Let me tell you up front: I was not a popular kid. I know, everyone says that, but I was really unpopular. Like roach at a dinner party unpopular. Like food poisoning unpopular.
There are a lot of reasons why a kid can be hated. Some kids smell bad, some kids wipe their boogers on other kids. Some are tattletales or make comments on the fatness of other kids’ asses. And some are quiet and good spellers.
That last one was me. I was, as Roald Dahl says of the title character Matilda, a reader of books. That made me a little out of step with social norms. It wasn’t always like that, though. Up until third grade, I attended a Montessori school in Erie, PA. Montessori was great: you showed up in the morning and then did what you wanted until you left in the afternoon. What I wanted was usually to learn about Greek mythology, play Number Munchers on the washing machine-sized Apples, write stories, and do column after column of long division on graph paper, each sharply-penciled digit secure in its own little square. At recess, my friends and I made bows and arrows out of sticks and grasses and yelled “Cowabunga” and “Eat my shorts” when we jumped off the swings, and I killed at Red Rover.
But Montessori doesn’t, alas, last forever. When I was 9 and done with the available curriculum, my parents switched me to a Catholic elementary school run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, skipping me to fifth grade at the same time. I was a little bit excited: I had read about regular schools in books. Whereas a Montessori education meant sitting on the floor minding your own business, calling your teachers by their first names, and deciding what you were going to learn and how, I knew that regular schools meant I would have a desk! Grades! Tests! Homework! Maybe I would even start coming home and having cookies and an apple and a glass of milk after school, the way kids in books did.
I did not know, however, that Catholic school would also mean uniforms, boys’ lines and girls’ lines, practicing walking quietly in the halls, and a whole lot of keeping my mouth shut. The first day of class, my science teacher spelled “chlorine” without the H. I knew what to do: I raised my hand and, when called on, explained that the H was missing. All heads in the room turned to me. It was like being surrounded by 20 Linda Blairs at discount pine-smelling desks. “Dude,” the boy next to me whispered. “You’re not supposed to correct the teacher.”
I’m going to tell you that it went downhill from there. As I emerged into prepubescence, I discovered that barely anyone around me valued the things I or my family did. Transplants from New England, my parents wore monogrammed cardigans and actually read the leather-bound annotated copies of Oscar Wilde that were on the living room bookshelves. They were confused by the existence of something called “Rice-a-Roni” yet well-versed on the pronunciation of chowdah, and our dinnertable conversations were equal parts about the “damn Provost” and the kind of parasites that you have to suffocate by painting your pores with Vaseline (my mother was especially fond of bringing these up if we were eating spaghetti). So maybe we were a little weird…in Erie. Not in Rhode Island, not in New England, where there’s a brick and ivy college within spitting distance no matter where you are.
I want to explain that I was not a NERD; yeah, I liked Star Wars, but I didn’t look like this or attempt to engage my classmates in conversation about my Micro Machines collection. It was my value system, my way of interacting with the world, that was different. My surroundings did not support my world view’s development. I told you that story about fifth grade because it was then, at nine years old, that I first began to realize I would never belong in Erie. I was a vegetarian; the rest of my class was absent on the first day of hunting season. I had begun to wonder why there were so few women in the Bible while my class lined up for confession. I wanted people to like me, I did….but this was the beginning of my leaving. It was the beginning of my own participation in Rust Belt brain drain. The message I was receiving was simple: we don’t like your kind here.
And this is where the essay is going to go off track. I want to tell you all about why I left Erie. I want to tell you about the thrill of freedom I felt going where no one had ever seen me before…it’s a familiar story, a college story, a get-off-the-train-in-the-big-city story. But something stops me. When I tell you about loving the used bookstores in Ithaca, NY, what will you think? I’m petrified I’m going to say things that will make me come off as an intellectual elitist here with my arugula and my non-real-world bookcase and my ivory tower. You’ll read this, and all over again, you won’t like me. I’m just some jerk with no life smarts, removed from reality. Someone who doesn’t understand no-nonsense Rust Belt values.
But that’s not true – I have life smarts, I have street smarts. I’ve struggled financially, I struggle with job security. I work hard and always have: even when I was in college, I had four jobs and no shame: I’ve cleaned toilets, washed diapers, painted houses scraped pudding off institutional carpets. I’ve paid off all of my student loan debt by living below my means. I encourage my students to look at trade schools. I do work with my body. But I’ve so internalized the negative response that I’m carrying it with me 12 years after leaving. I’m afraid of getting defensive – which I’m sure I already have. I’m afraid that my being a professor living in a college town is still just something a jerk does. I carry this fear around with myself at the same time I feel the fierce joy of analyzing the world around me. I worry: someone will find out that I really care about intelligence, about higher education, about academia.
I could have continued living in Erie, maybe; I quickly became used to assuming I’d be among the minority. But I couldn’t live there with a different brain. I don’t mean to imply that Erie is full of stupid people; quite the contrary. It’s home to smart business people and attorneys and nurses. I am awake to the difficulties of making a life in the Rust Belt, and awake to the wonderful lives smart, funny people do make there. But while the businesspeople may stay, the poets, by and large, leave. I eat differently, love differently, worship differently…most most importantly, I tend to value differently. I left twelve years ago not because I didn’t think I could get a job; I left because I didn’t feel welcome. That still saddens me: Gertrude Stein said famously that America was her country and Paris her hometown, which is the way it is for me with Erie and Ithaca.
After living in Yonkers and working in Manhattan, I’ve settled in Ithaca, where more than five times as many people as inErie have a graduate or professional degree, as I do. In Ithaca, we take it for granted that you might have a share in Community Supported Agriculture; we meet at the Farmers’ Market; the independent films always screen here. Your bookstore clerk has a PhD — its own problem in our supersaturated economy, but a sign that we’re all flocking here. I’m a poet (yes, I’ve been many times reminded that poetry is “useless) and a professor, and I fill in around the edges by dancing and teaching ballet, singing in a choral group, and playing music. The arts make me miss Erie, too, though – the Philharmonic, the Erie Art Museum, Lake Erie Ballet, the D’Angelo Conservatory, the Playhouse and the Warner.
Erie remembers the arts, but Ithaca is a college town, truly, in that the area is dominated by Cornell University and Ithaca College, respectively the numbers one and four employers; the top employer in Erie as of the fourth quarter of 2010 is still GE, closely followed by Erie Insurance, the two area hospitals, Wal-Mart, and the Barber Center. Although Wikipedia includes Erie on its list of college towns, I’d beg to differ: just hosting post-secondary institutions doesn’t do it. Although Erie may one day identify as a college town (and I hope it does), as Penn State Behrend Economics professor Jim Kurrereminded me, it’s still a post-industrial city, and attending college there tends to be more about, validly, getting a job – the “eds and meds” – than becoming an intellectual. After all, intellectualism, especially for its own sake, doesn’t mesh with the no-nonsense values of the Rust Belt.
And the fact that I sit here looking for the warrant behind the term Rust Belt values…well, that, my friends, is why I had to leave.
Jaime Warburton grew up in Erie, PA; currently, she is a poet and assistant professor of writing at Ithaca College. She likes the Sisters of Mercy — the nuns, not the band — and riding trains. Keep up with her at jaimewarburton.weebly.com or @JaimeSWarburton on Twitter.