March 24, 2016 | Feature
on small towns
The first thing you notice when you’re entering the rural, heavily agrarian, and chilly tri-state area of Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts, is that the buildings are all old. Some of them are indeterminately abandoned, sporting chipping paint, dangling shingles, and boarded windows, while others have been refurbished to a synthetic colonial splendor. As you drive farther from the Massachusetts turnpike, with its blinding streetlights and neon billboards, chain restaurants and Old Navy outlets along the sides, the roads become darker and narrower. The dividing lines disappear, the pavement grows uneven, and you begin to meander through alternating quilt patches of forest and cornfields.
The journey to my house is how I always imagined a Pony Express journey would look. You drive down long, empty stretches of road, over rolling hills, and through evergreen forests. Every so often you come upon a town, passing by an inn, a tavern or two, little shops with handwritten signs hanging from their doorknobs reading “open by chance” or “please knock.” A bend, a four-way stop sign, over a hill, and cornfields again.
Lakeville is a run-down gas station, an abandoned firehouse (the volunteer fire department moved—I have no idea where they are now), a few restaurants, a post office they’ve been trying to close since before I can remember, a bank with a tired-looking ATM on the outside, and that’s it. Rarely can pedestrians be seen “downtown”—if they harbor any sort of desire for an outing, they’ll almost certainly have ventured an hour to the nearest large town, two hours to a mall, three hours to a city, anywhere that isn’t here. Lakeville is a place that people my age leave.
My college friends always balk when I tell them about my rural, small-town life. They’re incredulous when I tell them that I spent grades one through 12 with the same group of 30 students, that I had to learn to repair a lawnmower my freshman year, and that I had to drive a tractor throughout my school parking lot to pass a required class. That must have been so awesome, they say with wide eyes.
The truth is that it was not awesome. Driving tractors and planting seeds and building shelves and boxes is as ordinary and expected in a small rural town as reading books and solving equations is in school. I went through the motions the same way everyone around me did, checking off my ag-ed and tech-ed requirements along with math, chemistry, and everything else.
The truth is that I never fit in. I somehow evolved to crave academic discourse from an early age. I loved politics, philosophy, mathematical proofs. I didn’t particularly care for the outdoors and often elected to read the New York Times online in my classroom over playing outside at recess. As I entered the world of the internet and began to connect with students from fancy suburbs and big cities, the resentment began to pile up. I wanted their debate teams, AP classes, college counselors, school newspapers, electives delving into social justice or economic policy. I wanted a town with a mall and museums and a group of hyper-intellectual friends to argue about theories of morality with. As I got older, I began longing for clubs and bars—Tinder is somewhat useless when you’ve known everyone within 20 miles of your house since you were five. By my 18th year in Lakeville, I had come to feel stifled in my high school class of 80 and my town of 900, which was 93 percent white. I counted down the days until I could get out and see the world.
My house is on top of a steep hill, at the end of a road that winds through a series of pastures, rotting fences, and old, crumbling wells. My room is adorned with faded, flowery wallpaper and lace curtains, both of which have been present there since long before I occupied it. The windows overlook our wooded backyard, which is decidedly less wooded each time I come home. I’m not sure if it’s us or our neighbors who keep taking down the trees; for some reason, more and more of them need to go.
I’ve slept in the same bed since I was five years old. The floor that used to be covered with books and stuffed animals is now covered in boxes and suitcases. I don’t live here anymore. I live somewhere else, with tall buildings and dirty buses and traffic lights. My friends all took AP classes in high school. Their parents are doctors, lawyers, or both. They eat out with their parents’ credit cards and have paid internships in big cities this summer. I finally got out, after dreaming of doing so for so many years. So many of my classmates are now living and working there—I left without a glance back.
It took getting out to realize how much a part of me Lakeville will always be. As I sit in my lecture on the sense-datum theory of perception, I remember burning my fingers while welding metal boxes in a courtyard. While accepting a debate award at the front of an auditorium, I remember herding escaped cows across the baseball field and back to their barn. Every time I walk across the Main Green and see the ivy enveloping the sides of the buildings, I remember shabby, graffitied textbooks with no covers and attempts to use graphing calculators with cracks down their middle. As I write papers on 20th century literature, I remember stocking shelves for hours on end at a grocery store where only two of the cash registers worked. I am viewing my new life with a constant awareness of the privileges it carries, of the wave of luck that carried me to it. I never fit into that world, but I’ll never truly be part of this one. These days, I’m almost proud of that.
Thank you, Lakeville. I’ll be back soon.