For the most part I consider myself from Mason. A small growing rural town in Michigan that’s roots tie back to agriculture. The character of the town has changed greatly from when I was a kid. We now have a Meijer, two McDonalds, growing subdivisions, upgraded football stadium and high school, multiple gas stations, and an annual music festival. For the most part growing up in Mason wasn’t so bad. You didn’t have to worry a whole lot about crime and safety. Generally people in Mason are friendly and willing to help one another out.
That being said, I never felt like I completely fit in. I was the girl whose mother kept her maiden name when she got married (don’t even get me started on how many times I had to explain my parents were not divorced). My mother is also a veterinarian and ran her own practice so in a lot of ways she was not the typical Mason mother (which I whole heartedly respect and love). More importantly I was the out spoken girl, the girl who stood up for what she believed in and the girl who learned that Mason is not all that it seems. On the outside, Mason represents the quintessential perfect small town. The kind of place you want to raise your children…..good schools, safe, neighborly, walkable.
I fully understand why my parents moved there when I was in the third grade. Prior to Mason we lived in Lansing. At times I feel much more like my roots come from my experience in Lansing than Mason. Being a kid in Lansing I had friends from all kinds of backgrounds. I sometimes describe it as a rainbow, we were all different colors, cultures, ethnicities, whatever you want to use to describe being different, but we all played and experienced childhood together. One of my closest friends was Ashley. Ashley and I were thick as thieves. We played at each other’s houses, her mom did my hair and dolled me up and I learned what it was like to come from a Latino family that has a strong sense of heritage and culture. Most importantly, I think of my friendship with Ashley as more of a sister. I wanted to be like her.
Every year my elementary school in Lansing put on a talent show. There were quite a few girls from Latino families and I will never forget watching in awe as they performed traditional folk dances. I honestly remember thinking, how cool is this that I get to go to a school with dances like this. How cool is it that I have friends who know how to do that? Asia was another girl I looked up to. She was way older than Ashley and I. By way older I mean in the sense of an elementary student. Asia was 2 grades ahead of us. Like Ashley she was also Latino. To me Asia was everything I wanted to be when I was “older”. She was beautiful and compassionate, but you could also tell she was wise. She seemed to understand the world around her.
Before I moved to Mason what I knew of the world was this, it is full of different people and cultures. This was something to embrace and celebrate. It was not something to fear or hate. I will never forget my first day at school in Mason. I was in complete and utter shock. Suddenly, my world had turned upside down. To this day I still remember coming home from school and my parents asking me how I liked my new school. My reply was simple, I like it, but I do not understand why everyone is the same color? That was the moment when my parents being the wonderful people that they are had to explain to me that not all communities are as diverse as what I was used to. Again, third grade Rachael was in complete and utter shock.
Nonetheless I survived moving to a new school, making friends and adjusting. At some point around 4th grade a malicious rumor was started about our Principle. Kids used to whisper about how she was gay. How that meant you couldn’t be safe around her, how you had to be careful. Me being me and raised in a nondiscriminatory household stood up for her. I would always say, So what? and Who Cares? That was my 4th grade way of saying, it doesn’t matter if she is gay and maybe she isn’t. More importantly, she is a wonderful Principle (she truly was) and cared deeply about making school a safe and happy environment for her students. This is when I learned the power of gossip and the currency it holds in Mason (more about this later).
It wasn’t until I hit fifth grade that I truly began to see what growing up in Mason would mean for me. Now young Rachael is in fifth grade, living in a small town and out in the country. I no longer walk to school, I ride the bus. Enter Dolores. Dolores moved to Mason from American Samoa to live with her grandparents for a year and experience life in Michigan. Dolores was mixed, White and American Samoan. She had beautiful tan skin, long long dark hair and she was TALL. And by tall I mean for a girl in 5th grade she towered over everyone. Dolores’ father was originally from Mason thus sending her to live with her grandparents to experience a kind of student exchange. Well, poor Dolores didn’t know she would stick out like a sore thumb. Lucky for her, I didn’t care and we became very close friends. In fact, I was really her only true friend that year. Like Asia, Dolores was a kind, compassionate and beautiful girl. She wanted to be friends with everyone and struggled with not being accepted.
