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When I Was 10
I moved to Harker Heights, Texas, leaving my birthplace and hometown of Austin. Let me be clear when I say that, like a move is for most 10-year-olds, it was devastating. This hour drive meant leaving the best place on Earth, my very own Eden and moving to a desolate wasteland of suburbia in a deep dark corner of hell. By this time I wasn’t even a stranger to the whole packing up and starting over routine. I’d already done it four or five times. I’d been all over Texas, across state lines and overseas. But all roads always lead back to Austin. This move, however, even at that age, felt different. The permanence was obvious. From the custom build to the close proximity to a Veteran’s Affairs Hospital that my grandfather desperately needed, everything about this house and move was meticulously planned. This was my grandparents’ retirement home.
The circumstances that had me living with my grandparents weren’t disastrous.
They weren’t even Lifetime movie-worthy. Like with my time overseas in Germany, my current living arrangement was due, in small part, to my grandparents’ service in the Air Force (Harker Heights sits halfway between a military installation eager to hire veterans and a VA Hospital not as eager to serve them) and, in large part, to the fact that my mom was (is, whatever) a single mother with two children whose parents care enough for her to help raise their grandchildren. I was relatively familiar with the area seeing as my mother and I had been residents of Killeen, Harker Heights’ next-door neighbor, a few years earlier before my brother was born. But even that familiarity was a reminder of the socioeconomic differences between household headed up by my grandparents versus one headed up by my mother.
There’s this general stereotype about where I live.
Killeen is where all the poor (particularly black) people live and Harker Heights is where all the rich white people live. There are, of course, exceptions, like some of the neighborhoods south of the highway where the middle-aged married service-members and successful business people reside, the middle-class of the area. The driving force of this stereotype were the high schools: Killeen High School being the oldest in the area and Harker Heights High School being the shiny new addition to the district. It was the school with all the technology, parental investment, and potential. You know, the high school from every Disney movie ever minus the spontaneous singing and dancing, and even that happened once.
When I lived with my mom, I lived in Killeen.
...in a small apartment or a small duplex or a small something else. I only went to daycare because my mom worked there. When I look back I don’t remember being unhappy because we were struggling because I never realized we were. In fact, it's only now that I’m realizing that my mother and I moved back to Austin and into my grandparents’ home because she was pregnant with my brother by a man whom time would repeatedly show was unreliable. But that’s not my story to tell. The point is, that move was made because there’s no way my mother could’ve supported my brother and me without help and when my grandparents moved away from Austin that hadn’t changed so my brother and I went with them while my mother stayed in Austin. That’s probably why despite the physical move, Austin is where my heart stayed.
So now that I lived with my grandparents again, I lived in Harker Heights.
My grandparents worked their entire lives, both twice retired, saved everything they had to live in this home at the top of the hill, three cars in the driveway, one whose sole purpose is to be towed behind the 38-foot RV in the backyard. The epitome of black success perched right next to average ass white people who came to the same wealth in half the time and half the struggle. And that pretty much sums up Harker Heights, Texas. We were close enough to Ft. Hood (the world’s large Army Base) to become accustomed to young soldiers speeding around town in their Cameros or Challengers and their army wives constantly vomiting their husband’s ranks like it somehow made them important but far away enough to have our own Walmart and movie theater and to call doing something in Killeen “going into town” despite the fact that both cities share the same two zip codes. The duality really manifested itself best at school. Because it was a military town, the minorities at the schools I went to in Harker Heights were extremely diverse. My best friend was Guamanian. I knew kids from Mexico, Taiwan, Honduras, places all over the world. I was never ignorant enough to group all Hispanics and Latinos together because I actually knew people who were Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian, etc. We had kids from multiple countries in Africa, the Caribbean Islands, and the Middle East. But because it was the suburbs, the diversity amongst white folks wasn’t the greatest. The most ethnically diverse white kid in our class was first generation Italian-American, The rest were typical, “I’m 14% Irish, 12% German, 39.5% British…” type of white people and to them all Hispanics were Mexican and Africa was a country.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have white friends. You can’t live in Heights and not have a bunch of white friends, but because of internalized racism, I didn’t have a lot of black friends until my sophomore year. We aren’t there yet but trust me that will be a WHOLE thing I’ll have to write about. I promise.
By the time most kids start middle school, they’ve been delegated their social ranking and going into 6th grade I was no different.
