.

Some of the main street buildings built in the 1850s were a flour and feed store, a tinsmith, and a drug store.  In the 1870s came a wagon shop and a grocery store.  These buildings were painstakingly restored in the latter part of the twentieth century, some complete with tin ceilings and delicate, precise, richly colorful Victorian painting on the exterior facades.  In 1995, Sheboygan Falls’ tiny downtown district was named a “Great American Main Street” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Today, on the main drag, you will find a flower shop, a couple of bars and restaurants, a photography studio, a shoe store, a furniture store and a dime store.  After hours of genealogy research, I found I am related to Rick, of Rick’s House of Flowers.  At least by marriage, anyway.  The shoe store, Depke’s, was owned by my step-dad’s brother and sister-in-law.  They sold mostly squishy tan or white nurse’s shoes – I think they were called Hush Puppies – and whenever I was there I always felt like I had to be extra quiet – like I was in a library, but one where kids weren’t welcome.

The local dime store is called Evans.  It’s a time warp sort of place – when you enter, it seems you’ve stepped back in time a few decades.  They sell a little bit of everything – outdated, but cheap, clothing, old-lady bras – the kind that are pointy and were popular in the 60s, kitchen odds and ends, some games and toys, and toiletries.  I randomly found an online post that describes it well.  “…you can always stop at Evans downtown for a bizarre dime-store experience – I’ve found deodorant on sale there from 1982!”

The Villager is a popular place to go for a weekend brunch or a Friday night fish fry.  Housed in a building that held the original wagon wheel shop, then an ice cream and sweets store, the place has been beautifully restored to reflect its original appearance.  I’ve been told by many people not from Wisconsin they have no idea what a Friday Night Fish Fry is.  Lots of restaurants in Wisconsin serve fried fish on Friday nights.  I imagine the phenomenon started because of the Catholic restriction against eating meat on Fridays.  Wisconsin is full of lakes and local freshwater pan fish are plentiful.  The most traditional fish to eat on Fridays where I grew up is perch.  If you’re ordering perch at any time other than Friday, you refer to it differently – you’re having a fish lunch or a fish supper, but on Friday, it’s a fish fry.

The rest of Falls is entirely residential, unless you count the various churches that are scattered throughout the town.  Streets are wide, and homes are modest.  It’s a quiet, safe, working-class, family-raising kind of place.  At night, it seems deserted.  A local ordinance prevents anyone from parking on the street overnight anywhere in town.  It originates from the need to keep roads free of cars so the snowplows can clear them in winter, but the parking ban extends year round.  When someone has visitors and needs to park on the street overnight, a quick call to the police department gets approval so the car won’t be ticketed.

Quaint and quiet as the town is, as a teenager, I had the most boring existence you could imagine.  There was nothing that counted as entertainment except a bowling alley on the outskirts of town, and you can only go bowling so many times before it gets pretty boring.  It’s a town of bars, churches, and a few restaurants, which is typical of small Wisconsin towns.  Even when we were old enough to drive into Sheboygan, a few miles away and a bigger city at around 50,000, outside the occasional trip to the mall or the movies, we didn’t go there that often.  Most weekends were spent hanging out at some friend’s house, watching Days of Our Lives, taped on a VCR, the latest MTV videos, or on Sundays, the Packer game, and then The Simpsons.

Occasionally my friends and I got a little creative.  One year, we all pulled CB radios out of our garages and basements – I have no idea how we all managed to have access to CB radios – maybe it’s a Midwestern thing – and we made up a game of car tag.  The rules were: While you were driving around town in your car, you had to give clues to your location over your CB radio.  We all had handles, because to talk on a CB radio, you need a handle.  Mine was “Red Baron” because I drove my mom’s red station wagon.  Whoever was “it” started out the game saying, “Hey everyone, what’s your 20?”  Then in turn, everyone else replied with something like, “This is the Red Baron.  I’m on the street made famous by Freddy.”  If you were “it,” your job was to drive around looking for everyone based on their cryptic clues, and when you spotted someone, flash your brights at them.  Then they were “it.”  What made the game tricky is that we never stayed in one place long, so if you weren’t nearby someone when they gave a clue, it might take a long time to find anyone.  We killed hours in the evenings wandering around town looking for each other this way.

