“You belong here” was Western Michigan University’s advertising/public relations slogan probably fifteen or twenty years ago. I was teaching at Kalamazoo Central at the time, and as always, we were trying to figure out how to make inroads on our absentee problem. The catch-phrase from WMU really stuck with me. “If we can make students feel they belong at Kalamazoo Central, they will come every day. Everyone needs someplace to belong,” I thought. The line was brought sharply home to me again as I read Evicted. How would it be to have no place to belong? How would that affect how we live daily life? No place to belong: what a tragedy.
In the short story “A Man Without a Country” (1863) by Edward Everett Hale, the punishment for Philip Nolan’s treason is that he is never to hear about or to set foot on American soil again, being instead shuttled from Navy ship to Navy ship. He eventually recognizes it as the cruel punishment it is. He has nothing to cling to, no place to belong.
Neither do the renters in Evicted. They know that they will likely not stay in one place long enough to find a neighborhood or their children find a “home” at a single school. Some try to create a homey space wherever they are; others do not bother. They know that they and all they own could soon be on the curb. They and all they own are marked as worthless.
When we first moved to Kalamazoo thirty-five years ago, we rented a house for six months so we could see what neighborhood and what schools were right for us. I did not hang pictures on the walls, I did not put up curtains. I left boxes unpacked for when I would be somewhere permanent. I knew only one woman in the neighborhood; I did not get involved in PTA because I wouldn’t be there long enough. I felt pretty wretched and rootless, even though I knew I would soon experience the shoulder-muscle-relaxation feeling of walking into my home. Never to have that feeling is a true tragedy, a tragedy that is the way of life for too many of our fellow citizens.
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”: perhaps I would add “and a place to belong.” As citizens of our community we need to do a better job of seeing that those around us have access to all four.
Sherry Ransford-Ramsdell, Reading Together Steering Committee