Here’s what they say being Southern is: it’s a privilege, a state of mind. It’s an innate enjoyment of fried chicken, sweet tea, high school football, beer, and country music. It’s calling everyone darlin’ or honey, being devoted to front porch swings, and enjoying the soft strumming of acoustic guitars and banjos. It’s ladies who can sew the buttons back on a jacket in two minutes flat; ladies who cook everything in butter, using cookbooks their mommas fixed up on typewriters in church groups. It’s gentlemen who were taught to open doors for their women, to say “Ma’am” and “Miss,” even to their friends and little girls.
Being Southern is learning how to politely discuss differing opinions regarding the Confederate flag. It’s frying okra in the summer and growing tomatoes red on the vine. It’s learning how to shoot a gun and drive a stick shift whether you want to or not. It’s laughing at how “Bless your heart” can mean “You don’t have a lick of sense,” “You poor thing!” or even, “Oh, you idiot.” It’s putting food on the table for visitors whether they drop in at noon or ten at night. It’s adjusting to the fact that at least half of your grandparents are racist. It’s using colloquial slang like, “That dog won’t hunt.”
This is all true, and more. Southern life is as simple as putting sugar in tea and as thornily complicated as picking blackberries. And if you’re from a small, Southern town like I am, here’s the part they never seem to tell you about what it means to be Southern.
I am nineteen, a sophomore studying literature at a private university. I refused to learn how to shoot a gun or drive a stick shift, though I had no shortage of boys in my life offering to teach me. For the town I call home, this is a remarkable combination of characteristics. It’s become a common practice where I live, in Hickory, North Carolina, to graduate from high school and stick around town. Many of my friends didn’t bother to apply to university. They have jobs –some of them are even hard workers – and they figure they got all the schooling they needed from high school and, if it’s needed, there’s the community college down the road.
Some will end up at Western Carolina or even Appalachian State University, both decent, state-funded schools affectionately dubbed the second and third community colleges of our county. The majority of these kids come back to Hickory within the first two years. They offer a variety of reasons and excuses as they trickle back in town, but most come back one way or the other.
At my graduation, 275 students – or adults-in-training, as the band director would call us – walked across the stage to be handed their diplomas. There are five similarly sized high schools in our county, but I can count on two hands the kids I know who have gone to a college other than App State, Western, or Catawba Valley Community College.
When the parents of my generation were growing up, people were able to provide for their families without going to college; now, you need at least a bachelor’s degree to make a decent living. At least that’s what my dad has always said. Dad wanted to study theatre which, according to his parents, wasn’t a real major. He majored in practicality instead, hated it, and dropped out. Then he hitchhiked to the beach to join a singing and dancing troupe. This all happened years before my dad ended up working at the mall in Hickory, where he met my mother while managing a men’s clothing store.
Dad has been managing retail stores under roughly the same job description for the past thirty-five years. All he would need for a promotion is a piece of paper, but without it he’s stuck working for men half his age, with half his business knowledge, because they have a degree he doesn’t have the patience to complete.
In my town, when kids stay home instead of going to college, they make babies. I was a maid-of-honor two weeks after high school graduation and, while that bride isn’t pregnant, her younger sister-in-law is the most recent addition to the list of pregnant, sometimes married, teenagers. I’d say that this girl is perhaps the eighth, or the eleventh, or the thirteenth girl I know who’s been expecting in the past several years, but the truth is that I lost count after six.
I attended my first wedding in May of my junior year in high school. By “first wedding” I don’t mean my first wedding, ever. I mean the first one where the invitation had my name written in curlicued script, rather than the names of my parents. Charles and Marie, the couple, are two of my favorite people in the world. They’re high school sweethearts and almost too sweet for words: the most upset I’ve ever seen Charles was when Marie cut open her foot one year while we were at a church camp, and he couldn’t go into her “girls-only cabin” to be with her. Their three year wedding anniversary is in a few months. Marie teaches second grade in Durham and Charles dropped out of UNC-Greensboro last year. They have a dog instead of a baby. In a way, they’re one of the exceptions.
They left. They don’t live in Hickory, North Carolina, anymore. One of them has a college diploma.
In the summer, I sell produce at a local farmer’s market. I understand physical labor, how it can be both exhilarating and exhausting. I know the lure of working in the hot sun, in the Southern summers that start heating up in the middle of March. By June, it’s 80 at 8:30 in the morning and you’re sweating as soon as you step out of the air conditioning. Selling produce may be a simple job, but I’ve never worked harder physically in my life than the days I climbed into a truck full of watermelon, bending and lifting over and over for indecisive customers who doubted my ability to pick out one that was “just right.” It’s hard work, but utter simplicity and, with the sun beating down, you know you’re earning every dollar they pay you. There’s something utterly satisfying about sweat-earned wages.
Last year two of my best friends knocked up their girlfriends. The boys had been living with my cousin Tyler for several years and, while they’re all four years my senior, we were very close, more siblings than cousins and friends. These are the first guys who tried to convince me to drink tequila straight from the bottle. They’re the guys who took my sister and me to dinner and an action flick on Valentine’s Day when we were all single. One of them, Aaron, was the guy my entire extended family was taking bets on, on how many musicals he would take me to and coffees we’d drink at the Starbucks in Barnes & Noble before he and I would get together. These are the guys who came over with a wet-vac when the basement bathroom flooded out the toilet, volunteering to stay past midnight cleaning up our water and shit and helping calm down my hysterical mother.
We were close.
It shook my cousin up, thinking of his housemates expecting to be daddies. It shook me up: they were two of my best friends and, for the most part, moderately intelligent individuals. Except when – as more than one uncouth young man has said – they “think with the other head.” Both Aaron and Cam married their girls and started families, but I lost two of my closest friends somewhere along the way. Unattached girls can’t be best friends with other girls’ husbands.