By this time, I was no longer the newcomer amongst students who’d despite growing up in a military community had known each other their whole lives. I was, however, still the nomad, drifting between social circles. I was smart, but I wasn’t socially awkward enough to be the stereotypical nerd. I was funny and loud but not nearly rebellious enough to be the class clown. Despite being teased about my weight or eventually my mannerisms, I was popular in the sense that everyone knew who I was, but when you’re often the tallest, biggest, and loudest person in a room, that’s not a hard feat. I never really fit into any one clique. Everyone had their exclusive groups of friends and I was always tangential. Sigh, always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
When I started middle school, I was introduced to a new group of students; the TAG kids.
TAG stands for Talented and Gifted. Basically, when a teacher sees that you are excelling in class or you’re not being challenged enough, they suggest to your parents and counselor that you take an aptitude test that determines if advanced courses are a good fit for you. The TAG kids were unicorns to the rest of us. Up until middle school, they never interacted with other students. They always had their own classes and activities away from the regular students. They were the X-Men and the rest of us were the mutants with lame powers. That type of exclusivity puts you at the top of the social ladder when you’re 12.
I wanted to test into TAG more than anything in the world. Not only was I tired of always getting into trouble because I was in a class where I wasn’t being stimulated and constantly needing to find ways to entertain myself, but I felt like this was going to be my group. I’d finally found my people. Then my mom said no, and despite their day to day involvement, my grandparents agreed. I hadn’t even considered that that was even an option, me NOT being able to join TAG. Even at that age the lecture about school being the key to success and working twice as hard to get half as far had been burned into my brain so why would she keep me from taking this first step? My mom said she didn’t want me to feel overwhelmed, not only moving from elementary to middle school but taking an academic leap as well. That was the first time I felt like I had to prove myself to my mother and my grandparents. I really felt like they didn’t believe in me. My teachers had been telling them over and over that I needed more, that I’d be happier and more productive in a different academic setting. For them to just ignore that felt like they were ignoring me. This was my chance to be a part of something and it was stolen from me. In hindsight, it’s obvious my mother was trying to protect me from being too overwhelmed but that doesn’t change the fact that would go on to become one of many times I felt like I didn’t have a voice that was being heard.
I did eventually get my mother’s blessing to join TAG. I joined my 7th-grade year and I hated it. I was behind academically and socially. I had to make up for the year these kids had jumped during 6th grade, not to mention I was the odd person out because all the kids that hadn’t been in TAG in elementary school went through the whole “we’re the new kids to TAG” phase their 6th-grade year. So, despite being among relatively familiar faces, I was again, the new kid, the loner trying to figure himself out. This was all compounded by the fact that not only were these kids the smartest and most popular in the school, but their moms were PTA members and their dads coached various sports. For the most part, these kids were a part of families that made up the wealthy elite of the community and I definitely didn’t fit into that mold. furthermore, TAG classes weren’t as diverse as the others. TAG made me feel like the token black kid on scholarship at the prestigious and predominantly white private school. I felt like I had to prove myself to these kids that I was worthy of an audience with them.
I spent years locked in that mentality.
And it just spread into other aspects of my life. Writing this chapter was supposed to be simple but I’m already starting to see things from my childhood in a different light, with regret. I was always trying to prove myself to someone, trying to win someone’s approval. That eventually became my default. I’d grow up making decisions based on what I thought I my parents wanted because I starting to think that they legitimately weren’t interested in what I wanted. I spent more time helping other people when I barely had time for myself. Let’s not even get started on some of my one-sided “friendships” over the years.
It makes perfect sense that I hate this shit town so much despite the fact that I technically grew up here. Despite the fact that my best friends, the high school I graduated from, and my first boyfriend are all from this place. Despite the fact that this is home.
This is where I can first remember feeling trapped.
I never felt that in Austin. And I guess you could say, “Well duh, the last time you were there you were in the third grade. What real problems could you have had then?” and that rationale totally checks out but even still Austin has always been a representation of a calm, easy-going life. I never had to fight with my mother about coming out in Austin. I never went months without speaking to my grandparents in Austin. I never cut myself in Austin. Whenever I had problems growing up I convinced myself that things would be different if I still lived in Austin. And that was probably a huge mistake because instead of dealing with my problems, instead of standing up for myself, instead of being honest, I created a fairytale. And I’ve been doing it ever since. At least I got a vivid imagination out of it, I guess.
In writing all this I’m starting to realize that Harker Heights became a symbol of all the bad things in my childhood. It’s easier to focus on one big bad and hope that getting rid of it will solve all your problems but college freshman Devon can tell you that that does not work. It's daunting to face all the little things in your life that make you crazy but I’m starting to realize that there are things that need be said, conversations that need to be had. It's time that I stand up for that middle school Devon that felt ignored and alone and to do that I have to admit that Harker Heights, TX was not the problem and figure out what was.
“Be the person you needed when you were younger”
- Ayesha Siddiqi