Part of my son’s homework today was to draw a map of his neighborhood. Pencil tucked neatly behind his ear, he paraded up and down the sidewalks lugging a thick Williams Sonoma cookbook to serve as desk and a clean sheet of white copy paper. At each driveway, he paused briefly to make a quick sketch of a house and to fill in the last name of the people who lived there. The job finished, he returned home an hour later, proudly presenting me with his map.
Not of my son, but at my family who had coined nicknames for several families in our neighborhood.
“Here’s The Lady’s house.” Matthew pointed to his map. The Lady, a shortened version of The Lady Who Lives Behind Us. My children jump her fence on a daily basis to retrieve lost baseballs. But despite the fact that we share a back yard, I’ve spoken to her only once.
“And The Poop Lady.” My son grinned from behind his crooked glasses. Years ago, The Poop Lady yelled at me for leaving my little baggie of dog doo on the curb to pick up after I’d finished taking the dog around the block. And, oh yes, The Poop Man, no relation, once yelled at my husband for allowing our dog to do his business on the man’s curb and then not cleaning it up to Mr. P. M.’s satisfaction.
Then there’s Bubba’s house. Bubba’s actually the dog. I don’t have the faintest idea about the names of the people who live at his house.
There are the Virginia People, natives of that state. The Rat People, who raise said animals. The New People. And The Little Red Plate Man, who earned the moniker when he failed to return my red salad plate after I welcomed him to the neighborhood with a plate of chocolate chip cookies.
I cringed, looking at the map, each nickname an accusation, a revelation of the fact that, while I know a handful of my neighbors well, the rest remain unknown to me.
I could blame the fact that we live in a development: the area is transient, after all, and everyone’s too busy working to take the time to talk to their neighbors. And there are a lot of families crowded into this development: A thirty year old map of this area would show fertile farmlands with only one road passing through. Today, over three hundred houses rub shoulders on that same spot.
A map is a snapshot image; a looking down at a place. With a map, I can find out where I am, or where I am going. But the thing is, I don’t want to be on this map. For seven years, I’ve told myself this is a temporary arrangement, not to bother setting down roots. For seven years, I’ve focused upon the where I’m going more than on the where I am. I find no community within this community. Why, then, bother to learn the names of my neighbors?
But, of course, I do need a way to refer to the people I live among. So, I assign them names according to one observed trait: The Poop Lady, The Virginia People, Bubba’s House. These nicknames are shortcuts, helping me to make sense of my world. They help me to organize and compartmentalize my life. They’re my family’s common language. A reference point. Where do I turn? At the New People’s house.
But my map, with its nicknames, is Ptolemaic: At best, it paints a partial picture, revealing only half- truths. At worst it serves to perpetuate animosities in retribution for the small injustices I believe I have suffered. Every time I utter the words The Poop Lady, I am reminded of her anger, and, so reminded, I continue to cling to my own.
But I wonder, looking at my son’s map, what name would the neighbors put at my house?
The Hat Lady, I can see someone jeering: I look at my worn coat hanging on the back of a kitchen chair, peeking from its pocket the brown and tan hat my children refuse to wear despite the fact that it’s warm and comfortable. “But, “I want to protest, needing to tell the rest of the story, “my grandmother knitted that hat for my brother thirty years ago. It’s…”
Or perhaps they’d call me The Lady Who Can’t Control Her Dog. “But, I can, really, as long as he’s…”
Or even The Poop Lady. “But I only did that the one time…”
My family would be called, incorrectly, The Canadians; The Steelers Fans; The EcoFreaks. But labels don’t allow for explanations. They remain there, fixed and permanent, loaded with inaccuracies.
It’s time to expand my horizons; time to get to know the names of my neighbors and their stories. Only then, perhaps, can I help my son to draw a more accurate map of the community in which we live. Only then will his assignment—and my own—be complete.
Labels: Community, Homeschooling, Perceptions, Raising Children