Years ago I was having a political discussion with a fellow military officer. We disagreed, of course, and he inevitably mentioned something about me needing to spend more time in “real America.” (We’ll come back to that misnomer later). When I asked what he meant, he clarified middle America, the small towns and rural areas that make up the bulk of this country (if we’re going by land).
I couldn’t help but to laugh. Aside from my countless country miles, VFW beers, and diner dinners spent in rural America during my running, I spent the first 18 years of my life in an old farmhouse outside an unincorporated village of 200 people. When I was young, my mother’s childhood home came up for sale – my father didn’t want to move his kids “into town.” I’m a fiercely proud country kid and still, decades after moving, feel a deep and persistent connection to that place. The smell of corn leaves as the dawn begins to dry the night dew, the chirp of crickets and bullfrog croaks as the sun sets over the day’s planting – these memories are as vibrant as the patchwork of fields that pepper “flyover country.”
Chronically homesick, I still cry at least once a summer, usually when some old country song comes on the radio. No matter how hot the southern sun, I roll the windows down and let the whipping wind bring me right back to being 16, surrounded by people I’ve known and loved my whole life, parked in some bottom or back farm road. Radio too loud, beer too cheap, and up way too late for my own good.
I loved and still deeply love my hometown, and my relationship with it, while complicated at times, is a constant. More than that, the values and principles I learned in those fields and in that two-hallway high school are my foundation, not just of my work ethic or accent (“it’s so hard to place,” an ambassador recently mused), but also the foundation of my political and social values.
I explained my roots to my colleague. He countered with “Yeah, but you were an anomaly if I remember correctly. Born to highly educated parents at a higher income bracket than your neighbors?”
If High School is “highly educated” and union wages are considered higher income (which, at a time, maybe).
He could just not understand how I could be a liberal. It went against the popular, but often false, narrative that east coasters and city dwellers were the radical leftists and rural America were dyed in the wool conservatives. Ultimately, he concluded that I had, like so many others, been brainwashed by my liberal education and “forgotten where I came from.”
A phrase I’ve heard more times than I care to, a phrase, often uttered by many in the very place I “come from.” A phrase that equally angers me and sends me into a spiral of self-doubt and rumination. A phrase that is wholly untrue. I haven’t forgotten where I’m from, quite the opposite really. The further I get from my time in Illinois, the more deeply and solidly those roots grow, the more I lean on those lessons and that foundation.
We always joke back home that nothing ever changes, but that’s not true. Everything changes, and for me, I’ve noticed that change in myself, sure, but also in the town that raised me. I can’t help but to wonder what it would be like to grow up there now.
I wonder if my high school civics teacher would have gotten harassed for teaching us about Kwanzaa. I wonder if 15 white kids in dyed geles speaking swahili or learning about Emmitt Till would have been considered “Critical Race Theory.” I wonder if our “civil rights march” fundraiser, which brought me to Memphis to learn about the plight and the power of Black America – if that would have been labeled as too radical, if people would have accused the school of being corrupted by the Black Lives Matter movement. What about the annual ”Testicle Festival” with the farmer “beauty pageant.” Would the talking heads have tried to outlaw children’s attendance because of the dangers of drag? I bet my father would have been branded a hippie feminist for teaching his daughters to throw a football before we knew what make-up was – or if his cutoff short shorts and long hair (which he’s been known to straighten) would have had the neighbors questioning his own masculinity.
I wonder if the grace and understanding offered to my family as my brother battled drug addiction – if that would have been considered “soft on crime.” Or the union wages that kept my family warm and fed – if that would have been branded as socialism. If the hand-me-downs I wore would have been seen as hand-outs. I wonder what the parents would have thought about our co-ed locker room, in which my fellow cross-country runners and I bonded over sweaty workouts and oldies music.
I wonder, but not too much, because deep down I know the answers. I know that all those things, those foundational experiences, would have been twisted by the Glenn Becks and the Tucker Carlsons of the world. I know that they would have been seen, not as shining examples of how rural culture builds strong, diverse, and fiercely compassionate women and men, but of how the liberal elites were trying to erase the small-town values and principles, our very identities.
I’m progressive for a lot of reasons, but not the least of which is because I grew up in a small town. I grew up in a place where people looked out for one another and accepted their flaws – because there are no skeletons, no secrets in a small town, hell our struggles and failures were often printed in the newspaper. We were all in glass houses so best we left the stones in the driveway. I grew up giving to the local church or shelter and not demanding to know who was taking on the other end – or how many job applications they had put in that week. I grew up with a grandmother who loved books and knowledge because through reading she “could go anywhere in the world.” She didn’t look down upon education or think there was a limit to how much someone could learn. I learned in a school that integrated students with special needs and with parents that took us to the local developmental center regularly. I grew up knowing people were different and that wasn’t something to be scared or hateful of. I grew up in a high school with teachers who tackled the messy concepts like anti-semitism and small town snobbery, who taught us how to run internet lines so that we could see and learn about the world outside the village limits, who advocated for me to attend college at 15 and for my peers to attend vocational courses – not because one was better than the other, but because one was a better fit that the other, and because they knew the world needed both. I came of age in a county where birth control was free and accessible, because the health department knew the importance of planning a family and giving young women control over their bodies.
It wasn’t perfect, not by any means. We battled, and still battle, xenophobia, racism, misogny, drug addiction, violence, and sexual assault. We have all the problems of any community, but now we have the additional struggle of political tribalism. Our “us” versus “them” mentality has been maxed out, and at times, I fear, at the sake of our values.
In a lot of ways my hometown hasn’t changed in the past 20 years. The school still smells like a John Mellencamp song, even if there is a different mascot painted on the floor. The local catering business still remains on the corner, a bit expanded, but with the classic red and yellow sign. The four churches remain and the fields, well they’re planted and harvested each year like clockwork. But in other ways, I fear we’ve changed so much, we’ve given up some of our beliefs because someone implicitly or explicitly told us to. We’ve lost them for the sake of political purity or power. Values like respectfully arguing over a beer, or accepting and learning about the differences of our friends, of helping those less fortunate than ourselves rather than judging or blaming them. We’ve become fearful of the “other” instead of feeling secure in ourselves, threatened by anything or anyone that looks, talks, or votes a little differently.
Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m the one who’s changed, lost her roots along with her accent, it’s certainly happened before. Maybe that place is still cultivating more than just beans and corn. I certainly hope so, because the lessons and the love it gave me reverberates through my work, my relationships, and my family. It’s ever present at the ballot box, bar room debates, and the words I write for myself and the world.
Once, years ago at a Steve Miller concert with my childhood friend, a man asked where we were from. We explained and he lauded, “Wow, and look at you now, you’ve made it.” “Sure,” we replied, “but that town made us.”