Tomorrow I depart for my third residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts WCYA. The dreaded critical thesis semester is about to consume my life – except I’m not really dreading it. I’m a structural engineer. Critical analysis and technical writing don’t scare me. I’ve had my thesis topic in mind for months, and I wrote three exploratory critical essays last semester. My thoughts are already organized into charts and tables.
To prepare for this challenge, I decided to read all of the Critical Thesis Prize Winners over the summer break. VCFA WCYA is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, so that’s a lot of prize winners. The engineer in me was thrilled to see some of those winners use table of contents, numbered outline sections, charts, tables, and appendices. The writer in me was wowed by the diversity and depth of topics covered. Then one critical thesis resonated with me so strongly my heart hummed.
“Reconsidering the Trailer Park: Confronting Stereotypes of Rural and Blue-Collar Culture in Young Adult Literature and the MFA Academy” by Monica Roe from Winter / Spring 2014.
I wish this critical thesis were available for the public to read. I’d skip this blog post and give you a direct link. If you’re a VCFA WCYA student or alumni, I highly recommend this critical thesis. For those of you who are not, let me quote the two paragraphs that really resonated with me:
“Ask anyone from a lower-socioeconomic rural upbringing and you’re likely to find that they’re no stranger to hearing jokes and slurs about their background, whether directly or in passing. Besides being prevalent in popular culture as a whole, this tendency is surprisingly accepted in higher socioeconomic urban or academic environments, where many people who would never dream of mocking someone on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, skin color or disability status seem to find nothing untoward in openly making fun of those who grew up in a trailer or who speak with a country accent.” (Roe 3)
“If not honestly acknowledged and addressed, this trend risks a huge disservice to rural and working-class readers of young adult literature by continuing to provide them with derogatory and incomplete portrayals of their culture and community while re-enforcing existing stereotyped views widely held by more socioeconomically privileged readerships.” (Roe 5)
Until I read this critical thesis, I had not considered myself to have a marginalized identity element I could use as lived experience in my writing. But I do. Jennifer Kay Loescher, S.E., P.E. and VCFA WCYA MFA student began her life as Jenny, a little girl who lived in a rural trailer park. I didn’t realize that aspect of my upbringing was a marginalized identity element mocked by others until I was older and no longer lived there. The first teasing didn’t occur until high school, and I didn’t really understand the stereotype until I was in college, surrounded by people from higher socioeconomic status.
I would like to say this issue has been addressed and corrected in the writing community since this critical thesis was written, but unfortunately I experienced a hurtful situation, much like the ones described in Roe’s critical thesis, in a writing workshop earlier this year. One creative writing piece had used the “poor white trash” stereotype in a way that really triggered me. I debated what to do. I’m not the type of writer to go on the attack in a workshop. How could I nicely point out that a hurtful stereotype had been used without ambushing the author?
Before I worked up the nerve to say anything, another writer brought up the same sentence I had underlined. For a moment I was relived. Someone else would point out the issue. I didn’t have to talk about my upbringing. My relief dissolved when that writer complimented the author on that character and the great humor in the “poor white trash” set-up. The entire workshop collectively laughed at a stereotype of a rural person of low socioeconomic status.
I debated whether to ever blog about this incident. I like and respect every writer who was in that workshop, including the author of that creative piece. All of them felt strongly about writing across identity elements and would never stereotype based on race, gender, sexuality, mental or physical disability. I could tell they seriously had no idea that mocking someone for their low socioeconomic status and rural upbringing could be as hurtful to the reader as a racist remark. It also never occurred to them that a rural person of low socioeconomic status might be
among the writers in their workshop.
Don’t worry, I’m not changing my critical thesis topic at the eleventh hour. Roe already did a fantastic job covering this issue. What this experience will likely do is impact my writing. My story idea with a rural setting will likely move up my priority list. The protagonist’s trailer park home is going to subvert this stereotype to show another reality, one that is rarely considered in children’s books: a happy home and a close-knit community in a rural trailer park.
I have only happy memories of my early years living in a trailer park. My parents were young, blue collar workers who bought a small home they could afford. Emphasis on the word ‘home.’ We were surrounded by other young families, which meant lots of kids for my sister and me to play with and lots of couples for my parents to socialize with. The only inherent danger I recall was tornadoes, because trailers don’t have a basement. The owner of the trailer park always welcomed the residents into his own basement whenever there was a tornado warning.
The trailer park where I grew up had a collective parenting mentality of looking after all the children. I haven’t experienced that mindset in any suburban neighborhood I’ve lived in since. Any of the moms on my street would punish me if I were naughty, but they would also help me if I were in need. Because everyone was of low socioeconomic status, there was a passing down of clothes, toys, and bikes among families. There was also a greater value placed on taking care of your belongings and appreciating everything you owned, which I do not see in the middle and upper class children I encounter now. Yes, that includes my own daughter and her friends. They are a product of their middle class socioeconomic environment.
Eventually my parents did save up enough money to build a more traditional house. It was a big adjustment for all of us to no longer have those neighbor kids and adult friends in such close proximity. We continued to get together with some of the families from the trailer park for years afterwards as they, too, moved on to larger homes. Many of those families, like my own, chose to stay in a rural setting near a small community, where there was a similar mentality and way of life as the rural trailer park.
Photos of my early childhood are limited because camera film was considered an expensive luxury for us at that time. I wanted to share the few of the photos I do have to give a brief ode to our happy home in a rural trailer park. In the ways that matter, it wasn’t much different from anyone else’s childhood.