Why I’m Staying In My Hometown (Even Though Everybody Knows What I Was Like as a Kid)

Brought on by the sound of a screaming child, I reflect on my past, my community, and how we can become our true selves without fleeing our roots.

I was meeting with the school psychologist over Ula’s vision therapy program last week when a wail came from down the hallway. It grew progressively louder and more despondent as it came closer. Occasionally, the words “I want my mommy!” could be separated out from the general cries of despair. My mother’s heart wanted me to jump up, run to the child, and throw my arms around her. Her tears were contagious. I felt my own eyes growing wet.

A bad choice is often glue-sticked into the memory book.

The psychologist paused in her conversation. “That sounds like one of the older kids,” she said matter-of-factly, cocking her head to listen. We did our best to resume our meeting while the lamenting outside the door ensued.

A moment later, the school principal popped her head in the room. “I’m sorry to interrupt you,” she spoke softly to the psychologist, “But one of our students made a bad choice this morning, and I think she could use a little of your time.”

I like the way she worded it. “Made a bad choice.” In our family home school, I am often out of the loop on the professional language used to describe the actions and regrets of children. Our expressions for bad choices are more colorful, in keeping with farm vernacular, and admittedly, nowhere near as gentle. She made it sound like, whatever happened, it wasn’t really so bad—just a little slip-up that would soon be forgotten.

But from the caterwauling in the next room, I don’t think that child’s bad choice would soon be forgotten. In a rural community like ours, a bad choice is often glue-sticked into the memory book, a page in the album of everyone’s recollections that will follow that child as long as she lives here. At 40, I still meet my teachers, the parents of my friends, and my fellow schoolmates in the library, at the coffee shop, at the bank, on the sidewalks in town, at local concerts.

Many of them manage to remember (and remind) me of my earlier choices long after I’ve forgotten them myself.

I am certain that child was crying over the horror of the moment she just experienced. But I am certain that she, too, recognizes the permanence of it in the memories of her classmates and teachers. And that, I am guessing, is where her deeper pain lies.

Someday, after she graduates, she will make an important decision. She will be free to elect to leave every bad choice behind her, find a new place to live, and grow into a new identity, liberated from the humiliations of her past. She can choose to make a fresh start.

In a small community where everyone knows each other, it's easy to allow my past to define my identity.

Or, she will choose to stay and let her bad choices become a thread in the fabric of her identity.

I think about my own decision to stay in the same community where I grew up. I see myself as a strong woman, capable of making good decisions and taking care of myself and my family. But in spite of my positive self-image, all around me are people who have watched me grow, who have known me during weaker moments when I failed to take care of myself, when my decisions were faulty. And it is easy, in a small community where everyone knows each other, to allow that past to define my identity.

How do we choose to stay in one place the entirety of our lives, knowing that the people around us have all borne witness to our follies and imperfections? How do we develop into our true selves when we are surrounded by people who think they know us better? How do we become who we want to be in a place where there is no such thing as a fresh start?

I believe that it can happen. I believe that, in most situations, we can grow into our true selves without having to flee our roots. I would like to say that this is because my friends, neighbors, and family members here in Schoharie County are more forgiving than average Americans. I would like to wax poetic about our rural tolerance. I wouldn’t be wrong. But I wouldn’t be right, either. Truthfully, we are no better than the members of any community or neighborhood across the world.

The secret to growing into ourselves without a fresh start lies in two things. First, our need for attachment supersedes our bruised egos. Belonging to a place, to a group of people, is too important to allow our ties to be fractured by bad choices.

I believe that we can grow into our true selves without having to flee our roots.

The second secret is the reciprocal knowledge. It is true that my family, friends, and neighbors have a clear picture of my colorful past. But I, too, know many of their secrets. These are not scurrilous defenses against blackmail. Rather, they are banks of knowledge that we carry by virtue of longstanding connections.

In many cases, we know each other for a lifetime. And that helps us to recognize how ubiquitous bad choices are in everyones life path. Often, holding that knowledge helps us to be more compassionate and forgiving. More importantly, when we pair the drive for human attachment with the longstanding experiential knowledge that nobody is perfect, it becomes easier to forgive ourselves. And the ability to forgive ourselves is the key to moving forward in one place, with no need for a fresh start.