Peculiar facets of my ordinary, middle-class American childhood

I like to think I had a pretty ordinary childhood, all things considered. I grew up in the 90’s and early 2000s in a small town next to a small city in Connecticut, which is, as you might know, a small state next to New York and Massachusetts. According to Wikipedia, my town, Waterford, has about 20,000 people, is mostly white, and has a median income of $75k. The city next door, New London, is 60% white, has about 30,000 people, and has a median income of $44,000.

My mother was a doctor with her own practice, while my father was a self-employed investor. So, I grew up solidly upper-middle class. Our house was, frankly, nicer than most of my friends’ houses, but it wasn’t until I went to college that I saw anyone with stratospheric levels of wealth. Now that I live in Boston, I walk past nicer houses and richer people all the time. Of course, I now also walk past people sleeping on the sidewalk, which I never saw growing up. We were all somewhere in the vast middle.

Anyways, that was just some context. Here are some details on my peculiar, ordinary childhood.

1. My first school, elementary school, was a private religious school. Specifically, it was Jewish, which is what I was raised/born as. Along with normal elementary school subjects, we would have 45 minutes of prayer every day, and about half our classes were Bible (Torah) related. In these classes, depending on the teacher, we’d be taught the Bible either as important lessons or historical fact.

By the time I left elementary school at age 12, I had a solid knowledge of reading, writing, math, and the Bible. I had no knowledge of science besides what I had learned on my own. I also had no knowledge of foreign languages, despite having an hour of Hebrew instruction per day. This was probably because our Hebrew teachers did not speak Hebrew themselves.

Elementary school also marked the first and last time I ever learned Connecticut-specific history, even though that was the state I grew up in. All that I remember is that at some point we had to hide our Constitution in a tree to shield it from the British.

According to Wikipedia, this is a painting of the official Charter Oak, in whose hollow our Charter was allegedly hid.

2. After elementary school, I attended a private middle and high school until I left for university at age 18. This school was roughly $20-30k per year to attend, more than double the cost of my elementary school.

Growing up, I had a very strong sense that I absolutely had to attend this private school as my local public middle and high school were, supposedly, gang-ridden. In retrospect, given that I grew up in a town that had a median income of $70k and that most of my friends from elementary school went to the public school, this is very unlikely. Still, the teaching quality was probably better. And, more importantly, the private school was able to kick out problem students in a way that the public school was not.

Interestingly, I also had a very strong sense that the public school of the town next door, East Lyme, was the sort of school I’d be fortunate to attend. Unfortunately, legally, I was unable to attend that school. My parents checked.

3. As a Jewish kid, I was expected to have a Bar-Mitzvah, a traditional coming-of-age ceremony at age 13. This entailed several months of Sunday morning Bible study (easy for someone who had gone to Jewish school), a Saturday of leading prayers and chanting from the Torah, and then an expensive party. 

For my party, my parents rented a ballroom at the Marriott, hired a DJ/MC, and catered a buffet style dinner for several hundred guests, including my friends, everyone in the local Jewish community, and extended family. This was a nice party but not exceptional by the standards of the community. The exceptional party was thrown by the daughter of the family that owned the Marriott (and about 30 other Marriotts besides), who turned the ballroom of a Marriott into a kid-friendly mall in which all items were free.

Because I had gone to a Jewish school and then Sunday morning Bible study, I ended up being invited to probably 40 Bar and Bat Mitzvahs around age 13. This took up a lot of my social calendar for about a year or so, and I became adept at slipping into Bar and Bat Mitzvahs right as the prayers would end and the pre-party would begin.

In retrospect, this was the last time I felt really plugged into a broader community like that. After the flurry of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs ended, I stopped attending synagogue, as did most of my friends, and I slowly drifted away from the Jewish community (although not enough to avoid news of myself being still spread around the community, as I find out every time I visit). In retrospect, this explained why the average age of synagogue attendees was so old.

4. I had never taken school seriously, in any form, before age 12. I got good grades, but that was very easy. I mostly just tried to read by myself.

Starting by age 12, my parents ratcheted up the pressure on me to perform well in school in all respects. Not only did that mean I needed excellent grades, it also meant I needed to be good at sports and, ideally, popular. I had been on-and-off with tennis, swimming, and soccer lessons since I was 4 or 5, but suddenly that became more serious. I joined the school soccer, swimming, and tennis teams, along with taking tennis lessons on the side. As an ok athlete, this meant that I was pretty good at tennis, and not great at either of the other two. This also kept me busy for 2 hours a day every weekday.

The ultimate goal for all of this was, of course, college. I first met with a college counselor at age 12 or 13, who provided oracular advice to me and my parents on how to structure the next 6 years of my life in order to get into an excellent college. The most important thing, in the counselor’s mind, was to be incredible at something. The easiest way to do this was to be incredibly talented at a niche sport, like squash or fencing, although starting a youth organization that got national recognition was also a good way to do it.

