We weren’t white trash. My mother would never have allowed it. We were poor in terms of actual cash money, but I never wore Sunday school shoes without socks—ever. My parents never asked me to “get my butt” anywhere. Double negatives were strictly prohibited, and my mother thought smoking was nasty long before it became politically correct to espouse that point of view.
It’s not that we didn’t have some strong indicators toward the white trash way of life. My daddy was a Southern Baptist preacher in tiny little towns in Illinois. And believe you me, I grew up among ‘em. Especially in town.
It was harder to be white trash in the country. If you lived in the country, you likely farmed. Farming is by far the hardest work I know. You have to get up and stay up and work like there’s no tomorrow. When I was growing up, the farm kids were often the smart kids in school. I’m certain it had to do with their work ethic. But in town, especially in some parts of town, it was a virtual white-trash dump.
When I was seven years old, we moved to Medora, population 250. We lived in the Baptist parsonage. One block behind Main Street. Right next door to the Baptist church. A block from the Methodist church and around the corner from the Catholic church. I lived in that town for almost seven years and I never stepped foot in that Catholic church. They loved Mary more than Jesus. We couldn’t even have a nativity scene in the parsonage at Christmas because it would come with a statue of Mary, and that would be “too Catholic.”
I didn’t really know many Catholics. I only had one Catholic friend. I didn’t meet her until sixth grade. Before that, she went to the Catholic school over in Jerseyville. I almost went to Mass with her one Saturday night. I was pretty pumped. I was going to get to borrow one of her little black doily things and bobby pin it to my head. She was trying to teach me how to cross myself when her mom called the whole thing off. I think she got nervous about taking Preacher Bill’s daughter to mass. I was tremendously disappointed, so she took us shopping all the way to Alton. On the way home, we got to stop in Brighton and get a soda. We called it soda, not pop. Pop was like “butt,” it just wasn’t right to say.
My life in Medora was pretty good. We steered clear of the trash and built a little circle of friends among the “good kids.” It was all pretty idyllic, really. Other than school, my days were pretty much my own. My mom worked full-time. She was a secretary at the superintendent’s office. That’s before there were administrative assistants. She was a flat-out secretary. She didn’t go to college, or even secretary school. But she was smart, with a gracious spirit. She was a true believer, but didn’t seem to be self-righteous about it. She was able to draw the line between church and state—not that it was much of a line in the Southwestern school district in 1965.
She had amazing grace. People commented on it. That and her beautiful smile. She had good teeth. A blessing for sure. Teeth are the true, in-your-face class rankers. My mom and my sister were lucky because they had naturally beautiful teeth. Perfectly straight. Nice-sized. Not so big that they were horsey, but more importantly, not too small. In my opinion, small teeth are worse than a slightly crooked pair.
My teeth, however, were a problem. Big ol’ buck teeth. Bucky Beaver. That’s what they called me before I got braces. I remember my brother Mark stood up for me when some kid called me that. I don’t remember who it was. I don’t remember what Mark said. I do remember feeling lucky that he was my brother.
I felt the same way the day I got paddled in second grade. Again, we hadn’t lived in Medora that long. I was wearing a red corduroy skort with a matching sleeveless tunic that buttoned up the back. You don’t really see clothing that buttons up the back so much anymore. It’s like we accept the fact that in today’s world, you can’t guarantee somebody’s going to have your back. It was soft, thin, wale corduroy, and I loved it. It was one of the first things Elma Strunk made me. I had a little white blouse on underneath.
By this time, I was cultivating a small group of girlfriends. We decided to all ask to go to the bathroom, one by one, and see if we could manage to be in the bathroom at the same time, together.
This was a practical example of a teacher giving students just enough rope to hang themselves. I’ve never been a fan of that particular teaching practice, but Mrs. Schaefer was big on “lessons learned” and let us go, one by one, until the bathroom was brimming with second-grade girls.
By the time her sturdy black shoes walked into the bathroom, I was sitting in the giant trash can, shrieking with laughter. Why I was sitting in the trash can, or how I got there, I don’t know. I do know I was deemed the ringleader of the whole affair and marched to the principal’s office where I received a few swats of the paddle. Then, having been put in my place, I was sent back to the room. It was humiliating. I didn’t look at anyone the rest of the day. Not until I saw Mark waiting for me after school. He put his arm around my shoulder and whispered, “It’s okay, Lissa. Mom and Dad won’t be too mad. It’s okay.” He didn’t ask for details. He didn’t act like it was that big of a deal. He just walked all the way home right beside me, daring any of the other town kids, white trash or not, to say a word.