We lived in Leavenworth for two years while my father attended the Army Command and General Staff College, which is sort of masters program for military officers. While the move from Hawaii to Kansas was culturally jarring, living on quiet Leavenworth was really...nice. The Army community there was very tightly knit, and for the first time in my life I attended public school, not a private Catholic school. Dressing on the first day was so stressful; I chose poorly when I showed up with an oversized mustard cut-off with equally large and mustardy MC-Hammar pants with hieroglyphic-like designs all over them. Luckily, my new friends had short memories, or were mostly fashion-dense themselves.
As was my family's habit to soak in as much as possible while being stationed in a new state, we went to work seeing the sights and historical places in the area. I don't remember many of them; embarrassingly, American history wasn't interesting to me until I read The Worst Hard Times a few years ago. I was a good student but lived in a small, comfortable little bubble where my friends and their opinions (thankfully not of my clothing choices) were more important than national news and presidential happenings. I remember--vaguely--that President Reagan ended the Cold War and liked jelly beans. These two facts seemed to be on par with each other. I'll be kind to my younger self and explain I wore a sort of blinders that thoroughbreds wear while racing. Those blinders keep the horses from freaking out when other horses come up along side of them. My blinders kept me happy and hunky-dory in my own small existence as a freshman in high school. There was a bigger world out there? Really?
I don't remember many tourist destinations, but I do remember visiting the Eisenhower Presidential Center, located in Ike's boyhood home of Abilene, Kansas. I'm sure it was my dad's idea, but we all went as a family. We drove two hours through what I considered then to be unexciting flat country. Part of my boredom in looking out at the unchanging scenery was due partly to the fact that I'd been spoiled with short drives through gorgeous, exotic Hawaii. And partly to the fact that I was 15 and impressed with very little.
But what did impress me when I got there were the throngs of tourists! Who'd have expected that there were so many camera-toting Japanese tourists in Abilene, Texas?! The surprise of seeing a gaggle of Japanese tourists just like we'd seen so many times in places around Hawaii woke me out of my teenage ennui. I even took a picture of them with my film-toting camera. While I chuckled, my parents smartly realized that something bigger drew them here; there was most likely a specific draw that attracted them to this fairly random museum. My mom went to check it out. My dad, big sister, and I stood around our car, waiting for her report.
She came back, animated and excited. "Margaret Thatcher is here!"
All of their heads snapped to my empty one. There was silence. I think they were trying to figure out if I was trying to be funny. I wasn't. And then, they all started laughing. It wasn't such a mean laugh--okay, well, my sister's was mean but she didn't have any other kind of laugh (especially at 17) so her laugh actually was mean. My parents were honestly and simply stunned that I didn't even know the name Margaret Thatcher, let alone the fact that she was the first female Prime Minister of the UK or that she'd been serving as Prime Minster for longer than I'd been breathing.
It was that day--that very moment on that day--that I realized what it felt like to be mortified. Luckily I was surrounded by my loving family, so my mom dispatched appropriate "there, there" murmerings and my father reassured me "it's ok, Kate" while shaking his head with a smile. My sister? She still cackles what feels like a judgment-filled laugh to this day, more than two decades later. Of course, her reaction is why the experience still stings today.
I knew then that I had to pull my head out of my bubble and get a clue. It wasn't easy realizing I was on the ignorant side of the spectrum, but I was humble enough to know that I should know more. At least a little. And so, I ate my oversized slice of humble pie and...I grew from it. What else do you do in a situation like that?