A Belated Sympathy Card for Cliff Ashpaugh
In my mind’s eye, I can see the card in its pink envelope sliding down the clear plastic trash can liner, alongside someone else’s mini doughnut wrapper. The bell had rung, and everyone had already gone to class.
It was a sympathy card for Cliff Ashpaugh, a classmate of mine. His younger brother, Thurman, had committed suicide the week before, and although I didn’t know Cliff well—had never hung out with him outside of school—I had known him since sixth grade. He was one of several scrawny, scrappy, long-haired kids in flannel shirts and Vans who hung out in front of the office of our new high school, ironic territory for the stoners to have staked a claim to. I had known Thurman only by sight as an even scrawnier, sweeter-faced version of Cliff, also in a flannel shirt.
When I had heard of Thurman’s suicide, I was heartbroken for Cliff. The year before, the older sister, since graduated, of a popular basketball player named Samantha had died, and during an assembly, Samantha placed a rose at the center of the basketball court and embraced her boyfriend while the whole school looked on and a few administrators wiped their eyes. I had never met Samantha’s sister Erica, but I felt sad for them, my adolescent mind realizing, via concrete evidence, that some die young.
There wasn’t any such ceremonious Banning High School sendoff for Thurman. He was a freshman and we were juniors. He was uninvolved in sports or student government. What he was involved in was speed. It’s not to say that it was wrong of the school to publicly grieve a girl who had been highly visible; it wasn’t. It’s just that Thurman had fallen through the cracks in every way. I found out in 2018 when talking to Cliff that the assistant principal at the time, Ms. Politiski, did show him some kindness in the events leading up to Thurman’s death; specifically, she apologized to him when she called him to the office to say that the cops had taken Thurman from school one day. “He got caught ditching and went berserk up there. They called the police, they locked Thurman in [Politiski’s office], and they busted his nose, his mouth—he had tried fighting the police. They had called me to calm Thurman down and they had to suitcase him out of there. There was blood all over her office. She told me she was sorry, but they had to.”
What was going on in Cliff’s family wasn’t just trouble-making; there were a lot of what social scientists call “comorbidities,” which means lots of bad stuff happening at once. In other words, people don’t just commit suicide out of the blue because they had a rough week: if you look at suicide longitudinally (meaning, if you study big groups of people who commit suicide), you’ll see clusters of alcohol and drug use, poverty, mental health issues, and so on.
In the Ashpaughs’ family, the scrawniness had a reason: when I talked to Cliff last year, he described the stark circumstances of his family’s poverty. His three younger brothers had moved back and forth between his mom’s place in Cabazon and his dad’s place in LA (which explains why I didn’t see Thurman regularly), but Cliff chose to stay in Cabazon, and quite literally was starving. “I would sneak in the lunch line at school and say I had free lunch,” he said, “and I figured out which lunch lady would just slide her hand across the list and not really read it, so I would get in her line. My mom didn’t know anything about welfare, she didn’t know anything about applying for free lunch. About four days a week, I didn’t have lunch. Coffee and homemade tortillas—that was the balance of my diet.” He described going four or five days in a row without a proper meal. It strikes me now, as I write this, that perhaps that lunch lady wasn’t lazy or dumb, but intentionally looking the other way, one of few caring adults who saw Cliff for what he was—a starving kid—and gave what was in her power to give.
Cabazon, for those unfamiliar, isn’t a city, but a “census-designated place,” windy and rocky and impoverished. As in: so windy, there are windmills nearby. As in, so rocky, you can see how that area was chosen for the nearby Morongo Indian reservation, as it looks completely infertile, dotted with head-sized white boulders. Banning and Cabazon and the rez were not, are not, the dreamin’ brand of California that people travel across the world to vacation in. The seasons are 1) nice (spring), 2) hot and dry (summer), 3) fire (fall), and 4) cold/rainy/windy (winter). My sister’s description of the quintessential Banning experience, where the wind is funneled through the San Gorgonio pass at freeway speeds on a regular basis during the fall, is “Your lips get chapped, so you put on Chapstick, and then the wind blows dirt and it sticks to your lips.” If you’re into chemical peels and the like for revealing a baby-new under-layer of skin, might I suggest you go stand on a blacktop playground at a Banning public school in shorts on a windy fall day? You’ll get a nice sandblasting effect on your legs. Cabazon is windier than Banning, and has the added luxury of one of the main access roads getting regularly washed out during El Nino years like the one in which Thurman died. Until the outlet mall was built when we were middle school, there wasn’t anything to see in Cabazon but a Hadley’s co-op grocery store and a couple of enormous concrete dinosaurs that you may recognize from movies and should be aware are very far from any other tourist attractions…that is, unless you’re looking for meth, a cheap house to rent, or both.