I ended up falling in love with breakdancing and hip hop at age 13 or 14 and joining a local dance group. We would travel around and compete against other dance groups at big competitions. This was much more organized than it sounds, as the big competitions were organized by a billion dollar company, Varsity, which also organized huge cheerleading competitions that would later be valorized on Netflix.

My parents were at first completely baffled by why and how I was so interested in breakdancing. But once they realized that there were competitions that were legible to a college admissions officer, they were on board, and my dad dutifully ferried me to competitions across the east coast of the US. 

Overall, this was a great part of my childhood. I had a fun time, my team won “Worlds”, and it helped me get into an excellent school. However, it was a much worse bargain for the rest of my team, many of whom could barely afford the fees for the team itself, never mind the travel, and had no intention of going to excellent schools or even college at all. Still, I see a lot of them reminiscing on Facebook about the time they were an “international dance champion”, so maybe it was worth it in that sense.

This is a poor-quality video of one of our winning performances. I can’t figure out which one I am.

5. Being popular was a tough nut to crack in middle school and high school. The cool kids in my high school were not athletes or the class president. The cool kids were the kids who didn’t care about anything except drugs. At my Bar Mitzvah, for instance, some of the cool kids showed up high. To be clear, these were 12 year olds showing up high on a Saturday morning at a synagogue.

So, to be popular, good in school, and good at sports was an impossible thing to do honestly. My brothers managed it by hiding how much they cared about sports or school. I didn’t manage it, and made friends with the nerdy kids. This worked until my last two years of high school, when my nerdy friends also got very into drugs and alcohol. They would drink and smoke themselves into a stupor. Because I didn’t want to join them, I eventually no longer got invited to their parties, and spent the last year of high school quite lonely.

6. My parents were quite strict about anything they thought could get us off track of going to an excellent university. This meant that drugs, alcohol, and friends on weekdays were off-limits.

Nothing else really mattered, though. Girlfriends were not only welcomed but encouraged, and my parents were totally ok with locked doors and suspiciously loud music. Similarly, there were no real expectations of any sort of community involvement, besides the odd religious holiday. There was an expectation of “productive” summers, but summer camp was included in that definition of productive.

The only exception to this was chores, which were important. We did have to clean the dishes, take out the trash, and shovel snow and/or dog shit, depending on the season.

7. Speaking of dishes, my mother worked and my father stayed home, which meant homecooked meals were the exception rather than the norm. Dinner was either steak with mashed potatoes, spaghetti with meatballs or steak, or takeout. My mom’s cooking on her nights off was a welcome relief.

8. While takeout was incredibly common, eating out at a restaurant was not. A big part of this was just that we were geographically isolated from anything other than houses. It was over a mile walk to any store and there were no continual sidewalks.

There also was no reliable public transportation. So, the only way to get to any, well, anything, was to drive. The single most important event of every single kid and parent’s life was getting a driver’s license, as that marked the transition from your (or your friend’s) parent transporting you to you transporting yourself. Every single part of a child’s life opened up after age 16.

Before that, I had to walk anywhere I wanted to go, which was not easy. To get to the mall, I had to walk about a mile and a half and cross a highway. To get to a bookstore or cafe, I had to walk a mile and a half alongside a highway. Basically, the single most prominent architectural feature was the highway.

9. Speaking of getting around, my brothers and I were allowed to explore our neighborhood from an early age, whether by foot or by bike. This was less exciting than it sounded, as our neighborhood was solely single-family houses, and the only people we knew were our direct neighbors. It was pretty impossible to meet anyone else as they just stayed in their houses.

We were not allowed to go into the city, and we were thoroughly scared enough not to go. It was heavily impressed upon us that, if we did go, we’d likely be shot. It’s hard to say how fair this was. New London does have a murder rate around double the national average, which amounts to 2-3 people killed per year. 

I will say that none of my friends who spent much more time than I did in the city ever got shot or even beat up. And, when I started to spend more time in the city after getting a car, I never felt unsafe.

10. As probably seems obvious by now, there was a strong undercurrent of fear that ran throughout my childhood. 

From an early age, there was the pervasive fear of something bad happening to the Jews again, reinforced by intertwined lessons about the Egyptian Pharaoh and Hitler (on a side note, these metaphors were lost on me, and I spent a fair amount of my childhood treating them both as equally historical fact and possibly contemporaries).

Starting in the middle of elementary school, the September 11 attacks occurred, and we added an additional fear of attacks happening to America. The local nuclear power plant distributed leaflets on how and when to take iodine pills in case an attack triggered a meltdown.

In middle school, there were new fears. There were fears of people from “the city” who came on scholarship to my private school, fears of being a loser, and fears of having the wrong friends.

And then, finally, there were high school fears. Fears of not getting into the right college, fears of never getting out of my town, and, suddenly, fears for my friends of the sudden contagion of depression, anxiety, and drug/alcohol addiction that seemed to run through my high school like wildfire. 

