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  • Alissa Vanlandingham


Updated: Apr 23, 2019

A narrative on growing up lower class

My fourth birthday

“More than 20 shots fired on west side.”

“Series of stolen cars on west side of Madison.”

“More youth are carrying weapons, disputes are personal.”

These are just a few of the headlines that pop up when I Google my childhood address in Madison, Wisconsin.

My parents moved from our crime-riddled and impoverished neighborhood years ago but still live a mile away. They tell me things have only gotten worse since I left the city.

I feel both removed from and attached to that statement. While it’s devastating to consider my childhood home as a place where people continue to suffer, it feels surreal to me now.

Now, I live in a predominately white, leftist, liberal bubble. I wake up in a one-bedroom apartment with an ocean view. I never go hungry.

But there was a time before now. There was a time when my parents had no money left to buy food after paying rent. There was depression, alcohol abuse and, subsequently, neglect.

Those issues punctuated the first 13 years of my life, but my situation wasn’t special. We lived in one of the lowest income neighborhoods in our city, and I had it easier than many of my peers.

There was a time when I was no more than 5 or 6 years old and playing outside. I was skipping down the sidewalk, clueless and innocent when a police officer, gun drawn in active pursuit of a suspect, stuck her head out from behind an evergreen tree.

“What are you doing?” She asked me frantically. “Where do you live?”

I remember being stunned and feeling accused. Like I was in trouble for something I didn’t do.

“I’m playing,” I said, plain as the act. “I live over there.”

“Get inside. Now,” the cop ordered.

And I did.

There was the kid who approached me on his bike when I was in fifth grade. He asked me if I wanted to see something.

“Sure,” I said, not knowing exactly what to expect. He pulled up his shirt and showed me a gun tucked in his waistband. I froze. But I’d lived in that neighborhood my whole life, and I knew better than to react.

“Cool,” I said. “I’m on my way to a friends house, and I’ve got to go.”

I went home.

I wasn’t particularly afraid in either of these moments. The memories stick out because they directly involved me, but they weren’t surprising. I saw police officers in our neighborhood almost daily. I knew many of my friends’ parents had guns. I’d seen some of them before, and some of my friends talked about wanting their own.

I wouldn’t call those “normal” experiences, but they were common enough that they never struck me as odd.

My junior year of high school I overheard a newscast about a body found so decomposed police weren’t able to identify the man. They found him on the outside stairwell of an apartment building across the street from the one I grew up in. The coroner estimated he’d been dead for weeks.

Although the report said no foul play was suspected, I had to ask myself how a body left outside for weeks in the Midwestern summer heat was able to go undetected for so long. I had to consider that in the neighborhood I grew up in, calling the police was often the last resort. I had to check my privilege. I had to understand while I felt safe among cops, for many of my neighbors, a far graver site than a pistol was a squad car.

During my freshman year of high school, I remember being approached by a boy I’d invited to a few birthday parties when we were younger. I hadn’t seen him in three years, as he went to a private middle school. I assumed he wanted to say hello, maybe introduce me to his friends. Instead, among an army of his private school peers, he looked at me wide eyed and said, “Do you still live in that apartment?”

I turned so red I was pushing purple. I hadn’t felt shame so physically before. He and the other kids gawked and waited for an answer.

In fact, we had just moved, but only into a slightly nicer apartment in an area still considered low income. Up until that point, I had been thrilled with our new home, but I knew where this boy lived: in a large house with a large yard and a tree house in the back.

Our new apartment was suddenly a tragic embarrassment I couldn’t bring myself to admit to.

Beyond the weapons, drugs, abuse and crime I witnessed growing up, I consider that moment with the boy and his friends to be my loss of innocence. It was the point where I learned to be ashamed of where I was from and the way I lived. It was then I realized I was lower class and attempted to hide that reality in every way possible from thereon. It altered my perspective, so I began to see everyone I encountered through the lens of class status.

Although my biological father had a large house on a nice street in Illinois, there was tension between my parents, and I rarely stayed there. The apartment I lived in with my mother had cheap plastic lawn furniture poised as a dining set in the living room, an old TV perched on a milk crate, the dank smell of old cigarettes and not much else.

During that time in that apartment in that neighborhood, I witnessed the direct effects of institutional racism, the nearly impossible-to-break cycle of poverty and rampant sexism which often meant mothers left alone and fathers stuck in prison. We didn’t talk about these things. I wouldn’t understand any of them in a larger context until I was much older and attending a university.

For the first 13 years of my life, I was living, learning and engaging with a more diverse cast of people than I have at any other point in my life. But all those people struggled to work, eat, raise children and survive. There was no time or energy for a broader discussion on institutional oppression and reflection at the end of the day.

The irony is, I now live in a city where about 80 percent of the population is white, and I hear those issues discussed daily.

Some days, I feel like I still don’t entirely understand those issues. I’m still trying to make sense of my memories within my new vocabulary. Some days, I find myself entirely fed up with Bellingham and its sea of ultra-privileged students talking, impassioned, about issues they’ve never faced.

Other days, I feel like I am fed up with myself. I find myself talking with authority about justice while failing to realize, for all I’ve experienced, I’ve had a number of privileges along the way. I didn’t have to work as hard to climb out of the poverty hole we lived in for so long. It isn’t as easy for some of my peers.

I live much of my life through the lens of my early experiences. I rarely talk about it. Quite frankly, until I moved to Bellingham and found those experiences useful to me, I tried to never think about them.

Although I have a broader understanding of my early life now, there are deeply embedded pieces of that history which still sting. I may spend my whole life trying to dig them out, to find the meaning, to make the change. Beginning to acknowledge them in the light is simply where I start. ∆

See the original story here.

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