The first house I lived in was in Cabazon. My parents had bought two very tiny houses on a single lot there—I think each was about 800 square feet—and we moved out a few months later. We lived in a few oddball rentals around Banning and then my parents bought 20 acres outside of the Banning city limits, where I grew up as a mostly white, comparatively privileged kid who had music lessons and whose parents showed up to my basketball games and taught me to write sympathy cards.
You can be an outcast anywhere, regardless of your status relative to the rest of the world. You can be an outcast because you’re white, or you’re not white, or you’re privileged, or you’re not privileged, or you’re male or not or gay or not or good-looking or not and on and on and on. You can be an outcast because you think it’s cool to be an outcast or because you give up and act like a victim or because people really don’t like you and literally cast you out. In a town, and in an extended family, frankly, where it was definitely not cool to be white and privileged and have parents who were involved, I felt ashamed of who I was on a frequent basis, but I also couldn’t bring myself to want to be a part of the obliviously elite white world, so I constantly analyzed every social construct around me and dismissed them all as farcical. I was a straight-A student who belonged to no clubs and dropped out of basketball because, in our basketball-rabid town, the required level of dedication didn’t leave me any time for writing.
So then, one day, in my own flannel shirt, I, who had yet to try pot, was standing by the office with the stoners, one of whom was my definitely inculcated boyfriend, and someone asked where Cliff was, and someone else said he was absent because Thurman had committed suicide, and I froze. No one else seemed to have a shift in emotion. No one ran to the office for grievance counseling.
What I didn’t realize until years later, working for a non-profit in the psychology sector where I learned the word “comorbidity,” was that so many of the kids I grew up with had what psychologists call “flat affect.” It means reduced emotional expression. I don’t mean to make Banning out to be some kind of crazy, over-dramatized poverty-stricken drug and gang capital, and the interracial friendliness and access to outdoor activities now seem almost idyllic, but look: this was a poor town, so poor my classmate was starving. Eastern California is two hours and a world away from the glam and affluence of LA and the world-renown coastal areas. Even as part of the Inland Empire, a smoggy bowl of strip malls and atrophying agricultural towns, it’s an outpost. My high school population in the 1990s was about evenly split between Mexicans, whites, Blacks, and Laotian/Hmong refugees, plus we had a rez feeding into the district, but most everyone was poor. I had no concept of social class beyond having one “rich” friend whose dad was a veterinarian. Later, in college, I had a difficult time grasping anti-Semitism because whenever I looked at pictures of Jews and Nazis in history books, it looked to me like white people against white people, and I couldn’t see how anyone distinguish them, much less find a way to understand what had started such sentiments in the first place. Trying to understand complicated prejudices you don’t have context for is like trying to jump in on double-dutch: there’s no beginning and everything is constantly changing.
As an adult, I heard the comedian George Lopez say, “Hispanics don’t say ‘Congratulations,’ they say, ‘Oh, you think you’re bad now?’” and I laughed because in my town, it wasn’t just Mexicans (sorry, PC people, I had never heard the word “Hispanic” until I read it in a textbook; everyone I knew growing up said Indians and Mexicans without offense) who acted that way, it was everyone, regardless of race, and I began to understand social class and how race is just a distracting concept glossed over the top. Color is easy to spot and argue about. Money and power keep race at arm’s distance.
