Beyond the stereotypes and suburban myths

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Just a week ago, my daughter, Nora, brought home a writing project she had completed, a simple acrostic poem describing the suburban public school she attends. I read the list of adjectives she thought best illustrated the place she spends five days a week, noting her improved spelling and commending her smart choice of words, using “I” for Intelligent and “C” for Caring.

But “R” threw me a little bit. For the letter “R,” she had chosen, of all adjectives, to use the word “RICH.”

“I like this poem a lot,” I told her when I finished. “And the picture of the school is great. But I wonder; was rich the first word that came to mind when you were writing?”

“All the kids that go to our school are rich,” she said, simply.

I stopped for a moment; Nora is 9. To her, our own household still equates incredible wealth due to the container of pennies that she and I haul a few times a year to the change machine at the nearest Rainbow location just down the street.

But this exchange made me think-and sorry, I’m going to go literal here-about suburban myth. Not to be confused with its equally ridiculous sibling, the urban legend, suburban myths are those familiar delusions that passed on as truths, then sold as such. I want to dispel the myth in my own household, at the very least, that life in the suburbs automatically equates wealth with a two-story home and an SUV (or two) parked in a double garage. Through the eyes of a 9-year-old-through the eyes of many adults-the “R for rich” school filled with “R for rich” kids would be the logical extension of this stereotype. But I want my daughter to understand that economic status and class are tricky. Both generational and situational poverty can be hidden, are not always apparent, or visible, and the longer I live in suburbia, the more I find myself running into this presumption that I want nothing more than to simply puncture.

Case in point: I remember (quite vividly, I’ll add) an incident from when I was a younger mother. It was an early spring day and Nora and I were at the park. A woman, who looked to be about my age, was pushing a child, who looked to be about my daughter’s age, in one of the swings. I had no friends with children of any age at this time, so-much like the spring weather-this chance park meeting felt hopeful, a possibility to connect with another mom, someone I had something in common with.

She and I talked and discovered we both frequented the park. We were both working moms, both grateful for a weekend off. The conversation turned to schools, and there, too, we had a lot in common. We both had heard wonderful things about the schools in our suburban district, both anxious about making sure our children had the best education they could get.

Then, as a longtime resident, she informed me of a changed attendance boundary that now included a neighborhood of rental apartment buildings.

“And those people are a problem,” she finished.

And there, any sense of commonality, any sense of “both” I had just felt, dissolved. I lived in that neighborhood, in those rentals, and I was mortified for a moment-not so much for being associated with the “problem” rentals (which were actually not bad by my standards), but for feeling if I offered this identifying piece of information, she would look at me differently. That even though on the street, in passing, we appeared to have a lot in common, her comment had just put us worlds apart.

But I recovered. While my daughter, at 9, receives gentle reminders about making sweeping generalizations, I had to say something to this woman whose commentary was, at best, naïve.

“People that live in apartment buildings are a problem?” I asked, baiting her.

“That kind of economic diversity is the problem,” she replied, starting to fuel up. “That’s not why I moved to the suburbs.”

I’ll stop there.

I hope that my daughter feels as Rich in her surroundings-be they suburban or not-for the rest of her life. But even more, I hope that the people that inhabit those surroundings also continue to seem as Caring and Intelligent to her as they do now.


Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.

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