Sunday, October 28, 2018
Straddling the Fence
By Linda Goodman
Recently an old friend sent me an article on building confidence through storytelling. As I read it, my mind rewound to my childhood, when my own crisis of confidence was reaching a boiling point.
In 1958, my daddy accepted a job at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and moved our family from the ultra-rural Appalachian Mountains of Wise County, Virginia to Williams Court, an urban slum in Portsmouth, Virginia. Many of the Mountaineers who had migrated to the Tidewater area of Virginia settled in Williams Court, so we were among our own kind, for the most part.
I thought that Williams Court was grand! The apartments had running water, which meant that outhouses and long walks to springs (to fill water buckets) were no longer necessary. Because we were no longer living in isolation, I had lots of other kids to play with. I learned to excel at kickball and hopscotch. I decided that city living was paradise.
School, however, changed that idyllic metaphor. I heard other kids in my class talk about how they were not allowed to go to Williams Court. When I asked why, they said that Williams Court was always in the newspaper, in the crime section. Their parents had read them articles on murders, robberies, and “nasty stuff” that went on there. Parents followed the article readings with a stern warning: “Unless you want to end up dead or worse, stay away from Williams Court!” They made Williams Court sound like Dodge City, from the television show Gunsmoke, where you were just as likely to get shot as to get your supper.
I decided to keep where I lived a secret. When my classmates asked where I lived, I either evaded the question or lied about living out in the country, where my rich daddy had a butler who drove me back and forth to school every day. I pretended not to know the kids who were my neighbors.
Like most secrets, mine was eventually exposed. During my third grade year, when a triple homicide in my apartment building made the front page of the Virginia Pilot, the article was accompanied by a photo of my apartment building with what was clearly my face, eyes staring out into the explosion of light that shattered the dark night, pressed against a front window.
I was screwed. The friends that I had made in school had no use for me now, except to ask morbid questions to get details of that awful night from me. For about a week, I was a celebrity. After that week, I was a pariah. I felt like one of the lepers I had studied in Sunday School.
My life at home was not much better. The friends who had once good naturedly challenged me to a game of hopscotch resented the way I had “put on airs” as I wooed “stuck-up” kids in school to be my social brethren. I was a pariah to them as well.
My brothers thought I had gotten what was coming to me. My sister felt sorry for me. My momma said, “This, too, shall pass.” Daddy told me this experience would make me stronger and smarter.
I did not feel stronger or smarter. I was straddling the fence between two worlds, neither of which wanted me as a citizen. The only time I felt like I belonged anywhere was when my third teacher discovered that I had a knack for storytelling and began to ask me to tell stories to the class during those rare times that she ran out of work for us. I told stories that I had heard my daddy tell, as well as fairy tales and myths that I had read. I always made the kids laugh, and for the rest of the day I would feel like I had added something special to our dreary classroom. I was careful, however, to keep my secrets close.
Years later, when I was chosen Valedictorian of my high school class, I had the opportunity to speak about serious matters during the graduation ceremony. Instead of a speech, I shared a story that began with that awful shooting that took place during my third grade year. As painful as my school years were, I concluded, I had grown stronger and smarter because of that pain, just as my father had predicted so many years earlier.
After my story had ended, my teachers and my classmates, both inside and outside my neighborhood, surrounded me. Some shook my hand; some held me tight; most just shouted hurrah!
Through storytelling, I had shared my shame and had been applauded for it. I sat on the fence no longer. I was whole.