This is where stereotypical class bully comes into play. Josh was mean, taunting and down right bigoted. This for me was a defining moment, learning just how hateful people can be. On a pretty much daily basis he made fun of Dolores for being brown, tall and speaking differently. Subsequently because I defended her the taunting found its way to me. My third defining moment as a 5th grader was hitting Josh as hard as I could on the playground. Why? Plain and simple I had had enough. Now mind you my parents always told me, Rachael don’t ever start a fight, but if you need to defend yourself it is ok to do so and we will back you up. So I knew better.
The last straw was him making fun of my mom for not being able to come to school functions and how that made her less of a mom.
As a result I did get sent to the Principle’s Office. Lucky for me my teachers had seen the daily struggles of dealing with Josh. My parents were also very aware of it and in fact the Principle was a client of my mom’s. Next defining moment, I learned that people who see that your actions are just and true will stand by you. As a kid this was important because I also learned that this meant adults would back you up if there was cause for it. In the Principle’s Office I learned a secret that I was not allowed to tell anyone. Until this very moment I haven’t told a soul. My Principle looked me in the eye and said, Rachael we know you are a good student, a good friend to Dolores and were standing up for something you believe in so here is what is going to happen, you are not going to get in any more fights with Josh. This will be the last time I see you in my office and with a smile on her face she said, No one really cares for Josh, but we do need to tolerate him. With an even bigger smile on my face I left her office and as instructed I never got in another fight with him. Additionally, he was called into the office and lectured about being less of a bully.
Moving through middle school and high school I had more moments like that of elementary school. I will never forget walking upon a classmate of mine who I had known since elementary school being corned at his locker by two of the most popular boys in our class. They were taunting him for being Jewish and having red hair. Now it is safe to say, that I have never been one to tolerate intolerance. In fact Martin Luther King has been an idol and hero of mine since I first learned about him. I wouldn’t describe myself as a big person. Athletic and average height are proper descriptors. At that moment though I walked right up to the main taunter and said what is wrong with you? Number one you are Asian and number two you are adopted! What right do you have to make fun of him for being Jewish and having red hair? They tried to argue a little, but fortunately for me I was a lot smarter and far more stubborn. Needless to say they decided to move on. This is when I really understood that bigotry is for sure taught.
I wish I could say that I experienced these things at a time when people “didn’t know better”, but I didn’t. I am 29 years old. These things happened in the ’90’s and 2000’s. We knew better then. I also wish I could say that I haven’t still experienced bigotry in Mason. That is simply not the case. Part of my life journey includes being in a 10 year relationship that resulted in a 4 year marriage and eventually a divorce. It has almost been 2 years since my husband decided to leave. In that 2 years I have found myself again and I have experienced dating for the first time in my life (do the math you’ll discover I married my high school sweetheart). Let me also just say that I am an equal opportunist. Simply put, I love men. White, black, brown, doesn’t matter. What Mason has recently taught me is that the ultimate insult to white men is dating black men.
I cannot even begin to count the ways in which the Mason gossip has cycled back around to me. It is through this gossip cycle, which now includes Facebook, that I realize in Mason, gossip is a currency in which you exude power over people. What they are actually trying to do in cycling this gossip is say we do not approve of your actions since your divorce. How dare you be disgraceful like that? We won’t even touch on the irony of this considering my husband left me to run into the open arms of another woman. Apparently that is not disgraceful or worthy of disapproval.
Being the older wiser version of Rachael, I no longer get angry about the bigotry I experience in Mason, hell I half expect it, but what I do feel is sadness. Sadness that people honestly choose to remain ignorant in an age when we should know and do better. I feel this sadness even more deeply because the ignorance is coming from people my own age. It makes me wonder, how can my generation let this happen? How can my generation slip back into an age that people fought so hard to push forward? So, I figure the least I can do is write about it. I can share my stories. I can hope that perhaps the pen is mightier than the sword. I can hope that by sharing my thoughts and experiences that change may occur. If I’m lucky it will at least make people stop and think.