It’s not all in our DNA, a lot of who we are as adults comes from the cultural imprint of our families and social supports as we grow up. A lot of my cultural imprinting came from my maternal grandmother, who did the better part of raising me as my mother was an alcoholic and drug addict. Note: we didn’t call it that in my neighborhood, people just said my mom was little high strung.
Because my grandmother was born in 1900, her opinions on things tended to be a little bit dated. Some of the imprint she imposed was excellent, everyone in this family uses a toothbrush. Here’s yours. Use it. Some was hilarious, if you step on a needle it will get in your blood stream and stab you straight in the heart. Be careful. And some of her religious beliefs (Christian Scientist) were downright dangerous, don’t go to the doctor. Here’s a Bible. Read it. You’ll get better. As I recall, I was the only kid forced to wear bathing shoes at the lake in the sixties, and despite my 5’6”, 90 lb., skeletal self, a girdle every day after my period started, even under my shorts while playing in the backyard. Still not sure what that girdle was supposed to protect me from, but she didn’t want to see me “flopping” around out there. When dashing to the grocery store today, I can still hear her voice reminding me to put your lipstick on, dear. I don’t do it, but the voice is still there, chastising me.
We all grow up with these voices in our heads, our cultural imprint, the good, the bad and the very ugly. Somewhere in our teens as we emerge from the primordial swamp known as middle school, we begin to make decisions that determine who we are and who we will become as adults. We either do or don’t become open to growing beyond our cultural imprint.
In seventh grade, my family signed me up to be a member of the Rainbow Girls, an organization for the daughters of Masons. It wasn’t a tough sell. I got to get out of the house one night a week and make some friends from neighboring schools. They did good deeds, gathered canned goods for the needy, toys for tots, that sort of thing. The coolest part for me at thirteen was that for the initiation I got to wear a white, prom-like formal dress and mascara. If you have never been a 13-year-old girl, you may not appreciate the magnetic delight of these two things – a cloud of netting and mascara, but to me it was a dream come to life. I felt like a princess in that dress. I worked hard on the food drives and the fund raisers, learned the songs, and memorized the colors of the rainbow. There may have been a secret handshake, I forget. We met behind closed doors with all kinds of ritual with pomp and circumstance. Seriously, we marched into the room in a single line to Pomp and Circumstance.
I encouraged one of my best friends, Nancy, to join. We discussed the glamour of the formal dress, the possibility her mother might allow her to wear mascara, and maybe the good deeds the organization did, but be clear, the princess dress and the mascara took top billing in my recruitment pitch. I was living the imprint.
Another part of my imprint involved my grandmother’s relentless lectures on fairness, accepting everyone, and that we all bleed red, so don’t call anyone a racial slur or degrade them for their foreign accents. She found countless opportunities to bring this up. We sat in her back bedroom watching the plate-sized screen on her black and white TV. We saw Jack Ruby kill Oswald live. We watched the Eichmann trial. And we watched Martin Luther King and the 1963 March on Washington, all accompanied by her ongoing narrations about fairness.
I believe it was about 1964, the same year I was in ninth grade, when Nancy applied to be admitted into the Rainbow Girls. She was denied. See, Nancy’s last name was Bernstein. My parents and grandmother explained that the organization was for white, non-Catholic Christians. Period. Nancy was a very nice girl, and of course I should continue to be friends with her (see above, re: acceptance), but her Jewish faith was a nonstarter in all Masonic organizations in those days (not sure about today). Their explanation went like this: even though the Rainbow Girls would not admit Nancy or (say) one of the daughters of Martin Luther King (whom my grandmother revered), it was okay because after all, the Rainbow Girls did such good deeds.
It was then, at the ripe old age of (I think) fifteen, that I made my first political act. I quit the Rainbow Girls and turned in the formal white princess dress.
Fireworks at the dinner table! I was accused by my imprinters of being too prissy, asked if I thought I was better than my dad (a lifelong 32nddegree Mason), and generally scorned. Pots were slammed in the sink, doors were slammed. But I held my ground, kept the mascara, and moved on into young adulthood.
I was aware, however, that on some basic (and kind of scary) level, I had broken ranks with my imprinters. When that Kentucky kid and his classmates chose to degrade the Native American elder on the mall, I held out hope for him at first. Okay, kid,I thought, you had this imprint growing up, now that you see the pain that kind of thinking can cause, what are you going to do about it? How will this change who you are going forward?He is a teenager, just making his first wobbly steps into adulthood. Problem was (is), his imprinters circled the wagons, brought in other wagons by way of Fox news, and I venture to guess this kid learned nothing except, don’t break ranks whatever you do. Time will have to tell if he grows out of his cultural imprint, but it doesn’t look promising.
Now, about that governor of VA. He wasn’t a teen, he was 25 with a college degree, in med school, and plenty old enough to have outgrown any imprints made on him as a child. Now as he squirms around saying first it was him and then it wasn’t him in those hideous costumes, the fact remains, either way, he should have known better. He should have grown better, no matter what his upbringing.
Helping kids to grow better is what young adult literature is all about. Impressionable teens read about people who aren’t like them, they read about battles being fought in school hallways, in kitchens, internally and in outer space, following one hero’s journey after another. This helps them nurture the hero that lives in every one of them, helping them awaken that hero, and yes, sometimes providing the impetus to break ranks with wrong-hearted and/or immoral imprints. The stories point out the risks and benefits of standing up for what’s right. Children’s literature needs to be compelling and relatable, with a whiff of hope. YA literature helps kids right when they need it the most, before they step out to speak for themselves, when what will be lifelong philosophical commitments are being formulated.
“Leave the gun and take the cannoli,” isn’t just a line from a movie. It’s a choice each of us has to make every day as we take what is good from our cultural upbringing and (hopefully) leave the weaponized imprints behind.