Finding the Middle of America; and What I Learned in Third Grade Social Studies

I first learned about discrimination in 3rd grade social studies. Actually - I first experienced discrimination in 3rd grade social studies. Our teacher, Mrs. R, began what we all fully expected to be a normal 4th period class by standing at the door, staring purposefully into each of our eyes, and then doing one of two things: she either smiled and gave us a Jolly Rancher and sent us to the blue carpet to watch a movie OR she maintained a blank expression, handed us a pop-quiz and pointed us toward the desks. I was not handed a Jolly Rancher. This was 1993, and I can still recall the pulsing anger and full gamut of emotions that ran through my body for the next 20 minutes. This was completely unfair. I would definitely have my Mom call the school about this — tears were fast filling my eyes, it was an immediate visceral response.

Mrs. R waited 20 minutes before she flicked off the movie and ended the madness. I wasn’t done with my quiz, and I wasn’t doing well with any of this. We then all moved to the carpet and she explained what had just happened — she had identified our eye color as we walked in the room. Those with brown eyes were given the Jolly Ranchers, those with blue the quiz. She went on to explain that this act — treatment based purely on physical or genetic characteristics — was something that had run deep in the social history of mankind. That day was the day we were introduced to what would make up the remainder of the year’s curriculum — the stories of slavery in America, the women’s movement, and the holocaust.

Twenty years later, it’s 2017 and I just finished a 2-week road trip across America with my husband. We drove 4,300 miles through 13 states, saw 7 national parks and, by my account, about 3,500 public restrooms. This was a trip that we’ve talked about taking for years, a trip that each of our respective parents did some version of in the 70’s, and we finally actually did it. It was exactly as good and much bigger and more meaningful than we ever could have imagined. We meticulously planned and plotted every day and night (note: this was NOT Kerouac’s road trip; there were multiple spreadsheets, interactive shared maps, and constant Instagram updates; nothing was done by the seat of anyone’s pants).

Grand Teton National Park, WY

What we couldn't have planned for was America in August of 2017. A few days into our trip, there was protesting and violence at Charlottesville, VA that paralyzed and jolted the country. Suddenly and frighteningly, concepts that were basic and that I’d taken for granted since 3rd grade Social Studies were up for debate — and I felt sick.

At the same time, what we lived and encountered each day at our Nation’s National Parks and across the middle of our country played a much different soundtrack. What we saw were the hardest, scariest-looking leather-clad bikers holding doors for handicapped kids at Mount Rushmore; Pakistani families clearly outside of their comfort zones strapping on boots and hiking Bryce Canyon; Women in full Hijab or in heavy Amish traditional dress in 104 degrees braving the Bright Angel trail down into the Grand Canyon. One very different-looking American holding the door for another at a restroom that frightened all of us universally. Within our nation’s most beautiful and sacred natural marvels, we were repeatedly witness to Americans of all backgrounds and comfort zones who had traveled just as far and planned just as meticulously as we had, to pay reverence to these places that make us all hold our breath and think — my god, what a country we get to live in. Together. The most colorful and beautiful canvas we all get to take a pilgrimage across and call our own.

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

Each of us surely was thinking — at least for a moment — to our lineage, and what our great-grandparents had to overcome, to give up, to sacrifice and bear just so that we could all be Americans; So that we could all visit these great National Parks and monuments and use these God forsaken bathrooms. And I truly believe that this moment and that recognition was lost on no one.

The last few weeks have been rough ones. What’s happening in our country has weighed heavily on us and at times has taken away from this trip. But what’s also happening is exactly as I described above— an overwhelming warming of my heart at who makes up our great and varied nation and how many of us are making these great pilgrimages to pay it respect.

We live in a time where we all feel more harshly divided than maybe ever, and also when we can read and seek out more news and information from more sources than ever before. Technology has created a reality in which the harshest most radical headline is required to get us to click on or read anything, and from There we adapt and share that information in its most extreme and radical form as if it’s our own, instantly and without any thought. My fear is that we are all beginning to exist to one another as these extreme headlines rather than actual, more complicated and nuanced people. The Hell’s Angel who graciously offered to take our picture at Mount Rushmore may likely have cared equally about preserving the environment AND about his 2nd amendment rights, although a superficial
assessment would have pegged him as much more interested in the latter.

My point is that we are not all caricatures of what we think it means to be Liberals or Conservatives. There are lots of people who are passionately pro-choice who also want less government regulation on businesses. There are many fiscal conservatives who passionately support the LGBT community.

But more and more lately, I think our inclination is to hear one opinion on one issue and to paint a person with a big fat red or blue brush. It’s hard not to! The article they just re-tweeted was [communist/racist/liberal] garbage! It’s human nature to want to categorize one another into neat groups of hippies, yuppies, Trump supporters, Nazis. The thing is, I refuse to believe that America is that simple. I think a lot of us fall a lot closer to the middle of America than we do the edges.

South Rim, Grand Canyon, AZ

I have a strong hypothesis that very few of us consider ourselves a Staunch-Anything. I think we have all had moments (maybe particularly in 2016) when we felt like “I guess I’ll swallow that pill because I hate the other pill more.” I think there are a lot of us who love nature and own guns. And isn’t that kind of what makes us America? The complexity of us all? The fact that it is literally in our nation’s blood to challenge and speak out and debate any status quo? The fact that chief among everything we stand for as a nation is the right to ask questions and be heard and that no one can take that away from us. It’s dangerous to write someone off because they watch Fox News, or to say that anyone reading the New York Times is a hippy-liberal. Because perhaps the greatest freedom we have in this country is a press that’s free to question and criticize from all angles. We should probably all be reading all of it because we can — because unlike a lot of other countries, in America we get to hear all of it.

Maybe what matters more than the re-tweets and Facebook posts are the REAL moments — the door holding, picture snapping and friendly smiles. The witty exchanges at the roadside diner with a total stranger. Might we be a better country if we each focused more on our everyday real interactions — indicative of who we each really are as nuanced individuals — rather than the social media patchwork? There is a real opportunity for each of us to consciously decide to put less weight on the former than the latter.

We can be the less vocal but more present majority — The Alt Nothing and the varied Everything. We can meet in the Middle of America rather than passive aggressively hate from the extreme left and right.

The people I love include a lot of bleeding-heart liberals and a lot of conservatives. I find myself really frustrated with all of them sometimes (as one does with everyone we love at times I think); but I love so much that I live in a country where I get to know, learn from and fight with so many different asinine points of view. Rather than letting a debate occur on Facebook, in reaction to an article that neither of us wrote, what if we let it happen over a beer and a burger that we all agreed was the best burger we ever had? Which might lead us to agree on something else.

I have thought really hard about it, and I refuse to believe that anywhere near half the country supports groups like the neo-Nazi’s in Charlottesville. There are just way more than 2 points of view and 2 types of people in the US. There are about 325 million of them, actually. And I bet that all 325 million of us can agree that the Grand Canyon takes our breath away.

The sun setting over the Grand Canyon; August, 2017