Because we lived in such a small town, we were free to roam wherever we wanted to even when we were much younger, as long as we were home for dinner or when the street lights came on.  Through junior high, I spent a lot of time outside the house, hanging out with friends.  We met at River Park, a large park built around the Sheboygan River that ran through the center of town, or played catch with a friend on the huge high school athletic field, or we rode our bikes around town from one friend’s house to another’s.  My sister and I were latchkey kids, getting ourselves off to school in the morning, and hanging out at home alone until my mom got home from work.  In the summer, we were home alone all day long.  There weren’t many rules, except that we couldn’t have anyone over to the house without prior permission, we had to do our chores every day, and if the tornado warning bell went off, we had to get into the basement right away and turn on the old AM radio to listen for weather alerts.  Sitting in the musty, dingy basement was boring after the excitement and adrenalin rush of hearing the alarm wore off.  We used it only for doing laundry and for certain kinds of storage because it got damp and anything not made of plastic got moldy.  We kept a couple beat up chairs down there for the times we were stuck waiting for the all-clear from a possible tornado.

In school, at recess during the winter, we played games that would almost certainly be banned today.  The game I loved most was “King of the Mountain.”  As snow piled up, snowplows pushed all the snow into a huge pile on one end of the playground.  When the bell rang for recess, we made a mad dash to the snow pile, which was probably a good 10 feet high or more.  Whoever scrambled up to the top first started out as King of the Mountain.  Everyone else did their best to knock that kid down, while he or she worked hard to hold the coveted position at the top of the mountain.  There were the occasional injuries – a broken arm or collarbone, and scraped faces from sliding down the icy hill when you were knocked over – but we didn’t mind the risks.  It was just good, plain, Midwestern winter fun.

Sheboygan Falls

When I was 10, I moved to Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin.  I was born in nearby Sheboygan, but hadn’t lived there for half my life.  It was Spring Break, 1984, and I was in 5th grade.  My sister and I were visiting my mother and her new husband, whom we didn’t know at all.  It was an uneventful week spent visiting relatives, and we were supposed to go home on Sunday, back to my dad’s house in Northern Illinois – back to my normal life with my two step-brothers and half-sister.  On Saturday, my mom got a phone call.  It was my dad’s wife.  My dad had disappeared and she didn’t know where he was, but she knew he wasn’t coming back, so she told my mom to keep us.  With that phone call, my life was uprooted once again, and my sister and I left the home we had known for the previous five years – the longest solid stretch we had lived in one place – to live with people who may as well have been strangers.

It had come so unexpectedly.  After receiving that fateful phone call, my mom sat us down and told us we weren’t going back home.  She’d send my step-dad down to Illinois with us on Monday to pick up some of our things and then we’d be living back in Wisconsin.  I couldn’t comprehend what was happening.  On Monday, when we got to our home in Illinois to pack some clothes, no one was there.  I suppose my step-mom was at work and the boys were at school, and my half-sister was with a babysitter somewhere.  Our house was always filled with noise – the noise of five rambunctious children running around, but this time it was eerily quiet, and it felt wrong – like something had died.

The house was a disaster, like it always was.  At my dad’s, we lived in poverty, in filthy conditions.  There were dirty clothes and junk piled throughout the house, probably a foot high in places.  There wasn’t a clear path through the living room where the floor was visible.  In the room I shared with my sister, our dirty clothes also covered the floor, and the dogs had crapped everywhere, so we had to grab what we could, stuff it into a couple black garbage bags, and go.  I doubt we were there more than fifteen minutes, which in one way was OK.  We were young, but aware enough to know that our living circumstances were horrible, and we were embarrassed for anyone to see the state of the house.  On the other hand, we were there and gone so quickly.  There were no goodbyes; there was no closure.  Simply the absurd reality that we were again leaving everything we knew to go live with strangers.  I lingered for a moment alone in the house and I sat with the silence – it was the silence of loss.

The emptiness I felt was overwhelming.  I left with an ache in my heart, thinking of the stupidest things.  I had told my little half-sister, who was still only two at the time, that I’d sneak her into the kitchen with me some night and let her drink some pancake syrup right from the bottle.  It was something I did when I was a hungry and wanted something sweet.  I never got the chance to share my little secret with her, and I felt a profound guilt that I couldn’t follow through on that promise.  I lay awake in bed every night thinking about her and the life I’d been jerked from so suddenly.

My mom enrolled us in school, and we started a few days later.  I was petrified by the size of my new school.  There were 4 classrooms for every grade, and I got lost trying to find my way from my classroom to the office to buy lunch tickets.  My graduating class had 121 people in it, which is small by many people’s standards.  The school I had come from, though, was a tiny rural country school.  It had only one classroom for every grade and was a long hallway of a building.  No corners to turn, no way to get lost.  Fear permeated my entire experience finishing 5th grade.  My face burned with embarrassment as I was constantly stared at.  The hand-me-down clothes that used to be my brothers’ were odd, my haircut was off.  I even stood funny.  I had unknowingly picked up a weird slouch that my father has.  It wasn’t just a slouch in my shoulders.  My whole back hunched, so both my shoulders and my hips sat further forward than my stomach or my chest.

