I occasionally recall an encounter my family and I had with a man in Wyomissing in 2004. Wyomissing is a suburb of Reading, Pennsylvania. We moved here in the summer of 2003 from Vermont, and initially rented an apartment. A few months later, we began to search for a house to buy.
We drove one afternoon to a new housing development in a nearby Reading suburb. As we walked through the area, we saw a man working in front of his garage. We went over to say hello and ask him a few questions about the neighborhood.
The man, who was white, appeared to be in his early forties. We asked him how he liked the place. He cheerfully spoke highly of it, but his tone changed suddenly when we mentioned that we lived in Wyomissing. He told us that he used to live there, but had moved because he found the people there quite snobbish. We were shocked.
Wyomissing being a predominantly white suburb, it was perplexing to hear a white man say that he couldn’t stand its people. A rather small town, Wyomissing is the most affluent of the Reading suburbs. It is known in the county as the place where doctors, lawyers, and wealthy businessmen live. The population is actually more mixed than that (I live here), but that is how most people in the district see the town. It also happens to be a quiet place where people are not out and about much, relative to the other suburbs.
Although Wyomissing residents mostly keep to themselves and their families, there are broader social interactions through house parties and community events. In the few months that we had lived in the town, we had met some of the locals at various social events, and had not sensed anything troubling about how they related to us.
Because we had young children, and the Wyomissing public schools are considered the best in the area, my wife and I decided to buy a house here. Fortunately, we have similar temperaments so she had no trouble adjusting to life here either.
We have lived in Wyomissing for twenty years now, and have nothing but positive things to say about the community.
In our encounter with the man, he gave no details about what had made him feel so isolated in Wyomissing, and how long he lived here before deciding to move. But what he said brought back some unpleasant childhood memories.
One of the great benefits of being an author is that you get asked many intriguing questions by lots of people from everywhere. One reader of my book, The Boy from Boadua, liked it and contacted me on Facebook. She is from Switzerland but currently lives in Germany. Because we are both avid readers, we have since communicated numerous times online and talked on Zoom about many other books. We have become friends through those interactions.
In one recent conversation, she asked me about an experience I shared in my book. When I was a student at Achimota, an exclusive secondary school in Ghana’s capital city, Accra, I could hardly relate to anyone on the campus so I mostly kept to myself. I was an unsophisticated village boy who grew up in a place without basic amenities like electricity and indoor plumbing. I had spent entire summers and other breaks from school working on my father’s farm.
In contrast, the other Achimota students were mostly children of the elite who lived in fancy homes with every possible amenity. I did not know of a single student on the campus who had ever worked on a farm. Many spent their summer vacations overseas, in places like London, Paris, and New York.
My Swiss friend wanted to know how I managed to survive on that campus for two years. I hadn’t thought about that question before, but the answer came to me right away. I told her that my childhood life has given me the ability to live within myself whenever I need to.
My father’s farm was located deep inside a jungle. He lived there alone most of the time. There were a couple of small villages, each about two miles away on opposite sides of his farm, but due to the impenetrability of the forest, they were quite distant in reality. Being on the farm amounted to complete isolation from civilization.
The work was backbreaking. My father had done many types of such physically demanding work throughout his life, and over time, he had built up the stamina of an endurance athlete. He was a perpetual motion machine on the farm. My brother and I, his helpers, were still boys—weaklings—who constantly struggled to keep up. We mostly worked in silence because the pace was so furious and exhausting that no one had the time and energy to carry on any conversation. Even when we retired to the tiny hut on the farm in the evenings, we remained quiet because we were too drained. Day in day out, all three of us essentially kept whatever thoughts we had to ourselves. That is how I learned to live within myself.
Life on the farm was extremely difficult, but the experience gave me a tremendous gift. My ability to adapt to different environments developed from that.
Nowadays, whenever I recall our encounter with the man, it somehow brings the notion of safe spaces to mind. On some American college campuses, administrators have created separate spaces where students from marginalized groups can meet and socialize. The idea is that such students need some distance from the microaggressions—racism, bullying, offensive speech, and other forms of harassment—that they might otherwise be subjected to during their interactions with the broader campus communities. The intent may be noble, but I fear that its costs outweigh the benefits.
Only a tiny percentage of the world’s population is born into privilege. Those lucky ones don’t have to struggle much in life. Everyone else has to live life the hard way. Life is doubly difficult if one also happens to be a member of a marginalized group, as in my case. The resilience it takes to overcome the many challenges that come our way throughout our lives can only be acquired by carefully learning how to deal with adversity. It is quite ironic therefore that some of the young people who need to develop this character trait the most, are the very ones who are being robbed of the opportunity to do so. Wrapping them in cushy blankets by creating safe spaces for them is a great disservice.
When civil engineers design bridges, they stress-test them to make sure they can withstand anomalous loads and unexpected forces. Humans similarly need exposure to adverse conditions periodically. Being put through the wringer in the jungle was how I acquired the resilience I needed to overcome the many obstacles I have faced in life.