Ruth Scobie’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
Good morning everyone, shall we get started? Has everyone got a handout?
OK, last week I was talking about Anne Lister as a nineteenth-century woman traveller and industrialist, and about the significance of particular geographical locations as loci of economic or emotional power.
If anyone has any questions about their essays there’ll be time at the end.
Now, I think I mentioned how important the city of York was in this period as a social and cultural centre, and that Lister received some of her education there. Despite being expelled as a teenager, Lister revisited the Manor School in York more than once, including a school concert in December 1821.
This may seem strange, but remember that by her late twenties Lister was not only known to be heir to her uncle’s estate but had moved into Shibden Hall, and was an important enough member of local society that she could hardly, as she noted in her journal, avoid being shown “the music, dancing, specimens of work etc., of the schoolgirls.” She did not enjoy the visit in 1821, adding in code that the only company had been “vulgar girls & a few others, & the rag, tag & bobtail there.”
More revealingly, perhaps, she admitted that she had been uncomfortable to be accompanied by Marianna Lawton, her long-term lover, who lived in York. Lister had begun the previous year by burning the poetry of a male admirer and writing the decisive statement that “I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”
If you’ve got questions that’s great, we’ll have time later.
It’s 1998 in Finneytown, Ohio. I’m seven years old and treading water in the YMCA pool. So is my twin sister. The swim instructor, a blond, nondescript woman wearing one of those ugly block color bathing suits is standing at the edge of the pool. A few weeks later, she will save my life when I jump into the deep end, trying to impress my dad with my newly acquired swimming acumen. My dad, back from a long trip to the Gambia, will think I’m waving to him. But that’s not for a few weeks. Right now the swimming instructor is perplexed. It is Friday, October 31. Around 6pm in the evening. And we are the only kids in the pool.
“Aren’t you going to go trick-or-treating?” she asks us.
In retrospect, maybe she wasn’t concerned so much with the social repercussions of our not trick-or-treating as she was irritated that she still had to teach that Friday night.
“No,” we both say.
Of all the American rituals to explain to a foreigner, Halloween is the hardest. It just sounds so dangerous. Dressing up in costumes that make you indistinguishable from one another, knocking on the doors of strangers (white people most likely) and begging for candy. Maybe your neighbors aren’t supposed to be strangers, but when you’re immigrants and your base knowledge of America is supplied by CNN and Jamie Lee Curtis movies, it makes sense to be cautious. I mean, when you really think about, it wasn’t a big surprise my parents said heck no to Halloween.
There has only ever been one Halloween-themed episode of television. It was during the fifth season of Boy Meets World. It was called “And Then There Was Shawn.” It starred Jennifer Love Hewitt. It is the greatest half-hour of one of the greatest shows of all time.
In school, there were rules. You stuck with the kids from your neighborhood. In the instances when we were forced to interact with Eastie kids, especially the black kids, it was confusing for everybody—I know I’m supposed to hate you but I have to pick you for my kickball team. So then we would be friends for that brief period of time, but it was a distant, temporary friendship. I was aware that I couldn’t get too close to them. I figured if I were friends with a black kid, it would confirm to everyone that I was really black. I was managing an already teetering identity in Southie, and I couldn’t afford it. Besides, they didn’t want to be friends with me either. They saw me as a race traitor, a white wannabe, a defector.
Any new kid I met—black, white, or whatever—had just one question for me: “What are you?” Always. I learned quickly that my mother’s answer didn’t work. “I’m Irish” was met with skepticism, laughter, or confusion: “And what else?” Even adults would give me a fake smile, and I knew they didn’t believe me. Black kids would say, “Oh, you think you’re white, bitch?” Spanish kids just spoke Spanish to me—“¿Cómo se llama?”—and when I stood there in silence, they called me “puta,” sucked their teeth, and walked away.
Making friends is hard, especially if you’ve never had them. Most of us learn the intricacies of friendship and romance as we grow up, giving us years to navigate that complicated social, sexual, and emotional landscape… and just as importantly, giving us years to heal what pain and heartache come with the territory.