You’d think that we’d be happier to live in an environment that wasn’t abject poverty, but we weren’t.  I missed my brothers and my friends unbelievably.  I felt completely out of place.  My fear and anxiety didn’t go away – instead they grew.  I was afraid to leave my family.  I didn’t want to go to school.  I didn’t want to go to other kids’ houses for birthday parties or other social events.  I was truly petrified at the idea of leaving home.  I cried and cried, begging my mom not to make me go.  I skipped school some during those last few months of 5th grade, because my parents went to work before we had to leave for school.  I told my sister to go on ahead, and I stayed home because the thought of facing school and more strangers was just more than I could bear.  The move had done something to me that I didn’t understand, and wouldn’t until years later.

After watching me struggle for a few weeks, my step-dad came to school with me in the morning to talk to my teacher.  Outside the classroom, he told her I was having a hard time adjusting, hoping she could do something to encourage me to make friends with other kids.  I had made him swear the night before that he would tell her in a way the other kids wouldn’t learn of – I was afraid of being singled out even more.  My step-dad says he asked her to keep his request quiet, but she immediately walked into the classroom, shut the door, and said, “Class – Missy is having a hard time adjusting to her new school.  I want each one of you to make friends with her.”  I was mortified, and I slid down in my seat in a futile attempt to disappear into my desk.  Of course, no one did anything different to try to make friends with the odd and quiet new kid.

I missed my family in Illinois, and I couldn’t explain that to anyone I was with in Wisconsin.  It seemed my mom and her family all assumed I should simply be happy to be there.  I don’t know if that was because whenever I did get to visit them, I was always sad to leave, or if they just didn’t know how to deal with my sadness so they pretended it didn’t exist.  I’m not sure how much my mom’s family was aware of the level of poverty we lived in with my dad, but my step-dad certainly saw it when he took us home to get our clothes.  My aunt had gotten a glimpse of it, too.  She dropped us off at home after my mom’s wedding the prior year, and she brought some leftover food to leave with us.  As soon as she set it on the table, the boys dug in and inhaled it – so there was some idea we were in bad shape, but no one wanted to accept what our circumstances were, so they ignored it.  What could they do about it, anyway?  When they later heard what it was like, our stories validated to them that we should be happier where we were, and no one knew how to address the fact that I was anxiety-ridden, afraid, horribly lonely, and more than a little broken.

My step-mom, who divorced my dad shortly thereafter, told me years later that my half-sister used to wander the house, in her diaper, with a picture of Karen and me.  She cried endlessly after we were gone.  When I let myself look at the image I carry in my mind of this scene, it still causes me to choke up and feel that deep loss all over again.

I tried to write letters back and forth with a friend or two, and I hid them in my clarinet case so no one else could read them.  One of the friends I corresponded with was a boy.  We were too young to be boyfriend and girlfriend, but we were close friends, and sort of thought of ourselves that way.  At ten, we didn’t know what romance was, but in one letter he sent me he compared us to Romeo and Juliet, kept apart by our family circumstances.  One night after I was in bed, I heard my mom recounting details of the letter to my step-dad and laughing about it.  I was embarrassed, and felt so completely violated that my mom had been going through my things.  I thought I’d hidden the letters cleverly, but she’d found them and was making light of them, and I just felt even lonelier.  I pulled the blankets over my head and cried silently, wishing with all my being that I was back at home with my dad.

I also couldn’t understand why my dad left, and wanted desperately to hear from him.  I didn’t, though, until four years later, and that brought a new and intense pain to my life.  Living at my dad’s for a few solid years was the first time I felt any sense of permanence.  I had reached out to him in my own way, whether it was obvious to anyone but me.  His attention and approval was so important to me, that when he wouldn’t correspond with us at all, I naturally internalized some feeling that it was my fault he left – he had seen something in me when I opened up that he didn’t like, so he took off.  My sister felt this, too, but her reaction was a little different.  She thought that we had to be perfect living with my mom and her new husband, or they would send us away, too.  As I got older, I realized I shouldn’t think of it as my fault, and my dad’s problems had little to do with me directly, but it didn’t stop me from losing any confidence that I had.  It didn’t stop me from expecting other people not to like me, or not to like me enough.