I was surprised to find how meaningful it is for me to be physically close to the place where I grew up.
When I was in high school, I daydreamed about getting out of the safe, quiet, suburban town where I grew up. I wasn’t alone. The perception of our hometown as boring and limited was so universal that my friends and I dismissively referred to it as a “bubble” and called the adults we knew who’d been born and raised there “townies.” I applied to colleges in cities thousands of miles away. I poured over road atlases (paper maps back in those days) imagining driving west on Route 66, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, camping in the Smoky Mountains, or living in San Francisco. In college, I spent a semester abroad in Cape Town, a program I applied to with an impassioned essay about how important it is to leave our comfort zones. In the four years after college, I moved from West Virginia to Wisconsin to Philadelphia to Washington D.C.
By the time I finished school, I’d started to feel a little sad every time I returned from a trip home. I missed sitting outside on summer nights, laughing with my family. Still, I envisioned myself in Manhattan, riding the train out to the boring, quiet Connecticut town where I grew up for Sunday night dinner and then returning to an exciting, cosmopolitan city life as soon as I could.
I thought that people who stayed or returned home did so because they were unambitious, had no other options, or had failed to launch from childhood into an adulthood of challenges. Then I got a job teaching high school English in the same “bubble” I’d been so eager to escape, and although I was thrilled with the position and excited about teaching, I returned to Connecticut feeling a twinge of defeat.
Early on during my first year teaching, I had dinner with my own high school English teacher, who had himself been a first-year teacher when I was in his 9th grade English class all those years ago. We talked about books and lesson plans and exhaustion over pizza, and I felt a kind of support I couldn’t have imagined getting from a new acquaintance. After all, he’d known me before I got my braces off, learned to drive, or left home for the first time. When our conversation ranged from how to start the unit on mythology to problems with plagiarism, our history together lent an important honesty and vulnerability to the discussion.
I decided to start the mythology unit with a lesson about the archetypal hero’s journey. We studied stories they’d already know, like Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz, and saw the familiar pattern: a call to adventure, a going, and, at last, a return home.
But that return doesn’t get much attention in the popular imagination. I remembered Odysseus fighting the Cyclops and visiting the Underworld, but half the epic is about what happens after Odysseus returns home to Ithaca. Once he gets home, he has to make home better. I think teaching is an important way to try to leave some good in the world, but I think an even more immediate and important way is to extend as much goodness as we can in our small spheres of influence. At first, I imagined that my small sphere would have to be somewhere more exciting than suburban Connecticut to mean anything at all. But, now I think of it a little differently: Being part of a community I’ve known as both a child and and an adult enriches, rather than diminishes, my commitment to making my little corner of the world better.
Last week I took my three-year old daughter to get her ears checked. “Hi,” the nurse said, “we’ve met many times.” I was confused at first—my daughter had never seen this particular nurse before. Oh, but I had. She shone the auriscope in my daughter’s ears, as she surely as she had for me over the years, wrote a prescription for amoxicillin, and answered my questions about what to watch for at home.
Unless our lives take us in an expected direction, my kids will grow up playing on the same softball fields, will learn to drive in the same parking lots, will leave for their own adventures on the same highway I once drove. They’ll have their own favorite ice cream flavor at the local place we go to most, and at some point, they’ll probably think our Connecticut suburb is boring and safe and feel desperate to escape. And I hope it is boring and safe. The neighborhood message board goes crazy when someone spots a coyote on the nature trail at dusk.
In mythology, the return doesn’t have to be literal like mine was, but I’ve been surprised to find how meaningful it is for me to be physically close to the place where I grew up. It’s a gift to have loving, trustworthy, and free childcare nearby, but more importantly, my kids know my parents. Not just as attendees of holiday dinners, but as integrated players in our daily life. Living here has made my life richly layered, with teaching, raising small kids, and writing coming into meaningful contact with the idealism and wonder and fear I felt as a kid and a teenager.