My early childhood was rather sheltered, and I was under the impression that my parents didn’t want me listening to most of the popular music of the day. I don’t remember them saying so, necessarily, but something must have given me that idea. Or maybe it was just the vibe I got. We only listened to oldies in the car (which I enjoyed.) I never even considered listening to New Kids on the Block, even though some of my kindergarten classmates were fans, and I only knew Weird Al and Billy Ray Cyrus songs because our teacher played them for us. If I remember right, a boy in my class often wore a Guns n Roses shirt with a skull design, which seemed really hardcore to me. I mean, a SKULL?! A band with the word “guns” in the name?! What next, a motorcycle?
I was easily scandalized at that age, but not offended. These things didn’t make me want to stay away. I did worry that my friends would all end up in a gang by 3rd grade, loitering on a corner in leather jackets, smoking cigarettes and taking pills, but any 6 year old who took McGruff the Crime Dog seriously was worried about that. Blame Nancy Reagan, I guess. However, most things that were forbidden or shocked me also INTRIGUED me. I wanted to learn all the cuss words, know rap songs, and have street cred. I wanted my classmates’ parents to invite me for playdates so I could see the “sleazy” side of life.
I wasn’t judgmental; I genuinely enjoyed seeing how other families operated and how other kids lived. Even in preschool, I wanted to make friends with the “different” kids. I took new students under my wing and tried to make my non-English-speaking classmates feel included. If they were happy, it was fun to be around them. If they weren’t, maybe I could help them feel better. I knew not to make other kids feel bad over things they couldn’t help, like wearing raggedy clothes or smelling like cigarettes. Sure, I believed in tolerance and inclusion because they were good values and because I had empathy, but also – different people were just INTERESTING to me. It seemed terribly dull to only know people just like you.
My parents were also open-minded – when it came to people outside of our family. My mom had grown up a few miles away, on the wrong side of the tracks; my dad’s childhood was in Brooklyn. They told us how bad racism was and not to judge books by their covers. My mom was sure to point out sexist advertising and media. But our household was often strict in those days. We went to Sunday school and worship service every week at the United Methodist church nearby, always wearing dresses. We weren’t allowed to say “oh my god” or “butt.” Toilet humor wasn’t welcome. Our bedrooms were expected to be neat (I usually failed at that) and we helped with most of the household chores from an early age. My mom didn’t want me wearing jeans with holes in the knees, my dad didn’t want our hats on backwards, and I remember feeling nervous that my mom wouldn’t let me leave the house wearing only one strap of my backpack, like the older kids on the bus did. (She did let me.) For some reason, we didn’t have a microwave until 2000. (Well, I suppose the reason was that my parents were very frugal.) They never drank or smoke, and they looked down upon such substances. (For good reason, it turns out – 3 of my 4 grandparents were alcoholics, and my mom lost her own mother to lung cancer in 3rd grade.) We rarely even had sugary cereals, although they were pretty generous with candy bars and Kool-Aid.
But it wasn’t an unhappy household; we laughed all the time, my parents took us on adventures, there were endless books to read, we did lots of crafts, and my sister and I ran around the yard for hours. Our nightly homemade family dinners usually involved joking around and interesting conversation. We knew we were sheltered, and were curious about the rest of the world, but we had fun and loved our family.
My dad worked at a local TV station, but our household did not have cable TV. In fact, for years my mom limited us to one hour of PBS a day – my sister and I both got to choose one 30-minute show and watch them together. We could also watch the news and Jeopardy! alongside my mom, so I was always aware of current events. It was important to keep up with the news at our house; my mother had been a TV reporter after college, and my dad had worked in journalism since he was a teenager. My grandad in New York wrote for an industry publication and had formerly written for top newspapers and worked on NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report. Right after I turned 3, the Berlin Wall came down. My mom sat me in front of the TV and told me to remember it, and explained it to me in age-appropriate terms. I can still recall watching it and understanding that this was an important, emotional moment.
In my preschool years, I enjoyed Disney afternoon cartoons, “Rescue 911,” “Family Matters,”The Cosby Show,” and the show I called “Michelle” that was actually titled “Full House.” However, at some point in preschool or early grade school, my mom decided my sister and I played less creatively after watching TV, and that Michelle Tanner was too sassy, so she cut us off for years. She was probably wise to do so, even though we complained at the time. Plus, “Ghostwriter” on PBS was totally rad.
