Damn. It rolled through my mind again yesterday. That memory of third grade. Watching the Amish filmstrip.
I hate it when this happens.
It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I have a library of childhood experiences that my mind replays. These aren’t the happy memories. These are the memories that make me feel today a touch of some greater fear or sadness I felt back then, something I was too shocked to process at the time.
The documentary was only a few minutes long. I remember a couple of landscape shots showing cornfields and horse-drawn buggies. Maybe a barn raising showing folks in typical Amish dress. They couldn’t have been interviewed on camera. We were told that Amish folk decline to be photographed because they believe it steals their soul.
I grew up among a jeweled paradise of dairy farms sheathing the Hudson River north of Albany. Our cornfields looked the same from those a state away in Pennsylvania, but different. The horses I saw were pastured on equine centers around the Saratoga racetrack. Our farms ran on John Deere and New Holland. Our barns were collapsing. Our village was Rust Belt. Our river was polluted with PCBs. And our culture was rural, white, middle-American.
Learning about the Amish for the first time, I felt awful. I was filled with fear.
It doesn’t seem to have left any mark on my life. Maybe my fear was the first sign of a healthy fascination. As a teenager I got into independent living and self-sufficiency and community. I studied intentional communities, from Twin Oaks to the Amish. In my 20s I built an off-the-grid home. I stocked our homestead with the Lehman’s non-electric catalog and its Amish designed and built tools.
I learned that most Amish probably don’t believe that cameras steal your soul. The Amish evaluate technologies like electricity, phones and photos in terms of whether they are likely to strengthen or weaken community. They believe that an image-based culture cultivates vanity.
But in third grade, I found the existence of the Amish shocking. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” is how I remember feeling. Another tribe of people existed, just one state over, that felt as different from the life and the beliefs that I knew as anything my 8-year-old mind could imagine.
What else could be out there that I could fear?
As I tried to put myself back in those shoes, the next thought I had was how much I love Taylor Small.
Taylor Small of Winooski is a second-term State Representative, and a Progressive/Democrat. In my first term in the House, I’ve noticed that she knows House rules and has a canny eye for justice. She’s a member of the House Human Services Committee and is recently engaged.
“Has anyone told you yet how you screwed up?” Taylor said to me the other day, as she smiled and gave me a warm hug.
Taylor explained how I was out of order on the House floor. I was speaking in support of a bill on elections, which is not the thing to do when the topic up for discussion at that moment was an amendment to the bill. At least five other colleagues later told me that it was likely because I was a newbie that the Representative from Northfield didn’t bring my first floor speech to a halt. Taylor’s honesty, delivered without judgment, helped me laugh instead of feeling humiliated.
I don’t love every one of Rep. Small’s policy ideas, but I love anyone with enthusiasm for her work, and who’s willing to invest in the relationship.
Taylor isn’t Amish, but if she had walked into my third-grade classroom in 1986, she and her lime-green polyester romper might have shocked me far more than Pennsylvanians in bonnets.
Taylor is trans. Today, I know lots of folks of all ages who are trans or gender-non-binary. But in the span of my life, that’s only been the last decade. I didn’t meet someone who was trans until my 20s. I didn’t make a friend of one until a close friend transitioned when we were both in our 30s.
For the majority of my lived years, my only exposure to trans culture was a slur that I won’t repeat, the song “Lola,” and the movie “The Crying Game.” Both dramatize the shock of discovering someone is trans. The classic Kinks song rides the shock right to rejection: “When I looked in her eyes, well I almost fell for my Lola, Lo-Lo-Lo-Lo-Lola.”
I didn’t have a lot of exposure to diversity as a kid. I first got on a plane when I was 10. Before that, Maine was a long trip. I grew up in New York State, not City. The diversity of NYC might as well have been on a different planet, especially since the only Black family I knew before the 5th grade was the Huxtables.
TV was banned by my parents except for “The Cosby Show,” Celtics-Lakers games, and “G.I. Joe” cartoons my brother and I snuck after school, alone in the house. We didn’t have the Internet and we didn’t watch the evening news. We had newspapers and books and the New Yorker magazine, which didn’t make much sense to me.
I wasn’t raised with racism, homophobia, or transphobia, anymore than I was raised to be Amish-phobic. But culture is the water we swim in — invisible most of the time.
My understanding of sexuality and gender has evolved a lot just in the last decade. And I know I still have a lot to learn. Until becoming comfortable with unfamiliar concepts and ways of life, until getting to know a human being beyond an LGBTQ+ alphabet letter, I know I’ve been awkward with new people and committed micro-aggressions.
I’ve often felt puzzled with the disconnect in America. In our national and sometimes, sadly, our state media, I hear story after story demonstrating the evergreen existence of blatant and intentional racism, sexism, and other hate.
If the media is to be believed, it’s rampant in rural communities like mine. Vermont is coping with clear cases of transphobia today. The issues are real. I’ve borne witness to structural racism in our country. I’ve borne witness to my own privilege in various forms. I’ve shared stories in this space about my ability to create micro-aggressions today, despite all my best intentions.
And yet, despite how committed I am to witnessing these issues, I can think of zero in-person conversations in my life where I could say that I was talking to someone who communicated in a way that was: a) bigoted, b) aware of it, and c) cool with that.
And that’s a problem. If no one is racist, then how can we ever end structural racism and unconscious bias? To create a world in which none of us are -ist, I continue to circle back to the conclusion that for myself at least, I’m capable of acting biased, even when I don’t mean to. And there’s always more I can do to be welcoming of others. I would ask to be judged not on my mistakes but on how I respond to them. That’s where the learning will be.
Something else I noticed about Taylor Small. Her pride in who she is has taught me more about how to be proud about myself, and the beauty in being open to all sorts of people.
I grew up shy, timid and self-conscious, traits that my family environment fostered. I was taught pridefulness was a sin on the path to the worst evil, narcissism of the orange-skinned variety.
I didn’t need a month set aside for stories to be told about people that look like me. I didn’t need to lean into a movement like gay pride and transgender pride to be accepted by my society.
Those are privileges that I didn’t have to fight for.