*Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in Quail Bell Magazine April 13th, 2015.
It was about three years ago when I was officially enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University. Many questioned my decision, even after the 2011 Final Four run brought national attention and prestige to the university. The only "good schools" around were still UVA, JMU, GMU, Virginia Tech, etc. To put it in the words of one of my old high school teachers, to people in my hometown, VCU is the "Big Kid J. Sargeant Reynolds" of the academic world. Let's set the record straight now that there is nothing wrong with going to community college, but we'll get to that later. So I applied to the standard number of colleges, and when it came time, I chose VCU. But more importantly, I chose Richmond.
But let's leave Richmond alone for just a moment. Now, if you live in, have lived in, or have just passed through Virginia, then you're aware of how within a half hour, you'll pass through cities and suburbs. All of the sudden, you'll end up in a dead-zone next to grass-grazing cows and buzzards pecking at freshly squished skunk. Where I live, the smell of manure and bonfires are accompanied by the sound of gunshots by the neighbors practicing target shooting. This place I’ve grown up in is Mechanicsville (or as we affectionately call it, MechanHICKSville). It is an interesting mix of rural and suburban cultures. More than likely, you have no clue where it is. But between here and Richmond, it's really not that far away.
There's a windmill that marks the entrance of "Old Mechanicsville," the section where settlers first operated. It has expanded since, and is home to over 36,000 people. On a typical day you'll notice various pickup trucks of all shapes and sizes, some custom spray-painted with a camouflage pattern and others donned with four or five American flags (no, seriously).
My high school has been in operation for over 50 years, and many days it showed. On days with light rain, the "M" hall was consumed by a flood that could rival the one in Noah's Ark. We would splash to our classes and make room for the trashcans placed under leaking ceiling tiles. The desks were often sticky from moisture and the environment attracted hundreds of larvae that gathered and plotted weeks of horror from the comfort of the ceiling's squalid moisture. Then they attacked and fell without warning onto unsuspecting instructors and squeamish students. Their extended stay prompted many to consider them being our new mascot. After a while, someone got the idea to have some fun with the situation. They intentionally gathered the squirming creatures and strategically placed them in the center of the hallways. Cheers erupted when the popping sound of exploded grub guts plastered the victim's shoes and stained the floors. Strangely enough, this was my world.
The difference between my story and others that have grown up in small towns is that I actually LIKE it. As a matter of fact, I love it. I love its historic past and the mazes of back roads that all connect and loop around the town. I even love the quirkiness of my old school. As a friend put it, Mechanicsville has a unique unified community with caring individuals that all seem to know each other. I can't walk into Target without seeing at least two people I know. Some of my teachers from high school taught and coached my older cousin back in the '80s. Years ago, one of my relatives lived in the same spot we've built the house on.
While some view it's quiet, humble nature to be lacking in excitement , it's the modest, traditional feeling that gives me the much-needed serenity I desperately require to retain my sanity.
Back in 2008, Mechanicsville native Jason Mraz was featured in an article from The Daily Mail and described what life was like, "My hometown of Mechanicsville was very American," said Mraz. "There were white picket fences, a church on every street corner, low crime, and virtually no drug use. It was a good place to grow up."
Many of my classmates would never paint Mechanicsville in the same way. So far, I don't know if I really have either. But I never had an overwhelming need to run away. I've never had an insatiable urge to rent a CAT bulldozer to dismantle my old high school brick by very ancient brick. No matter how moldy the ceiling tiles got, how many grubs fell from the ceiling, or tractors parked in the parking lot (I'm not kidding), I wouldn't have wanted to go to high school anywhere else.
So when everyone was beginning to ask where everyone had planned on going to college, the more acceptable answers were met with high praise.
"Where ya' headed?" asked one of my AP instructors to each student one day.
"Ah yes, Blacksburg is a wonderful town with a truly great school. And you?"
"Excellent choice. What about you, Gretchen?"
Now there are a good deal of alumni that went to VCU in the area. But many still lift their noses to an urban campus. At the very mention of Richmond, noses wrinkle, eyebrows scrunch and fold together like hairy accordions.
"I hate Richmond. It's dingy, filthy, and impossible to drive in. And, my God, the creepy, grungy homeless people? Why in the world would you want to go there? I don't know how you'll take it."
The irony of the people that made these statements were that they open despised Mechanicsville and wanted to see a world outside of the limited perspective we had. Though after graduation, they chose places to go to with people of similar thinking and similar backgrounds. But just 15 miles away, you can walk down the street and hear several different languages. There is such a variety of people that gather in Richmond, but many cannot look past the superficial.
Going back to the "Big Kid J. Sarge" comment made by one of my instructors shows the mental link of many in my hometown that the highly esteemed and aesthetically appealing campuses are the only places worth going to. I'm not criticizing each of these colleges. As a future educator, I believe everyone should find a school that is a great fit for them. What I am saying, however, is that ruling out an option based upon personal biases or word of mouth is a great way to miss out on boundless opportunities and chances to meet some truly amazing people. Referring back to community college, programs offered there can be just as effective in training students as it would be at a four year school. If one is truly determined to see the "outside world" and what it offers, stepping out of that comfort zone is the first step.
My first day of school was only the second time I ever drove to Richmond by myself. I braced every pothole, traffic cone, and inattentive pedestrian that the city could offer. Once I arrived and successfully parked in the parking deck without incident, I got out of the car and fumbled with the map I highlighted with the locations of all the buildings I needed to find. I wandered between Monroe Park and what was still called the Landmark Theater, attempting to find the newly constructed classroom building (which, by the way, was not listed on the map). Bikes raced past me, buses blared horns beside me, and the scent of the city sewer permeated the air. I eventually found an old classmate from high school and together, we found the building within the urban labyrinth. It felt as if there were fish swimming around in my stomach (butterflies are overrated). The flopping and splashing of my metaphorical fish caused waves of nervous nausea.
I thought of a horrifying scenario where I would be talking to a distinguished professor and not be able to stop the inevitable use of "y'all" in a sentence. Or at a career fair droppin' off the 'g' at the end of each "-ing" word. What if my ignorance of how city life went about was shown in my questionable parallel parking skills (which I still don't have, even after a year of being here)? Though I've become accustomed to life at VCU and the general attitudes of Richmonders, I'm always nervously explaining my country quirks to those around me, especially faculty. I had always heard that those in academia don't take those with even the slightest southern dialects seriously, but even with my fairly standard American dialect, I sometimes slip up.
It was a day when I was in a professor's office discussing an essay. My southern upbringing has conditioned me to always use "Yes sirs" and "Yes ma'ams" in conversations, sometimes even with people my own age. She was giving me suggestions when I let the standards of southern etiquette leak into the conversation.
"You see this here?" she pointed at the paper at a sentence she had underlined.
"Yes ma'am." I said.
"Don't call me ma'am, it makes me feel old."
I felt a bead of sweat form on my brow.
"Yes ma'am-uh, whoops I...I was just raised in Mechanicsville, which is kinda country-ish and I... "
"Oh, you were? I'm from Mechanicsville, too."
At that moment, I realized something that should have been obvious from the start. Being in a community of diverse folk, there were many like me from quaint little towns that have still been successful in the city. Everyone is welcome and has something to bring to the table. It keeps things interesting and engaging. We all come from different backgrounds, and no background is less important or relevant in comparison to another. Since taking the risk of stepping outside my comfort zones and embracing new perspectives, I've gotten many opportunities that I would never have discovered (such as writing for this magazine, for instance). The tragic thought is that I would not have been able to meet the truly outstanding and caring people that I have come to know only through Richmond. I am proud to call both Mechanicsville and Richmond home.