Brand building through storytelling

Hometown kids, older and wiser

I should have started writing this hours ago but I’ve been a bit distracted. You see, I joined this highly addictive website that keeps pulling me away from whatever I intended to be doing instead. No, not Twitter; that was yesterday’s time suck (I’ve been known to waste so much time there, they ought to call it “fritter”).

My new online obsession is a far more exclusive affair. Have you heard of Durham Friends? Then I guess you never attended the Oyster River Schools in Durham, New Hampshire, a town that staked a multitude of pretensions on its role as the home of the state university.

Durham had three social classes: gown, town and country. My father taught at UNH, which guaranteed my place as a child of promise. Kids whose fathers pumped gas or milked cows could be reading Dostoevsky and they’d still be regarded as bumpkins because they rode the bus to school, wearing soiled work boots and flannel shirts their mothers had sewn. We sat at identical desks (and crouched underneath them in air raid drills) but observed invisible barriers that grew higher and harder as we realized how much was expected of some and how shockingly little of others. From kindergarten through senior year, I unthinkingly absorbed this lesson in entitlement and privilege.

I needed kids to look down on because my own status was never as assured as it seemed. The whole town knew that my father drank, and although I didn’t understand why he staggered and raged at night, I sensed the shame that enveloped our family. Passing other kids on the street, I’d hang my head. My mother tried to bribe me, a nickel every time I said hello. She never had to open her change purse.

In Durham the few friends I had were mostly other misfits like me. I couldn’t wait to get out of the place and find the kindred spirits who would shape the assured grown-up me. Then in middle age I found myself Googling the names of long-lost classmates. When I heard that a graduate of my school had launched a website called Durham Friends, I signed up in search of classmates who’d intrigued, amused, puzzled or tormented me a couple of lifetimes ago.

At first the whole thing seemed a crashing disappointment. I asked about Joan, my vivacious co-star in The Miracle Worker (Annie Sullivan to my Helen Keller), only to learn that she had died of cancer at 52. Meanwhile my e-mail queue overflowed with scores of messages from people I’d never heard of, who graduated long after my time. They remembered classroom dramas I never witnessed, hangouts where I never shared a secret, life-changing teachers I never knew (and, thank goodness, a few I did). Yet I read on, compelled by a startling sense of recognition. In Yiddish there’s a word, landsman, for a person whose roots go back to your town in the old country. That’s how I’ve come to feel about the Durham Friends. They’re landsmen.

I used to think my perceptions about Durham were so transcendently distinctive, so grounded in my family’s tenuous position, that no one else could share them but my sister. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Through Durham friends, I’ve seen the impact of our town’s rigid class-consciousness on generations of local children who now write with passion, wit and bemusement about “the divide.” For the first time, I’ve seen it through the eyes of former “bus kids.” Who knew it could be fun to take that stigmatizing ride to school? You got to sing “Found a Peanut” and “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer” to your heart’s content.

So says a woman named Marie with whom I share a bond. In sixth grade the two of us competed in the class spelling bee, bottom rung on the ladder that led all the way to the national bee in Washington. I’d been studying for months, my heart set on winning in Washington. In my own class, I came in third. Marie beat me, coming second. In my memory, she eclipses the girl who won because that girl, like me, walked to school from the leafy neighbourhood where professors raised their families and Marie rode the bus.

Marie had never expected to win, she says now. She hadn’t studied, either. She simply trusted her own love of language, honed through hours of blissful reading. Marie remembers the local library as her second home, and our paths must have crossed there countless times. Yet I didn’t even register her presence—until she beat me at spelling. She never had any fantasies of Washington; she was much too shy for that.

I’m glad I was able to let Marie know how sorry I am to have misjudged her. Turns out she misjudged me as well, mistaking my social ineptitude for self-assurance. What we saw then was the difference between us. But all along we were two bookish kids who didn’t fit in with our peers. In other words, two of a kind.


Posted by Rona

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