On Belonging

Hi everyone!  I’m back!  Er…well, actually, I should say “I’m here!”  We’ve finally finished moving in, though we’ve not yet finished unpacking.  But we’re here.  I’m here.  And it’s time to dig deep for some reflections on this new experience.  So let’s go back in time to about 1993.

I was 10 years old and in the fifth grade.  And I still remember hearing the following:

“Your clothes don’t match.”

“You’re hair still isn’t the same length.”

“That doesn’t go together”

That’s right.  5th grade was one of my first big lessons in belonging.  The lesson being that if you didn’t dress right or look right or act right or have the right hair, then you didn’t belong.  And I wanted nothing more than to belong.

It seemed like the other girls in my class had it so easy.  They always had the right clothes.  They had cute hairstyles.  Their ears had been pierced years ago.  Their moms had already taught them how to shave their legs.  There was no way that I, a girl with two older brothers  and who wore their hand-me-down, Nirvana style grunge clothes mixed with her girly stretch pants AND who still let her mom cut her hair into the female version of a mullet, could compete, let alone belong.

Yes, that's me. I'm four. And I have a mullet. And I had that mullet until I was 11.

But I tried so hard!  I let my weird mullet-y bangs grow out and then I cut my hair short to match, but my hair was a little layered and rounded around my face, which was not yet in style and therefore still not worthy.  I eventually paired every shirt I had with blue jeans because everything goes with blue jeans.  I even tried out for cheerleading my 8th grade year thinking that then, finally!, I could belong again, and maybe even win back the friend that had so coldly ditched me after 4th grade because I wasn’t cool enough.

But none of these things worked.  Not the hair (I’ve already said why).  Not the clothes because I was also smart so I was still vilified for that.  And not even making the cheerleading squad helped because everyone came up with theories about how I must have bribed the coach to get on the squad because no one who was smart could also be coordinated.  (And when I got bronchitis and had to sit out a few games, I heard, “What’s wrong?  Not good enough to go out and cheer?”)

I know everyone has trouble in junior high (or high school), but I didn’t have any sisters to talk to about this stuff, and my mom didn’t have good advice on this.  So this really screwed me up.  It really hurt me.  And when I started high school, I began to think of it as a blank slate.  A fresh start.  I made my mother go out and buy me lots of new clothes (new trendy, MATCHING clothes).  I made sure I had an inconspicuous and acceptable hair cut (long with thin bangs to cover up a mole I was ashamed of).  I prepared myself to do well in class, but not make it seem like I was smart in front of other students and potential new friends.  And every day for the first year of high school, I painstakingly picked out outfits to wear to school.  I agonized about them to the point of being a little OCD.  For example, I refused to wear a purple shirt with brown shoes because purple is too close to black, and black and brown don’t go together.  I made sure I had a belt that matched every pair of shoes.  I was determined to never hear “You don’t match” ever again.

Eventually, I calmed down a bit–made some new friends and started to relax.  By the time I graduated, I worried about it less, but I still wore blue jeans basically every day of school because I knew those were safe.

Fast forward to college.  Now the need to belong was less focused on clothes, but more on my actions and my successes.  I wanted to achieve a lot (and I did), and I wanted to make my professors and my parents proud.  I was determined to live the kind of life that they saw for me…even if it meant studying in far off places and years and years of grad school in my future.  I was encouraged to believe that I would do amazing things (read: like change the world!) and that I would live an amazing life (read: within the upper-middle class to upper-class ideals).

So, when I didn’t go off and get my doctorate and instead stopped with a master’s degree, I felt like I had let people down.  And when I realized what I really wanted to do was teach at a community college, I worried that I wouldn’t “belong” with the people I had so respected at my small private liberal arts school.

And if we fast forward to now, I feel those same fears coming on.  I don’t yet feel entirely comfortable telling people I live in a trailer park because I fear that my living situation will make me not belong in the world (class?) that I’ve been led to believe I belong in.

And, as a strange twist, I am also aware that I don’t yet really “belong” in the trailer park. I’m not yet one with the community here, and I know that I am probably still seen as an outsider here.

