I went to college 419 miles north of my town in rural Northeastern Missouri. When the town becomes visible 100 miles after leaving the last big (ish) city you can spot a sign that greets, “Kirksville Welcomes You! Where People Make The Difference.” If you weren’t paying attention as you drove up Highway 63 you’d miss that sign, Kirksville, and end up in Iowa. Upon mapping out my move down south, I realized that same highway, 63, that brought some traffic and life into my sleepy college town of 17,000 and gifted us a Wal-Mart, actually snaked all the way down through Missouri and dropped you off right at exit 23 for Marked Tree, Arkansas. It felt like I wasn’t even moving at all. I had lived off of Highway 63 for four years.
I remember pulling off of 63 for the first time as a resident of Marked Tree. When I pulled into town I spotted a sign that says, “A Place To Come Home To.” It felt right and familiar. Yet, that feeling taunted me when, not three minutes after I passed it on that very first night I lived here, I was pulled over by two police officers for a headlight that was out. The men were less than welcoming, suspicious, and aggressive. Instantly, I missed the place where “People Make the Difference.” Home felt 419 miles north.
Slowly though as I became not a stranger with a decrepit Volvo but “that girl from Missouri who looks like Pocahontas” the benefit of living off of 63 became apparent. While the other first years were met with sneers of “Damn Yankee” or “Oh, California? That’s so… interesting!” I was met with hugs and nods of “Well, you understand!” In us versus them, insider versus outsider, I was always afforded us and in status because of Highway 63. I lived outside of cornfields, and yeah it wasn’t cotton but could I believe the things those teachers from the Northeast said? “Oh, Rachel? You don’t have to worry about her. She does things like us.” and “Kirksville? My cousin deer hunts up there!” were frequently said around me. Acceptance was easy by the gift of being just 50 minutes from the border of my home state. I didn’t fight it.
In fact, as autumn waned I relished Marked Tree being 150 miles closer to an airport than Kirksville, in the winter found myself pulling out the “y’alls” of my childhood, and by spring the joy of being only 30 minutes from my beloved Panera still hadn’t worn off. At the end of my first year teaching, I had lived off of Highway 63 for five years. Outside of that first night, each time I turned off of 63 into town, it always felt like coming home.
Tonight, on the eve of a 600-mile drive to North Carolina to see my family for the first time in seven months, I passed that sign again. Maybe it’s because this morning, a seven-year-old boy pretended to shoot me from his lawn Gran Torino style as I drove to school or the odd feeling of knowing whoever stole the credit cards and money out of my wallet Friday probably knows me, but I suddenly feel insecure about this place.
There’s so much here that feels wildly uncomfortable. The blatant racism, and the alarming poverty, and the freedom to throw around phrases, faggot, retard, half-breed, slap me in the face. There’s so much here that fires me up, makes me physically ill, that has made me weep. But does anyone know about it? Of course I rant to my college roommate and cry to my Mom but does anyone here, 419 miles south on 63, know about it? As an us and insider, it has been assumed that the familiarity and likeness of the rural experience extends to mindsets, deeply held values and beliefs. While I stand behind that we, Marked Tree and I, have more in common than we have to divide us, I fear that in the wave of acceptance I’ve become silent. In fear of conflict, I sacrificed conversation. I know that I am not often right but sitting on the precipice of year two I wonder what lessons we didn’t learn from each other on acceptance since acceptance was so freely given.
I’m not sure what I expect to happen when school begins again, but I know that it is likely to be similar if I do nothing different. In one school year I will have lived off of Highway 63 for six years. Maybe it’s time to start exploring some roads not yet traveled.