“How rural America steals girls’ futures.”
That headline scrolled across my watch when I was elbow deep in twigs, chicken manure and soil prepping my raised garden beds for spring and it stopped my heart cold.
It was a national alert. Sent to anyone with an iPhone and a news app.
Honestly, I felt so personally attacked by that sentiment, by the sheer force and inaccuracy of those words that I had to take a few days to think about them and the article itself before I put pen to paper.
The author and I share extremely similar stories. Same size town, about the same median income. I’m from East Texas, she’s from the Arkansas end of the Ozarks. We both grew up in heavily Christian communities. We both “escaped” (her term, not mine) to college and later became journalists.
There the similarities end.
The article was an excerpt from the author’s upcoming book, where she examines her small town through the story of a friend that didn’t “escape” in order to identify the factors that limited her friend’s ability to reach her full potential. And, above the obvious factors — her friend’s use of recreational drugs, truancy and lack of discipline — she names the church’s intent to enforce a male-dominated worldview as the main culprit.
To be completely honest with you, I did not love the town I grew up in. There I felt undervalued for my contributions and my talents and unnoticed by my peers. Unnoticed at the best of times and at the worst a little victimized by a popular crowd that I shared no common interests with.
I would not move back there. As an adult and with a little space and time, I can recognize that I played my own role in that separation from my peers. I’m a deeply independent introvert and that impacted my relationships. I have forgiven, but I cannot forget. And I would not want my personal opinions to color my children’s ability to make open and honest friendships in that space.
I share that with you to make this next point. The social aspects of small-town living. The who’s who. The church crowd. The boy’s club. Whatever you want to call it.
None of those social barriers that all of us small town “escapees” like to whine about ever hindered me from educational opportunities, leadership roles or career growth and success. (And, I didn’t allow any of those experiences to sour my outlook on the joys of living in and contributing to rural communities.)
I’ve shared so much of this with you. Recording people’s life stories, working in vet clinics, being an amateur rabbit geneticist, becoming a semi-professional French horn player — none of those opportunities in my small town came with a financial cost. None of those options were denied to me because of my gender.
All I had to do was SHOW UP.
And, even if after those opportunities, if I chose to remain in my home town and get married and raise a family, none of those roles would mean I didn’t fulfil my potential.
This rhetoric that the only way to “win” life is to occupy a big city corner office is so damaging to rural communities.
You can be impactful here. You can change lives here. You can build a future here.
I have never gained any lasting impressions, any truly transformational impacts from anyone who wore a suit every day and sat behind a computer.
I do vividly remember the way my Mammaw’s hands looked covered in flour when she made biscuits and gravy for the early-morning milk shift on her dairy. (A dairy that helped bring the whole community out of the Great Depression. A dairy that provided enough income and opportunity for her to visit every state in the United States in retirement. A dairy where she never spent a single day completely alone after her husband died because she was visited by members of her church EVERY DAY.)
I do remember visiting my Granny while she was on-shift at Walmart and having a grand time as she interacted with her friends and neighbors as her customers. Chatting with her in her tiny white farmhouse kitchen while she crushed Doritos on top of her Mexican casserole always felt a lot more like an act of love than forced servitude to traditional gender roles.
Those women meant everything to me. I never saw them as lower than their husbands. I never saw them as lacking potential while providing for their families in traditional ways. When they told me I could be anything I wanted to be, they meant it and they lived their lives in a way that showed me exactly how anything could be possible.
When we tell kids “you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up” we unintentionally add in the subtext that it can be anything “big” (like being a doctor or an astronaut or the President) but please, please, please don’t pick something small (like being a factory worker or a welder or a plumber or a teacher.) Those roles are not failures. They are never “less” important or valuable or necessary than our commuting counterparts in the city.
You know this. I know this.
I just wish the rest of the world knew it, too.
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