I'm Down (book)
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I'm Down is a memoir by the American author Mishna Wolff, originally published by St. Martin's Press in 2009. In the book she relates her experience of being white while growing up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood and having a different financial situation and culture than the other white children at her gifted student public school program filled with mostly white kids. She fights for acceptance in her neighborhood as she is perceived as "too white" while she struggles with acceptance (and accepting others) in her prestigious school. Mishna has trouble dealing with bullying from her peers, meeting the expectations her father sets for her (no matter how unusual they seem), the pressure she puts on herself, and learning who she is while society is pushing and pulling her into what they want her to be. She competes with the children in her neighborhood to be the funniest, the meanest, and the toughest while she strives to be rich, successful, and seemingly carefree like her school friends. When she returns home to her father and his many girlfriends and potential wives, she suppresses her school side to impress her father, while at her mom's house and at school she suppresses her neighborhood life to appeal to her mother. The theme of the book is the conflict she faces as she discovers two very different cultures and how they clash in her own life while she is stressed to discover herself as well. She spends the book (her life) trying to figure out which culture, which household, which side of the family she belonged to.
Mishna Wolff is a little girl growing up in two households of divorced parents with two very different personalities and cultures. Her Father lives in Seattle in a place called Rainier Valley. Rainier Valley is considered to be the ghetto of the area that they are living in and Mishna has a difficult time making friends, primarily because she is white. So are her father and mother. Her father, however, grew up with black friends in a black neighborhood and basically grew up black. His only friends were black and if you asked, he would probably tell you he was black. He wanted his children to act black. This set up Mishna for an interesting childhood as she watched Anora, her sister, make more friends with people on their street than Mishna could understand.
As Mishna was forced farther from home and more into the arms of her neighbors by her father, she came to realize very quickly what it was they didn't like about her. The color of her skin posed problem to the small, black children at her daycare center who already had a hundred racist slang words for her. She slowly found a way to fit in through jokes and mean words that her daycare peers spread like manners (please's and thank you's). She learned how to "cap", which is just a fancier way of saying that one must throw insults at another person while everyone else listens and laughs along. "Cappin'" was Mishna's way of fitting in, and it worked, but from then on she was forced to constantly prove to everyone else she was "worthy" of hanging with the black crowd.
Mishna also has a great moral compass and has a difficult time watching her sister, who has many more friends than she does and the approval of their father-which she longs for -, make bad decisions over and over. She has a harder time watching her sister being praised for them instead of punished, which is what Mishna finds appropriate. her sister shop lifts, plays tug-of-war with doors at school, and even gets caught smoking at a young age and her father laughs it off saying every time, "She learned her lesson." even though it's obvious that Anora learned nothing from it. Mishna learned how to watch herself and keep herself in line and when she didn't she normally knew the right decision, she just chose not to make it.
While Mishna was struggling with fitting in and living at home, she had to come to terms with the fact that her father was getting girlfriends and meeting new women. Mishna met a few of them, like Dominique. Dominique was a woman who seemed to love kids the first few times she met Anora and Mishna but quickly she took off her mask and showed everyone her true colors. She disliked kids and she told them every chance she got. This is something children of divorced parents might have to deal with over time but this was just another weight on Mishna's shoulders.
As Mishna got older, people began to see that she was not challenged in school. Her mother looked into a better school for her and found IPP, Individual Progression Program. At IPP each student is given tasks that they have to complete in their own time in their own way, as long as they are done. This is also the place where Mishna makes her first interaction with upper class white children from rich families. These kids tear her apart just as much as the black children in her neighborhood did because she is poor and not as well off as the rest of them. While she tries to fit in with the upper class white kids at her new school, she struggles with keeping the personality and friendships that she has made with the people and situations she has been in during her past. Her father and neighborhood friends can see her changing and they don't like it.
When Dominique stops coming around the Wolff household and they stop going over to her house, Mishna wonders what's happened to her. Not long after, however, her father finds a new women named Yvonne to mingle with. Yvonne takes it upon herself to keep Mishna from the tomboy looks that she has and decides she will turn her into a woman. Yvonne and Mishna's father eventually get married and that's when Yvonne gets vicious with Mishna and treats her terribly until she will start supporting herself financially. Yvonne also accuses Mishna of being a racist and that really hits Mishna hard because she doesn't see herself as one but Yvonne's persistence begins to convince her of otherwise.
As Mishna spends more and more time with her white friends, she becomes more and more envious of their home lives full of endless presents and infinite amounts of alone time with their many possessions.Mishna just can't seem to understand why they are so unhappy with their lives. Mishna learns, slowly but surely, that materials aren't everything and there are different kind of problems other than being hungry and being poor. Being rich has its issues as well and you need love from your family just as much as you need food in your belly or a shelter over your head. She also has to accept that happiness is harder to achieve than it seems.
The pressure of seeing what lives her school friends have set up for them gives Mishna unrealistic ideas of how life works. She only sees the extremes: extreme wealthy and extreme poverty. her mother has to sit her down and talk to her about how unrealistic those thoughts really are and that even if she doesn't go to such prestigious colleges as her friends go to, that doesn't mean she's going to end up living on the street or never get a job in her life like she assumes. Mishna's head is slightly in the clouds because she is only exposed to these two extremes, so she doesn't see the other possibilities that are in store for her.
Mishna's father puts her through several different sports so she can make friends and also so that she can find something she is truly good at. After a few incidents during track season and an interesting basketball season, she finally finds her calling: swimming. Mishna swims competitively and she's really good at it and she loves it because her father knows nothing about it. She and her swimming team get together and swim at Lake Washington. Mishna is a fast swimmer and she knows that she can get across with ease, even though its a very long swim. She is distraught when her father says he's going to swim with her and her swim team. He wants to do it so they can do something together and keep their relationship going even though she moved out of his home. She becomes worried that her dad will not make it across the lake and decides to sacrifice her chance to swim so that he won't tire himself out trying to keep up with her. She gets out of the lake and into the help boat, swallowing her pride, and watches her dad swim the rest of the way.
Afterward, her dad takes her and her sister to McDonald's. As Mishna leaves to go back home with her mother she notices a look in her dad's eyes that shows her that he has always and will always love her.
- I'm Down by Mishna Wolff