And I thought back on those stoner kids. I can remember them standing in the winter around the campus before school in short-sleeved T-shirts, lips purple, arms dry and goose-fleshed, jaws tight against the cold and laughing and saying, “Shit, I ain’t cold.” But come Christmas when someone got an actual quilted flannel shirt, he would be strutting in it daily. Of course they were cold. Banning in the winter, in the morning, could be in the low fifties with a wind chill in the thirties; Cabazon was colder in the winter and hotter in the summer, and always windier. The stoners went to class without backpacks and never seemed to have a pencil, either. I thought this was cool at the time; only later did I realize they probably didn’t have backpacks because most of them couldn’t afford them and manufactured cool from poverty out of pride, like anyone would. Cliff told me last year that part of why he struggled in school was because he couldn’t see—he was nearsighted. A lot of public schools screen kids for hearing and vision because it’s such a slam-dunk that kids who flunk out often have trouble with the basic input functions, but either Banning wasn’t screening in those days, or, with kids who are ditching and switching schools or absent because they can’t get a ride because their mom doesn’t have money for gas—Cliff’s circumstances again, by the way—they might miss the day screening takes place.
So there I was, this “white” girl who really had no business hanging out with stoners, and I knew one who had killed himself, and I felt heartbroken by it for his brother. So on my way home, I stopped at the Albertson’s that had just been opened in a new strip mall, and I stood in front of the cards and looked for a sympathy card, because that is what my parents had taught me to do in such a situation. I went home and I wrote in it, “Dear Cliff, I’m sorry about your brother. -Jesse” and put it in the envelope and sealed it up and put it in my backpack.
The next day, I got to the stoner hangout before school and set my backpack down, unzipped it, and pulled out the card. Cliff was standing with his friends, laughing and talking, as if nothing had happened. The bell rang, and they all went off to class, and I stood there with my stupid white girl card and waited until everybody walked away, and then I dropped it into the trash and watched it slide down to the bottom.
Maybe only a few kids truly had flat affect from living in terrible circumstances. But if you get enough of those kids, and you add some people who do drugs to deaden their emotional perception, and you add some loud people who have the balls to laugh at their problems, you wind up, eventually, with a culture, however small, in which there is no socially acceptable way to emote. Fortunately, Cliff told me when I spoke to him that several people did pull him aside and express sympathy to him, privately. And he’s still angry about how the principal treated him after Thurman’s death: he invited him to his office for a minute of silence over the PA, but gave him dirty looks when Cliff wouldn’t hang up until the full minute had elapsed. It was Ms. Politiski, the VP, who had again been the adult who cared, insisting on the moment of silence in the first place. But obviously, there was no melodramatic ceremony of Cliff placing a rose in the center of the basketball court while the assembled student body looked on.
For myself, what I have had to deal with is that I had the chance to show Cliff some kindness, and I chickened out in the face of myriad, subtle social pressures. Perhaps it was savvy of me to read the social landscape and guess that sticking my neck out like that could be awkward and unusual and further label me, to those who were critical of the characteristics to begin with, as white and privileged. But now I’m middle-aged, and I don’t care if people make fun of me anymore, so I called Cliff up to tell him I’m sorry for his loss, still sorry after all these years, and to ask him more about it. He told me all about it and of course there was more than I could have possibly known about all those years ago.
Cliff, I’m so sorry for your loss.
And to all the other kids who feel forgotten and alone and like they don’t quite fit: your life and your experiences are just as valid as anyone else’s, and you have a right to be here. So please stay.
Thank you so much to Cliff for sharing his story when I contacted him out of the blue in 2018. For those who are wondering, once Cliff got glasses courtesy of a friend’s mom and could earn enough money at a pizza joint to contribute to the family such that he and his remaining younger brothers ate regularly and were properly clothed, he pulled himself out of poverty in a feat worthy of a Reader’s Digest story, working his way up at a window manufacturing company over the years, taking courses on the side to learn his trade, improve his math, and write eloquently. He is now the IT/IS manager for their plant in Florida, which does $16M annually and is happily married with two daughters. He thinks about Thurman every day.
Note: my conversation with Cliff yielded plenty of additional material. I have used some of it to write a supplement for Feeding America – Inland Empire’s February donation solicitation in Thurman’s memory. Although hunger wasn’t the only factor in Thurman’s suicidality, it compounded the family’s problems, and had there been three squares a day, it’s not a leap to say things might have been different. Please join me in making a donation to Feeding America – Inland Empire this month in Thurman’s memory.