I Was Ashamed to Move Back to My Hometown As an Adult—But the Experience Was Life Changing (in a Good Way)

I was surprised to find how meaningful it is to be physically close to where I grew up.

Small town main street
Photo: Jason Cameron/Getty Images

Dreams of a Bigger Life

In high school, I daydreamed about escaping the safe, quiet, suburban town where I grew up, and I wasn't alone. The perception of my hometown as boring and limited was so universal that my friends and I dismissively referred to it as a "bubble" and called adults who'd been born and raised there "townies."

I applied to colleges 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, and living in San Francisco. In college, I studied abroad in Cape Town, a program I applied to with an impassioned essay about how important it is to leave our comfort zone. In the four years after college, I moved from West Virginia to Wisconsin to Philadelphia to Washington D.C.

Be Careful What You Wish For

By the time I finished school, I started feeling 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 my boring, quiet Connecticut hometown for Sunday night dinner, and then returning to an exciting, cosmopolitan city life as soon as I could.

I determined people who stayed or returned home were unambitious, had no other options, or had failed to launch into an adulthood of challenges. Then I got a job teaching high school English in that same bubble I'd been so eager to escape from and, although I was thrilled with the position and excited about teaching, I returned to Connecticut with a twinge of defeat.

Re-evaluating My Small Town Paradigm

Early in my first year of teaching, I met my own high school English teacher for dinner. He was a first-year teacher when I was in his 9th-grade English class all those years ago. Over pizza, we talked about books, lesson plans, and exhaustion, and I felt a kind of support I couldn't have imagined 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. As our conversation ranged from how to start the unit on mythology to problems with plagiarism, our shared history lent an important honesty and vulnerability to the discussion.

I started 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 our 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's tasked with making home better.

While teaching is an important way to impart some good in the world, 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 differently: Being part of a community I've known as a child and an adult enriches, rather than diminishes, my commitment to making my little corner of the world better.

Simple Joys of Smalltown, Connecticut

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. After shining the auriscope in my daughter's ears, as she surely had for me over the years, she wrote a prescription for amoxicillin and answered my questions about what to watch for at home.

Unless my life takes an unexpected direction, my kids will grow up playing on the same softball fields as I did, will learn to drive in the same parking lots, and will leave for their own adventures on the same highway I once drove. They'll order their 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. (The neighborhood message board goes crazy when someone spots a coyote on the nature trail at dusk.) And I hope it stays boring and safe.

In mythology, the return isn't always literal like mine was, but I've been surprised at how meaningful it is for me to be physically close to 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—richly layered with teaching, raising small kids, and writing—circles back to the idealism, wonder, and fear I felt in my youth.

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