Displacement

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I grew up in Alabama and moved to a DC suburb in Northern Virginia the summer before my sophomore year. I got ready for school the first day like I always did in Alabama. After a month-long process of weighing current fashion trends, I put on my pleated jeans, a pink plaid shirt, pink tennis shoes and—forget a real belt—I tied a pink bow around my waist. I rolled my hair (remember hot rollers?) and loaded on my eye-make-up like always. I looked awesome in the way that any 15-year-old trying to look like a sorority girl does.

I was the only one on my route doomed to actually need bus transportation, so when we pulled up to my school I was a little nervous about exiting the bus solo. As the driver slowed in the circular drive my nervousness shifted to shock.  I saw kids with ripped tank tops, spiked collars around their necks, cut-off jeans with frayed edges, and people spinning on skateboards and trick bikes. No one was in long pants or a shirt with a collar, both of which were standard issue, if not dress code, at my public school in the south. Somehow, these kids hadn’t gotten the same fashion memo I had. It dawned on me that I was going to step off the bus and look like a fool.

There was nothing else to look at but me. And in this context, I looked…ridiculous, as if I were trying for the cover of Teen Magazine (which I had been) at grunge punk concert.  And so, all activity stopped. All the conversations, the bouncing bikes, the spinning skate boards, everything but the music.  I was relieved when the principle walked out to greet me (also wearing shorts) until I became painfully aware that everyone’s attention was riveted on my phrases punctuated with “sir” and flourished by my southern accent that trumped Daisy Duke’s by about 20 times.

Besides my teachers, no one spoke to me that day and I didn’t speak to anyone. But I noticed everything. I noticed mostly myself, feeling acutely displaced. My clothing and make-up, which had seemed my greatest asset, were my biggest barrier. My southern accent, which I never noticed in Alabama, was a bullhorn that blurred any content I might speak. At the time, I couldn’t quite grasp the arbitrariness of image management or see that all of those other students might have been just as invested in their “look” as I was. All I could see was that I had moved somewhere as different as the moon and the rules were all different.

I can see now that I’ve managed to displace myself more than a few times since then. I’ve migrated coast to coast twice, joining already established ministry teams both times. I got my theology degree at Howard University, a historically black university. What prepared me for these things? Might have had something to do with one pinked teenager walking off a school bus one day? You never know what uncomfortable experiences will empower you to do later. I will posit that those of us in the majority culture actually need experiences of displacement to help us understand that our perceived norms can be out and out arbitrary. I’m grateful now that I had this and other displacement experiences to show me that the world was bigger and much more diverse than I’d been led to believe by Teen Magazine.

How has displacement helped you grow? Or tempted you to shrink?

6 Comments

  1. Having been an Army Brat meant cultural and geographical displacement as a young child. Same thing w my husband as he was an Air Force Kid. I think immigrant, military, missionary, diplomatic, and (sometimes) corporation families can relate to ‘displacement’ more than the majority of Americans. 20 years ago I found Towson to be provincial and parochial if not petty at times due it’s perceived insularity. Now as the population here has become more diverse in several ways that perception has diminished somewhat.

  2. Being a kid from the New Hampshire, I was displaced to Maryland(or Merry Land, as I called it) at 6 years old and amongst other things, I was advanced 1/2 a year in my class because NH had a pilot program called readiness which I hadn’t completed. Needless to say I had to play catch up with my education. The Paaac da kaa and change da earl accent didn’t do me any fitting in favors. However, looking back, the value of having this immersion experience has provided a unique albeit often trivialized empathic response to being different (something I have woven into my very fabric).

  3. Mostly positive displacement experiences here. Lived in England for 2 years in elementary school and then moved to Texas in 4th grade. I believe God used these times of displacement to give me a holy discomfort with settling into the status quo in white culture dominated Lehigh in college.

  4. Hi Janice, Your website is beautiful. Welcome to the bloggging world! I liked this post and it’s sentiment. The experience of being ‘other’ is exactly why I think study abroad programs our invaluable. It is possible to conceptually understand feeling different, but being forced to live it on a daily basis is a totally different scenario.

  5. Nice blog, but you left me hanging. I’m very interested to know if you returned to school the next day rocking the same fashion or if you traded in your pink bow for a dog collar?

    Much like yourself, I was displaced in my education. I got my MDiv from Liberty University. You can imagine the faces of my Southern Baptist teachers as they read the papers written by a former Catholic who refused to be part of any denominational label.

    I would love to hear more of your story.

    Mike

    1. Janice ended up fitting in just fine. She became a cheerleader, held a class office, and was one of the Homecoming attendents senior year.

      The real people in our lives do not judge us for our accent or our clothes. The real people in our lives discover our hearts and our common threads or common paths.

      I continue to feel displaced just about everywhere I go. Yet, I find little bits of belonging.

      I started in Colorado Springs but was uprooted 1/2 through kindergarten so that my dad could take classes at the Arms Staff College for 6 months then was stationed in Arlington, VA. I met a new friend at a party. Turned out she was the daughter of an officer leaving Arlingon. My next bf moved. My next bf transfered to another school. My next bf moved. My next bf dropped me senior year. Met another bf at JMU….

      I learned that all you can do is offer yourself. Nothing and no one is permanent except the everchanging world.

      Ah… and fashion is everchanging too. Just wait 20 years. It will come back. Or find another crowd. 😉

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