“Come back and see us, Wil. We’ll be right here. Nothing changes in the Ridge but the seasons.” – Beautiful Girls
I grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Woodridge. When I was young I had very little sense of socioeconomic status. At least how it works, anyways. Its fluidity or at least its impermanence as it pertains to large swathes of population. Or maybe it’s that I’ve always been bad with local geography? I just remember that, growing up, we were like the middle guys money-wise in Woodridge. Bolingbrook was poorer, Downers Grove was a step above – and places like Oak Brook and Naperville were for gazillionaires.
It’s funny how things shift. Bolingbrook seems about where Woodridge was when I was a kid while Downers for the most part seems like it’s for whatever the adult version of gazillionaires are. Oak Brook and Naperville still seem like they’re for multi-gazillionaires but that’s probably because from an economics standpoint I’m not really the adult version of a person myself. Woodridge, meanwhile, has certainly stepped it up. We still have our areas of socioeconomic diversity, whereas I feel like those towns “above us” have none or very little, and I hope that never changes. For us anyways. Woodridge feels like Woodridge because of its diversity. Diversity feels like home to me.
First off, I have to stop calling my town by its proper name. You see, my admittedly mostly white friends from the area and I were light heartedly teased in high school by the Downers Grove constituency of our friend circle for basically being from the other side of the tracks. It was mostly in jest but to some degree they were right. It was rougher where we grew up than where they did. Not, like, “Chi-raq” rough but we played it up and took on the blue collar, rough around the edges personas like badges of honor. We, compared to them, were gangster. We embraced it. And this was the time when stuff like Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society were all the rage which (hilariously in retrospect) puffed us up even more. We took to calling our town “The Ridge” and our favorite line was always “Hope you can make your way down Janes Avenue” – the street all of us lived on or near growing up where the apartments were and still are. There were other apartments in town but the Janes avenue apartments were “The Apartments”. I grew up in them until grade school when we moved to the street that dead ends right at the school where I grew up to become a teacher at.
I did not attend the school I am now teaching at because my grandparents paid for my brothers and I to attend the Catholic school across the creek. I would also follow in my uncle, their son’s, footsteps my freshman year and attend a Catholic high school for one year. I didn’t know any better, and most tenets of the religion have not stuck, but I thought my schooling was great for the most part. I said earlier that my awareness of socioeconomic disparity was maybe not so sharp. I just meant how it was able to fluctuate and change over time. As probably the poorest kid going to the one school where it seems all the richer parents sent their kids to protect them from public school kids and trappings, I was aware of the economic divide.
Since growing up (or whatever this is) I have taken to calling my friends and I who grew up in the Ridge, “Ridge Kids”. I went to the fancy school but was not a fancy kid. My parents both worked. Lots. I was the 4th grader who made school lunches and did laundry. I did not come from what lots of Ridge Kids do which is either divorced parents, or addict parents, or otherwise abusive parents. I was a Ridge Kid with all the financial downfalls that comes with it because my parents had 3 kids by the time they were 21. Imagine that! So my dad usually worked until late at night and my mom pretty much worked 19 hours a day and slept the other 5. Back then it was all I knew so I didn’t blame them or think I was missing out on anything on the family front. Despite the long hours my mom never missed a game of mine or my brothers. My dad coached. They were involved in Cub Scouts and stuff. Their life was their kids. But part of that included working all the all the all the time. Obviously when I look back I do do so in awe and admiration.
So I did know what it was to be poor simply in comparison to those I went to school with. Had I been in the public school system I would have still been on the low end, but not on the bottom like I was. When it came time for my family to buy our first house I was (rightfully) chastised for not knowing how to comport myself in front of a potential seller and real estate agent, bounding down the front steps, overjoyed that a house on the street I grew up playing football on with my grade school chums was for sale and in our range. This is not how you play this game, apparently. But, it was the next neighborhood over from where I grew up and so many of my friends lived on that block. I actually currently teach the daughter of my best buddy who lived directly across the street from the house we bought! It wasn’t the nicest block in town, or the nicest town in the area. But I did know that my friends and I had cultivated great pride in being Ridge Kids. It actually started as kind of an ironic joke made to placate our fancier friends but definitely became something we proudly identified with. I was and am proud to raise my kids as Ridge Kids as well.
So I grew up on the street and I bought in the next neighborhood over and I now teach on the same street but I am also a traveler. I do not just love my town because it’s the only one I know. My family moved to a town near Clearwater, Florida the summer before my senior year in high school. Soon after graduation and turning 18 I moved back home. Between 18 years old and just a little while before I found out I was to become a dad I actually moved back and forth between Illinois and Florida every 6 months or so with an 8 month stop in New York. During one of those times in my early 20’s I actually moved back into one of those apartments I lived at as a toddler, on Janes Avenue, with some of my fellow Ridge Kid buddies. I didn’t get planted and stay, but my roots have always been strong.
I decided to finally write this today because being a Ridge Kid permeates so much of my everyday life and has constantly leaked into this blog. Yesterday I wrote about music and going to shows and I remembered, last night, while reflecting on that post, my first Smashing Pumpkins show. My friends and I loved them. We had the literal back row of the then Rosemont Horizon (I guess we’re supposed to call it Allstate Arena now), the band was at the peak of their popularity, and all that bombastic, plaintive, sonic wailing reverberated off that back wall and ito our young souls. I remember, very clearly, that night the lead singer Billy Corgan told the hometown crowd about how, in this part of the show, he tries to always connect with their main demographic of angsty young people by telling them to look at him up there all rock star and famous and realize that he was once in their place and made it all happen for himself and so can they. But on this night Billy pointed up at us, at me, a speck all the way up in the rafters and said that while he usually says this in every arena, when he is here, at home, he means it literally. He has sat there where we are – in that suburban Chicago youth cesspool of chains and barricades that teenagers of a certain ilk see everywhere. It resonated in ways and depths I’ll never forget. And now I say that to my students and I say it with pride and I say it with confidence. “I was once where you’re at right now” – I can actually say that! They can confide in me because I am them. They are Ridge Kids. My people. I know their hardships and even if it wasn’t firsthand I grew up faithful friends of kids who went through exactly the same stuff. All of it. They know I am them and they know, even if I am Ridge Kid strict with them one day, that when they come back in the next day they are greeted clean slate, and that the love never went. That the love is in the disappointed look. The love is in the push toward betterment. They know that I know that Ridge Kids are handed nothing. We earn what we get and don’t spend tons of time bragging about it because we know it can be taken away.
I have a dream job. Even when it’s hard and draining. I have MY dream job. Teaching itself is the dream to me. I always knew, and told people, that I would wind up teaching in The Ridge. I thought it would be like ten years down the line. I don’t have tenure yet but this is my dream job so I will work to hold on tight and go above and beyond in order to keep it. I very much love the thrill and learning aspects of travel. And while I may never have a house here again, or even any sort of domicile owned in what is now a pretty upscale little town, thankyouverymuch, The Ridge will always be home sweet home. Because this Ridge Kid loves kids so very much, but there is definitely a special place in my heart for the Ridge Kids I get to work with everyday.