Okay, so I’m not actually a military brat. In fact, it could be argued that military brats have it all over me. ‘Cause when a military kid gets uprooted from Fort SomeGuy to Fort SomeOtherGuy, she finds herself surrounded by hundreds of uprootees her own age, kids who have been shuffled around and who might not have a lot of old friends but are pretty damn good at making new ones. There aren’t a lot of kids on military bases who have known each other since infancy; at some point, they’ve all been moved, sometimes several times. So if you need a friend and you’re looking for someone who needs a friend, you’re likely to find one. Maybe a couple.
It never worked out like that for me. My first move was at age five, from BFVirginia to BFTennessee, and then again at age ten to BFGeorgia, not because of the military but because of… well, that part I haven’t quite figured out yet. But by age ten I was a champ at making friends. I had the system down, I practically had the steps on a little laminated card in my lunchbox, and life was pretty good.
The second move was pretty hard on me. That’s a hard age, anyway, to uproot a kid, but I had a particularly tough time because when I hit elementary school in Georgia, everyone already had friends. I mean that quite literally; every child in my school had at least one friend already and had little to no interest in making any more. Some of them said so in so many words. As a person who could never have enough friends, I was completely baffled.
It didn’t seem to be something that kids grew out of, either. Kids left elementary school and went to middle school together (which was a fresh hell all its own), then left middle school together and went to high school together. In 2003, a good half of UGA’s student population came just from metro Atlanta. There are kids who were born next door to each other, went through grade school together, sat next door to each other at their college graduation, and then lived together when they moved back to Atlanta to get jobs. Jealous? You bet your sweet ass I am.
Looking back on things with the perspective of thirteen years, hours of psychotherapy and not a little bit of hard liquor, I’ve developed a theory on this; it hinges on the fact that the Deep South is resistant to change. You can see this in the “fergit hell” attitude of rebel-flag-waving Sons of the Confederacy who swear that Stonewall Jackson is going to leap bodily from the side of Stone Mountain and ride again victorious, and in the insistence that macaroni and cheese is a vegetable.
The antebellum south was a wholly agrarian society. That’s what they did all the time; hell, that’s part of the reason they started the war. If you didn’t have your own farm of any significance, you worked on someone else’s farm. When a kid grew up, he either went to work on his daddy’s farm or went to college, graduated, and came back to work on his daddy’s farm. In the industrial north, families moved as necessary to follow the work; in the south, they stayed put. A southern kid who misbehaved could anticipate a butt-whupping not only from his father but also from both uncles, his grandfather, and possibly his great-grandfather, ‘cause they all lived just a short buggy ride away, if that.
Fast forward a hundred and fifty years, give or take, and things haven’t much changed. Kids grow up and fly the nest, only to marry and return and start popping out kids right down the street from Mom and Dad. It’s not a bad thing; kids have the opportunity to develop close and meaningful friendships, and they get to really know their grandparents, which is harder to do when they live in the next state. A kid who can put down roots is guaranteed a familiar place to live and family close by.
At the same time, though, these kids are missing out on a lot. They never get the opportunity to really explore what’s out there to be explored. They never get to compare grits and cream of wheat, or hear Coke referred to as “pop”, or stretch their friend-making muscles to meet that kid with the funny accent. They never learn what it’s like to be an outsider, which can teach them sympathy to other outsiders, and they never get to make friends who look and sound different than they are. They aren’t blessed with diverse social groups of kids who speak different languages and carry lunchboxes full of weird and different foods. And if you don’t start ‘em young, sheltered kids can grow into xenophobic adults who never have the chance to enjoy a really fantastic plate of pad thai.
Parents need to give their kids the world, even if they never leave their hometowns. Six years old is not too young for your first calamari – tell the kid it’s squid, and he cleans his plate. Korean food is great for babies who eat with their hands anyway. That new kid with the weird flag on his backpack should be the most popular guy at school, because, hey, I’ve never been to Kenya. A kid who can look at weird and see cool, who doesn’t see a weird accent or a lunchbox full of weird food as an impediment to friendship, can be the most popular kid in school.