My best friend from kindergarten through 2nd grade was Ashley R., a girl who lived a few streets over and whose dog was famous. Alvin was an Australian terrier who would howl along whenever he heard “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Happy Birthday.” This made him popular at show-and-tell, and he was even on the local morning TV program. Ashley’s house was always impressively messy, and she had two much-older siblings. Her brother was already out of the house by the time Ashley began kindergarten, and her sister was in junior high. Meanwhile, as the older child in my family, I had very few links to what was “cool.”
For some reason, I thought Ashley was a bit wild. Looking back, she was one of the least wild kids I knew; even in kindergarten I was pretty sure I knew who would end up being a teen mom or dropping out, and I was generally right. I was aware that a lot of my classmates came from rough neighborhoods and bad family situations, whereas Ashley and I lived in the nicest subdivision that our school drew from – a quiet, middle-class development built in the early 1960s, featuring lots of ranch houses and brick exteriors. Even in our neighborhood, we were among the “good kids” – our friend Ashley G. scandalized me by saying in a bored, valley-girl tone. “You’re as pale as a ghost, Kati! Don’t you tan? I tan all the time. I wear my bikini and lay outside.” Add in that her parents looked like Hells Angels and her dad carried a gun at all times, and Ashley G. was definitely edgy in my mind. And bound to get skin cancer by age 10.
Then there were my classmates like Kaylee, whose deteriorating apartment community included a giant retention pond. My mom always warned us not to go near retention ponds, and here was this complex with one front-and-center – with a brazen fountain in the middle! At Kaylee’s house for her 6th birthday, a girl my age told me about trying beer. That HER DAD GAVE HER. I was scandalized, picturing a father convincing his daughter to slam back cans of Budweiser (instead of the more likely scenario of the dad letting her have one sip so she’d stop asking what it tasted like.) The girl also had a broken arm, so I worried about her home life. (I paid close attention during lessons about stranger danger and child abuse.) Later, I was talking with Kaylee’s mom and grandmother when I asked her mom, “How old are you?”
“I’m 23,” she said.
I was an advanced mathematician for kindergarten. “So… you had Kaylee when you were 17?!” She nodded.
“But that’s too young to have a baby!” Her grandmother cracked up. I wasn’t sure if I should have said that; I wasn’t trying to make her mom feel bad, but maybe it did. I was merely amazed by the idea of a teenager having a baby. I knew my parents were 30 when I was born, and had been married for 6 years before that. When my mom came to pick me up, the grandmother gleefully told her what I’d said. My mom’s face went red.
“Oh no, I’m so sorry!” The grandmother replied that she shouldn’t be sorry, because I was right.
All of this to say, I actually WAS around some “wild” families, what with the tanning and guns and teen pregnancy, but just about anything seemed wild at that point. Ashley R. had her own phone in her room. Wild! Her dad drank beer. Wow! Her mom might have occasionally taken the Lord’s name in vain. How exhilarating! When I came over, we often watched “Saved by the Bell,” “COPS,” or -oooh- cable TV. AND – Ashley knew all the latest songs. At some point during kindergarten or 1st grade, probably in 1993, she offered to make me a mix tape and I readily accepted.
After dinner, my little sister and I went into my room and put on the cassette. We were so excited. We instinctively knew we should listen to it secretly first, to decide if we could play it around our parents.
Oh man! The very first song was “Bad Boys,” the song from COPS! I loved that song! It sounded so dangerous and cool! And it was on a show about CRIMINALS! We both knew we’d entered a new phase of life, one where we were cool, because we owned a tape with “Bad Boys” on it. What next?! Leather jackets?!
But before the song could end, my dad opened the door. “Girls! Are you listening to rap music?!” The prototypical early-90s suburban parent’s nightmare – his innocent children being corrupted by that hardcore gangsta rap music. Before I could answer, he had crossed the room, snatched the tape out of the machine, and walked back out. We never saw the tape again.
I STILL like the song to this day. I also like rap, but obviously this is pure reggae. Next time I see my dad, I might just blast it. He doesn’t remember this incident, naturally. My mom has said that’s how his parents were, swooping in without asking questions or considering the kid’s feelings, so it was a mere reflex on his part. But for us, “Bad Boys” was our passport to being cool and edgy, and it was revoked almost as soon as it was issued.