That last one came as a shock. I ended up spending all of my final year of high school talking my best friend out of harming himself, his ex-girlfriend, or anyone else, in front of a backdrop of my other close friends smoking themselves into oblivion every night. As I said before, it was a lonely time, especially once I felt like I could no longer take responsibility for my best friend’s well-being. I ratted on him to his parents and to the school principal, and, after talking to him every day for at least 4 years, I haven’t talked to him since. That was just about 12 years ago now. 

11. It’s easy now, in retrospect, to see where this fear might have come from. The middle class in America is always in a precarious position, even the upper middle class like mine. Fear is always part of the package, both the worry that you’ll drop down to the lower (or “working”) class and the anxiety that you’ll ever make it to the upper class. 

To my parents, community colleges, state schools, and working at McDonald’s were all part of the same package of threats that they used to launch at me whenever they felt I wasn’t trying hard enough to get into a good school. And good schools, of course, were those that were on top of the US News and World Report list, and that promised good lives and good jobs at the top of the American social system.

12. The specific contagion of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse that swept my high school is probably also explainable. I entered high school in 2007, and my classmates (and our parents) went through both the national financial crisis of 2008. Many of the mortgages on my classmates’ homes went underwater, and many of my classmates’ parents lost their jobs. My father, a self-employed investor, went through several years of waking up at 4 am to reexamine his portfolio, and went through an almost compulsive phase of saving home energy costs by turning off lights, often while people were still in the room.

And, in 2009, Pfizer, possibly the biggest white collar employer in my local region, announced they were shutting their R&D Center in New London and moving it to Cambridge, MA, about a mile away from where I’m writing this now. Ironically, this was right after winning a Supreme Court case for the right to build it in New London through eminent domain. Many of the most senior people’s jobs were eliminated, while the less senior people were told they had to move to Cambridge if they wanted to keep their jobs.

These were twin shocks: one national, one local. We had been told throughout my childhood that our way of life was in danger: from the Japanese, who would outcompete us; from the Muslim world, who would terrorize us; from the Chinese, who would undercut us. We were never told that the danger could come from within, that PDFs and Excel spreadsheets in our own city could betray us.

It’s hard to ever really figure out cause and effect, and what changes a life. I can’t say that all of our problems were because of this. I can say for sure that it was sad to see a former research scientist with a PhD forced to teach 7th grade biology, and then get fired because he couldn’t pretend interest in it. I can say for sure that many parents became too preoccupied to notice their 16 year old children piling out wine bottles in their room, or smoking so much weed that they started to believe in the reptilian conspiracy. 

And I can definitely say for sure that it was very strange to see a full 20% of my class in a college preparatory school not go to college, and that many of those kids still haven’t found a path more than 10 years later, and that, in my brothers’ class two years earlier, almost everyone went to college and now have respectable jobs and families. But can I really trace that back to a CEO’s choice to lay off a bunch of people to save money? I don’t know.

13. Rapid fire facts for the international people in the audience:

a. Guns are very common in America, but not in my corner. There was a local gun range I went to once, but none of my friends owned a gun. We did play paintball and laser tag, though, which are both very fun imitations of shooting each other.

b. Nobody ever dances at white American parties. This is a continual source of regret for me.

c. Growing up, I heard mostly English, and occasionally Spanish in the less wealthy neighborhoods. I didn’t hear any other languages spoken in the street until college, which is probably why nobody in my school ever managed to learn a foreign language. Even my French teacher admitted that she couldn’t understand spoken French.

d. Casual racism in school was very common, as was homophobic language. This changed rapidly, though, and I get the sense that now that is not true at all. Transphobia was not common because we weren’t aware of the existence of transgender people until a girl in my brothers’ class transitioned, and then we were mostly just baffled by it.

e. We did drink from red solo cups and play beer pong at parties.

f. The international food options were American Chinese food, sushi, Americanized Indian food, and Thai food. I still remember the excitement of ordering off of the hidden, Chinese-only menu at our local Wokery. It was not good.

g. There are strict laws in the US about how many hours people under 18 could work. There was also a strange disdain for casual entrepreneurship by children, like mowing lawns or delivering newspapers. All of this meant that it was not that common for myself or my friends to have any sort of money-making ventures during the school year, even for my friends whose families were much worse off than mine.

h. This is not a fact, but in my last year of high school, my friend Dan had recently broken up with his girlfriend, Alice, in favor of the girl who had been crushing on him for years, Michelle. My high school had a tradition in which students were supposed to compose and perform original pieces for an annual concert. 

Alice composed a piece about how much she missed Dan, and she had all these lines about how the sheets in her bed still bear his imprint. Michelle composed a piece about how happy she was that they were finally together. Michelle’s piece won an award, and Alice’s didn’t. Dan’s face was beet red the entire night.

i. My parents, like most Northeastern middle class Americans, saw proper places to go on vacation as the following: Colorado for skiing, Florida for tennis and theme parks, Western Europe for culture, and Caribbean resorts for relaxing. We went to Canada once (even though it was only a few hours north by driving), California and Alaska once, and Mexico and our national parks never. 

I still haven’t been to most of the US.