Wednesday, September 16, 2009

PERSONAL- The Nail That Sticks Up

I’ve just finished reading John Scalzi’s articles for AMC back to the beginning of the year and I highly recommend them to anyone who is interested in fantastic films or the ramblings of a great Sci-fi author. As usual I was “late to the boom” in becoming aware of Scalzi, but that’s OK because it allowed me to pick up his first three books all at once. Since I read far faster then most people write (and who doesn’t?) this gave me almost a week of Scalzigasm as an introduction, and I’ve been a fan ever since. His novel Old Man’s War is as good as it gets in Sci-fi, an interesting premise, memorable characters, scattered insight into both military culture and life itself, and a plausible universe if you can believe the incredible luck of the protagonist. The follow-up novels weren’t quite as good, but it’s a rare work that is. Nevertheless, finding a new author who writes in classical SF style so well is always a treat and Scalzi was that.

Just like his blog (one of the older and most read on the net), his column for AMC bounces around a lot, but no matter what the subject he’s entertaining and thoughtful. A few of the better columns deal with things like what makes a Sci-fi movie Sci fi, why 3-D movies don’t work, some of the EPIC FAIL in the design of the STAR WARS and STAR TREK universes, and even a Father’s Day scorecard of SF fathers (titled Who’s Your Daddy? and including an evaluation of Darth Vader’s parenting skills).

But while the AMC column is fun and lighthearted, it’s a particular entry on his blog that is the kind of thing that endears him to me. “Being Poor” is a blog entry that everyone, simply EVERYONE, should read.

Read it now, I’ll wait.

No really, READ IT!

I know all about being poor. When I was nine years old my mother finally left my alcoholic, abusive father; bundling up my seven year old brother and me and taking us to a different state in the middle of the night. It isn’t exaggerating to say that everything in my life changed. I went from living in a big city to living in a small town. I went from a predominantly black neighborhood to a place where black people were almost nonexistent. I went from being a child prodigy who had been tagged to be in the first group of students to go to an experimental school for advanced children to being placed in a class for developmentally challenged children when the officials at my new school misunderstood my mother’s explanation of the “special” school I was supposed to go to. But the biggest change was that I went from being a middle class kid to being poor.

When you are a kid for the most part such things don’t mean that much. The world is what it is and you don’t make fine distinctions. But even given that, it’s hard not to notice when you go from being a little bit better off financially than most of the kids you go to school with to barely having enough to eat and sometimes not having that. And, no doubt, the change was exacerbated by the southern small-town culture that I found myself in. In a small town everybody knows everybody and in the south everybody knows where they fit in the social hierarchy. Being poor and without a father in the home back then got me labeled as “white trash” immediately. I noticed it right away the first time I walked into the local 5 &10 cent store. The wizened crones that served as clerks only had two questions for me. “What fer ya, boy?” and “Who’s yer daddy?”. This was the same store that had been the highlight of my summer vacations every year when we visited my mother’s family. You see, this dime store had a table full of comic books with the covers half torn off that they sold for 5 cents each, and every year my father would take me there and let me pick out all the comics I wanted, which would then be hidden away in my parent’s closet until Christmas. But after my parents split up the store was different. Now I wasn’t buying a dollar or two worth of comics with my father watching. Now I was a poor kid who would pour through the pile trying to find which of books was worth the investment of my lone nickel or dime, watched over the whole time as if at any point I might suddenly scoop up an armload of the precious (presumed destroyed) books and bolt from the store, thus plunging it into financial ruin.

But the biggest change in my life wasn’t my new caloric intake or even my presumption of guilt whenever I walked across the threshold of a local merchant. The biggest change in my life was at school.

Even after the mistake of putting me with the “slow” children was rectified (a mistake that, looking back on it, was probably abetted by my mother also having to register my brother, who was profoundly mentally retarded, at the same time) (and, yah, we called it “retarded” back then) I was still never looked at the same way again. Luckily the people teaching the “special” class were a married couple of graduate students working on their PhD’s in education who caught on in a couple of days. It took me a week to confront one of them and ask what was going on (I’d been raised to respect my elders but by that time I knew that either some kind of mistake had been made or all the stereotypes I’d heard about inbred southern morons were horribly true). They administered a series of tests and soon my mother was faced with the idea that they wanted me to skip to the 10th grade. Rightly or wrongly, mom figured that I was dealing with enough culture shocks without suddenly finding myself with kids five years older than I was, so she vetoed this plan and I was moved to a regular fifth grade class. But being poor still was what most of my teachers saw.

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