Monday, January 24, 2011

Bad Reputation

          I have been a very neglectful blogger. You see, I have a new baby and she has been taking up all my time. Her name is The Secret Garden and she's the musical I'm directing for a local community theatre group. Auditions were last week and I've been spending much of my time on all the little details of beginning a production. I was blessed with amazing singers and actors who came out to audition and now I have the cast of my dreams (minus a few men--there is a serious man-deficiency in community theatre).  I haven't been writing as much as usual, so I thought I would share an essay I wrote over the summer and entered into "Real Simple" magazine's annual essay contest. The subject of the contest was "I never thought I'd..." and I wrote about settling down and raising my kids in the town in which I grew up--something I never imagined myself doing. This essay is the first piece of writing I did since I graduated from college that was meant to be read by someone besides me. As I look it over, I realize that my skills have improved since I sent this off to Real Simple six months back. I present it to you--warts and all.
 Bad Reputation
She has a bad reputation. People who have heard her name on the news call her dangerous and scary. It isn’t fair really—she’s just misunderstood.  And I ought to know—she’s been my hometown for 39 years. Anyone from Brockton, Massachusetts is familiar with the look you get from other New Englanders when you tell them where you grew up. It’s a little fearful and a little curious. They are always surprised when they look at me. I’m not what they pictured after they heard about the prostitution bust on the six o’clock news. People who make honest livings and raise their children to be good citizens make for very boring headlines. But we’re here—getting our children to the bus stop, shopping at the local grocery store, paying taxes and fighting for education.
            I’m a little surprised myself. I never thought I’d be here now. I assumed that life would take me away from Brockton after college. I saw myself someplace bigger and better—Boston or New York or London. Some of my classmates pictured themselves somewhere smaller and greener. Few of us imagined ourselves settling down in our city of 100,000. A former industrial boomtown that now looks more than a little rough around the edges.
My eight-year-old son says that Brockton is the greatest town in the world. Children have remarkable filters. When he and I drive through town I notice once-stately former homes of captains of industry divided into low-income apartments and empty downtown storefronts and people lined up outside the unemployment office. He sees the vibrant YMCA where they learn to swim and take karate with children of every shade of the human rainbow. They see the mammoth high school that boasts an Olympic size indoor swimming pool, a 1600 seat auditorium and a planetarium. They don’t notice you have to pass through metal detectors to get into the high school.
            Brockton High School—everything about this nine-acre campus is imposing. Picture a building the size of an aircraft carrier. Now fill it with 4,000 teenagers—a handful of whom will sadly make the aforementioned six o’clock news some day. Most of whom only want to pass chemistry and get a date for the prom.
I asked a boy from a town in Western Massachusetts to my prom. He said yes, but his mother vetoed the invitation. Brockton was too scary a place to send her son for an evening. Maybe I had those same filters my son has. Why was this woman afraid? I was 4’11’’ tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. I was a shy and nervous teenager who did community service projects with the Key Club and marched with the school color guard. But I wasn’t afraid at my school. The scariest moments at Brockton High for me were trying to navigate the vast hallways in the four minutes allowed between classes
            The Brockton of past generations was a different place. At the turn of the last century it was “The Shoe City”, manufacturing more shoes than any other city in the world. When Thomas Edison needed a place to build his first complete central power station he chose Brockton, MA in 1882. The newly incorporated little city boasted the first electric-powered streetlights, fire station, theater and school in the world.
Like so many manufacturing centers, Brockton’s legacy as a progressive and industrial city began to dim after World War II. Last year, the final factory was shuttered. After operating in the red for some time, Footjoy closed its doors on the plant that made its highest quality shoes. Good night “Shoe City”. There isn’t much market for hand-stitched, $300-a-pair golf shoes these days.
Now Brockton’s city water tower and website are emblazoned with the new nickname “The City of Champions”. Brockton was the home of boxing legends Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler. It’s a nickname that out-of-towners find ironic. When news cameras come to Brockton it’s usually to cover a crime, not a sporting event. The elementary school students raising money for the earthquake in Haiti or the volunteers at the VA Hospital might earn a few lines in the hometown newspaper. But the Boston papers and news channels are only going to cover the drug dealers and the political scandals. Brockton’s bad reputation makes great copy.
So, why do I live here? At first it was convenience. I was still living at home and commuting into Boston and my future husband Dan, got a job in a nearby town. I wanted to live in Boston—but Dan had just graduated from Northeastern University and had enough of big city living. My mother convinced me to take a look at a Brockton apartment a friend had for rent. It was the second floor of a three family house—five rooms plus a walk-in closet. The rent was $500 a month. I had friends paying twice that to share a smaller place with cockroaches in sketchy parts of Boston. I decided that a longer commute was well worth the money we would save.
            Because our rent was so cheap it wasn’t long before we had saved enough to start looking for a house. My first thought was a smaller, more affluent, more rural town nearby. We were married by then and knew that whatever house we bought would probably be where we would raise our children. Every place we could afford was tiny or dilapidated. My realtor said, “Have you ever considered Brockton?”  And again my mother said, “Have you looked in Brockton?”. Reluctantly we agreed to see a few houses. The fourth house we looked at had been on the market for a while. It was built in 1904 and had a huge yard. It needed work—a lot of do-it-yourself projects had been done by less-than competent hands. But as they say in the business, it had good bones. Lovely woodwork and hardwood floors hiding under rose-colored, dog-scented carpet. It was in a great neighborhood—home to judges, attorneys, doctors and retirees. The asking price was less than the bank had pre-approved us for. This was not only the house we could afford. It was the house we wanted.
            Thirteen years later, much to my surprise, we’re still here. We’ve refinanced twice, torn out that pink carpet, painted, landscaped, added two bedrooms and a bathroom. We now have two children who are enrolled in Brockton Public Schools. We’ve been very fortunate and could probably afford to live somewhere else. So why don’t we? Why are we still here?
I asked a group of Brockton natives what was the best part of growing up in this city. By far, the most popular response was diversity. My childrens’ classmates have roots all over the globe: Asia, South America, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean. When my boys play soccer and baseball many of their teammates families speak Spanish, Cape Verdean and Haitian Creoles, and languages that I don’t even recognize. But it doesn’t matter because cheering on our children is a universal language. Beyond race, my children have friends from a variety of “non-traditional” families: children with two moms, children raised by single parents, children raised by grandparents and children who are raised in foster homes. Financial diversity—fifty-four percent of the students at my children’s’ school are considered low income. I’m not going to pretend that prejudice doesn’t exist here. But you learn to recognize differences and seek similarities. Getting along with a wide variety of people is a skill you develop at a young age in Brockton.
            The reputation of our mammoth schools scare many folks, but I am impressed every day by the quality of education here. The Brockton Public School system tries to reach every student—whether they’re exceptionally challenged or exceptionally gifted. There will always be budget cuts. People will always get angry over taxes. But every time those talks come up, the passion over education that comes from students, parents and teachers is overwhelming. My boys have been blessed with dedicated and engaging teachers. PTA meetings at their school are always packed with parents willing to give time, talent and money.
            Maybe every kid dreams of being an adult someplace else. Maybe kids who grow up on farms dream about city life and kids in the city long for the suburbs. But a funny thing happens when you grow up and see a little more of the world. You see that there are bad elements everywhere. Picture-perfect towns end up on the news. It just takes the residents by surprise. When you grow up in a place considered dangerous by some, you learn to be resilient and aware. I chose to stay in this “dangerous” place. Maybe by doing so I’ll make it a little better.