Back when I was still working on painting the walls here inside our new home, I got hungry and decided to walk to the grocery, the parking lot of which is practically in my backyard (pretty convenient, no?).  As I was walking, I realized that I forgot to change pants–the pants I was wearing were my work pants, which not only had paint all over them, but also a giant gaping hole right under the butt-pocket.  This was a big hole, big enough that if I stood wrong, you could see my undies (so ladylike, right?).

I continued to the store because I was very hungry and I didn’t feel like changing–but I got to thinking:

– Since I’m walking from the trailer park, I wonder if people in the parking lot will see that and stereotype me because of my location, and then feel confirmed in their stereotyping when they see my pants.

-I wonder how embarrassed I will be if someone does see my underwear.

-Does walking from the trailer park give me “license” to walk around in hole-y pants?  Am I fulfilling a type?

-In the future, when I come home from work in dress clothes and heels, carrying my healthy vegan food from the grocery store, will my neighbors in the trailer park judge me? Stereotype me?  And decide that I don’t really belong?

Gah!  I’ve come to realize that by making the decision to move into a mobile home, I am making a decision that effectively causes me to straddle “class lines”–and when you do that, you potentially mess up the sense of “belonging” in either place/class.

So no, I don’t yet “belong” here.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t someday, in some way.  And in some ways, it would be nice to belong here.  People help each other.  Trust each other.  For the month this mobile home was unoccupied before CF and I got it, it was unlocked with the keys inside, and no one ever came in to take anything.  People wave at each other.  People smile at each other. People still “drop by” here.  And the kids–the kids wait at the corner for the school bus every morning, and they are happy and smiling.

And wouldn’t it be nice to belong to a place like that?

About Cathy G Gilbert

I am veggie-loving, community college professor who lives, teaches, and writes in Central IL.
This entry was posted in Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On Belonging

  1. Molly M M says:

    I really, really love this post. I was about the same age as you were when that kind of belonging stuff hit me too. I’m still not really over it. But, writing about it seems to help (me at least, and hopefully you too). I like the idea you call “straddl[ing] class lines.” I think, through this experience, you are going to find yourself belonging in many new ways, while also showing others how to live outside of stereotypes. GO YOU!!!

  2. Fatima says:

    I know this is an older post, but I just wanted to comment and tell you how much I enjoyed it and how much it seems to echo feelings that I’ve had in the past.

    In my particular case, I grew up straddled between class and racial lines. My mother is from a well-to-do WASP family (As in my maternal grandmother went to Vassar, yeah…), whereas my father is a first-generation American, who although he managed through hard work to get his masters, came from a very poor and dysfunctional background. It was always weird for me going to visit one side of the family or the other. I had one grandma who lived in a gorgeous Georgian-Revival shaded by 100 year old maples while my other grandmother literally lived in the projects. I felt like around my maternal grandmother’s people I didn’t fit in because I didn’t look like them and didn’t see the world as they did, but at the same time I didn’t fit in around my father’s family because I talked like a “white girl” and my suburban style of dress was deemed “stupid” or “dorky”. (Yes, my cousins were so kind, lol). Oh and there was that time one of my cousins (dad’s side) robbed a bank and got his mug shot pasted all over the local news. Yeah, that went over real well in my private high school…

    Even today, I still don’t feel completely as if I belong in any particular group or place, only with certain individuals. I have 4 or 5 close friends with whom I feel completely at ease-even though we’re not from the same backgrounds. One of friends said that we’re cosmopolitans-due to our upbringing we’ve been exposed to so many different ways of seeing and doing things that we can’t bring ourselves to settle for just one. Some of us are really good at blending in; I think we became chameleons as a form of self-defense. But, when we’re all together it’s like we get each other perfectly and no one says “Oh, you’re so weird!” in a derogatory way. And we just feel so at ease.

    There are still times when it bothers me (no sense of perfect belonging) and I wonder why I see things so differently. Why does everyone else see the zebra while I only see the stripes, lol? I guess I was feeling that way when I came upon this post (I actually started reading another post on a completely different subject). Thanks for sharing it. Maybe you don’t feel the same way I do necessarily, but it was nice to see that someone’s feelings echoed mine in some way, however remotely.

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