3 AM with Visions of Naked Emperors

I’m up at 3 AM thinking about a meeting I attended today and why it got under my skin.

I find myself back in the town I fled in the wake of high school. I am here not so much because I had a great desire to return to a small town, or because I suddenly realized how great it was here, but because my financial circumstances over the past two years are the worst they’ve ever been. I am getting back on my feet and I am grateful to this place for the opportunity to do that. Moreover, I am grateful for the opportunity to face this community that I despised for so long, to face the demons that still live here, and to have the positive experiences I’m having. Still, while I no longer hate it here, I am far from comfortable. The meetings I had this week to discuss the experience of youth in Parker illustrates part of the reason why.

I moved here in sixth grade. I was 11. The first things I dealt with were extreme cliquishness and a strange kind of elitism. Money mattered. A lot. And we didn’t have much. There was a huge jump forward in what the kids here were interested in compared to where I came from – namely, partying and growing up. Fast. And as hard as it might have  been to be “different” in the city, it was nothing compared to what it’s like here, to be labeled, perhaps ostracized and certainly judged. Guess what? In the decades that have passed, it turns out these things are still issues. Cliques, strange elites, partying and growing up fast are still problems here. And the adults are a large part of the reason why.

I hear quite often that people bring their children here because they think it’s a better place to raise them. They believe there are fewer threats to their child’s well-being than in the city. I disagree. There are just as many threats here – they’re simply different in nature. Underage drinking is a huge issue. Drug use is also a problem. Unprotected sex. A certain anti-intellectualism. Assumed and firmly grasped ignorance. And there are a lot of things that the city has to offer that these kids are missing out on, things like culture, educational opportunities and things to do that have nothing to do with substance abuse, materialism or sex. Things like diversity and tolerance.

As I grew up and matured, I’d come to believe that maybe my problem with the Parker area was that I’d experienced it through the lens of an angsty teen. Maybe it really wasn’t that bad here. When I came back, I opened my mind and my eyes as I settled into a position that not only allowed me to re-visit that teen world with an adult perspective, but to re-visit it with an opportunity to make a difference. And… it turns out that it wasn’t the angsty lens. Not entirely.

Two months after I found myself on a long layover here, I secured a job as a prevention coordinator. My area was to be teen pregnancy. I was excited about the opportunity to make a difference here, to work with young women, helping them educate themselves not only about contraception, but maybe even helping them learn about their worth as something other than a sexual vehicle. Turns out I don’t get to do a lot of that. I went through several months adjusting to this fact, dealing with my alarm at the fact that while I am charged with preventing teen pregnancy, I am not allowed to regularly address this with the kids who are actually having sex. I have spent most of the summer trying to find ways to do this and have come to peace with the fact that the opportunity I really have here is that of having a broader positive impact on children. And this is good. I definitely enjoy what I’m doing, especially now that I’ve let go of the idea that it would in any way be specifically related to preventing teen pregnancy.

I’ve had a hard time finding local friends. At first I tried to look actively. As there are no places to socialize here other than bars and conservative churches, trying to do it in person quickly became a bust. I did the bars for a while. It was fun, but mostly it illustrated fundamental differences between my peers and I politically, religiously and intellectually. Not even going to try the churches. There isn’t even a liberal Christian congregation I could try out. So I turned to the internet, which has been a great networking tool for me in the past. Not so much here. I don’t really have anyone local to talk to about the things that matter to me, whether it be media things or life things. There are too many elements of “other” in my core.

I don’t mean to make it sound as if I have no friends, as if I sit alone at the lunch table moping (though I am often a lone, reading and enjoying the peace) or as if I have absolutely no social life at all. That wouldn’t be fair to the few people I feel like I can talk to, who I’ve met through work.  (There is one person that I could probably really reach out to, but unfortunately, she lives about 45 miles away.) There is mostly that old cliquishness and strange elitism. A kind of xenophobia not so much against strange people as against strange (read: new) ideas. There is still anti-intellectualism. And there is a very odd marriage here between social conservatism, alcohol, drugs & sex. And I find that this originates with and is firmly rooted in the “adult” culture here. Turns out it wasn’t just teenage angst. It was another instance of me seeing the naked emperor and speaking out.

The thing that got me today was a stereotyping of goth and emo kids in this meeting I went to. Someone started talking about a teen suicide prevention talk she gave and about how she’d been unnerved by the “gothic” and emo kids because they weren’t uncomfortable with the concept of death. The term “satanic” was thrown around. It happened so fast that I didn’t even have a chance to speak, plus it immediately pissed me off. I wanted to sit with that anger before speaking because I needed to understand where it came from. Of course it came from my own experience as a teen in Parker. I was one of those kids and I actually got to hear the “adults” (many of whom had been my preppy cliquish peers in high school) articulate the judgment and ignorance I had perceived as a teen. And they felt they were “right” and “just” in dismissing these kids because these kids make them uncomfortable now just as they did then.

Other meetings with administrators dismissed “the problems these kids have at home” as almost insurmountable, dividing kids and their families into good and bad based on whether they show up to events. Patting the community on the back because it doesn’t have “big city problems” like guns at school (though I reckon there are guns in cars in the parking lot, guns in bedrooms, plenty of access to guns. This is, after all, rural Arizona, home to the precursory cold dead hands and their clenched guns) and violence. I sat in offices surrounded by self-righteous bible quotes, bible thumpin’ books and Bush-Cheney stickers. Gods, no wonder I hated it here as a teenager! And honestly, as a parent, I was more than a little concerned about how my intelligent, outspoken, liberal teen is going to make it here.

What pisses me off now, just as it did then, was the adult unwillingness to address their own part in creating the problems in Parker. And it’s not just the “other” adults, the ones who “never show up.” It was the very adults in that room sitting in judgment, judgment of teens and judgment of non-present parents and adults in the community. How many of them contribute to the drinking problem or the premature sex problem by modeling the same behaviors? How many of them contribute by judging people who are different as “troubled” or simply “other/alien”? I’m here for the kids and I’m going to be honest and relentless about that. The teens here are emulating what they see the adults do. The ones who try to be different are labeled, marginalized and discarded. The embracing of tradition here (the “way we’ve always done it”) rather than the willingness to look elsewhere for solutions is an embrace that is, and has always been, strangling the young people in this community.

I don’t know how long I’ll make it here, but when I do leave, I’ll at least have a deeper understanding and peace with why I struggle here. And perhaps, if I am lucky, I can make a difference if not to the community as a whole, then certainly to the few kids I have a chance to influence. And given the fact that I am not invested in staying here, perhaps I can speak for those who see the naked emperor. Perhaps I can stir the pot here, say the things that no one says, before I move on. But I have to have an exit strategy. And I have to be a diplomat so that at least some people hear me and don’t dismiss what I’m saying. Sometimes I wish I could just ignore social injustice like other people do. I wish I could decide to not care, to just shut up, do my job and move on. But that’s not who I am.

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