Sometimes, I think my life would have been easier if I had married young. I imagine still being close to Aaron and Cam; they’d love my husband, and all the men would take their women out for dinner once a week. I’d get to play with their babies, be a part of their lives. Their wives wouldn’t view me as a threat.
Then I remember just how much I’m terrified of being pregnant, and how boys – most of them are not men yet, I’m sorry to say, but there is a difference – have this insatiable desire to make their own offspring. I’m reminded that I haven’t the slightest clue how one goes about paying bills or applying for a loan, and that perhaps a person ready to be married wouldn’t have to ask their parents about these skills. And I thank whatever stars are lucky that the one shot I might have had at getting married was to a man nine years my senior, who would have been very disappointed if I hadn’t gone to college.
At nineteen, I have counted the girls I know who have been/are currently expecting.
There are twenty-one girls, twenty-three kids.
I can recall their names, but only because I spent half an hour sifting through my Facebook friends and memories of old gossip. Before that, I honestly thought the number of young mothers I knew was still in the teens. These are only the girls I know directly. These are only the girls who kept their babies.
Tess is married to her guy, even though he’s the one who got Jenny pregnant twice in high school, before he knocked Tess up. The boy is twenty and has three children ranging from five years to six months old.
Molly Ann is the daughter of a big-shot pastor, and both her babies have different dads.
Alyssa and Harrison married in a hushed-up home ceremony because she was six months pregnant. I knew every single member of their bridal party because we all attended the same church.
Ashley’s delivery went wrong somehow, and the baby didn’t breathe for three minutes. He stayed in the hospital for two months, and it was twice that long before he could eat out of anything other than a feeding tube. Ashley’s husband Aaron is one of the guys I used to be so close to, and it tears at my insides to know that his family will spent the rest of their lives paying medical bills. They have no insurance.
I worked at a grocery store with Jessica and a few of the others. Jessica is twenty-four now; her adorable little boy is seven. The principal wouldn’t let her graduate – she was one of the first ones, before it got popular to get pregnant.
Four of the twenty-one girls have military husbands or boyfriends.
One of the guys in high school band with me, David, was a senior trombonist when I was a freshman. He used to lead the band bus in giant sing-alongs on the ride back to the school after away games. We’d belt out silly tunes we’d played in the bandstands that night, “Eye of the Tiger,” “I’m a Believer,” and “We are the Champions,” under his comic direction. David got his girlfriend pregnant right before he shipped out for basic training. In the past four years, my friend and his girl have had a baby, gotten married, separated, back together, separated, divorced, and remarried. There may have been one more “separated, back together” in there somewhere, but it’s hard to keep up. The last time I saw David, he said that his ex-wife was “fuckin’ crazy and fuckin’ someone else.” They have apparently resolved some of their issues as they are, once again, legally married.
A handful of my closest friends are enlisted. They’re wonderful young men, but they’re barely old enough to drink, or even younger. Army recruiters are a staple in our high school cafeterias. They trick teenagers with promises of fighting gung-ho fights and tinkering with high-tech gadgets, then after the boys sign their lives away they end up in places the President says we’ve stopped sending soldiers. At least that’s how it feels.
My ex, one of my best friends, refers to himself as a bullet-catcher. He’s in the infantry; he says that’s what he’ll be, sooner or later. Maybe even a shrapnel-catcher, he says. His indifference to this term signals his resignation and it makes me sick. And I write letters to foreign addresses – Tokyo, Italy, Ethiopia, Colombia – and dread the thought that they might come back unopened.
Enlisting is one of the few options for boys in my town. Bryan, my ex, worked four jobs to pay the bills for his whole family before he shipped off to basic training. Neither one of his parents works a steady job, and he once told me that his family makes do on less than four hundred dollars a month. I’ve heard of signing bonuses as high as seven thousand dollars. The difference in these numbers makes enlisting an easy choice, one of the few math problems that Bryan can solve. He’s promised his parents that he’ll buy them a real house one day: they’ll be able to move out of their trailer as soon as he brings home enough money.
For reasons like need or want of money, adventure, or even just laziness in the face of studying, higher education isn’t usually on the radar of the guys in my hometown. The options are pretty much enlistment, firefighting, EMS, a fulltime job, community college, or some combination of the latter four. They do this, they get a girl or three…they alternate between partying and settling down.
This is what they do.
And the girls are okay with it.
I am not okay with it.
My mother was nineteen when she got married. My dad was twenty-six. Mom had an academic scholarship covering half the tuition of a private college in Florida and her parents barely managed to pay the rest. They couldn’t afford to let her join a sorority when one gave her a bid, and it upset her so much that she spent all spring semester drinking on the beach instead of going to class. Her grades dropped and she lost her scholarship. Mom came back home to work and raise her GPA at the community college so she could go back to school the next spring. Instead, that April, she married my dad.
My parents have been married for twenty-seven years and they love each other, but ever since I was ten years old they’ve been hammering into my head the notion that I will go to college because that’s how you make a decent living nowadays. I’ve been told that I will get a college diploma and a steady job before I even think about marriage. I’m okay with that, usually, but at times I think that the only thing separating me from the average post-high school individual in my town is the fact that my parents cemented that idea into my head so firmly.
I know that it’s something more than that: one idea, repeated however frequently, cannot be the only reason I did not end up married and/or pregnant before the second decade of my life.
I learned how to read before I was three – I know that this is true because I remember being two and a half years old, suddenly having a baby sister, and lining up tiny little baby books to read to her. I’d like to think that those extra years of reading about the world during my formative years made me want to experience more than life in a small town, but I’m not sure if that really made a difference.
Nearly everyone in my small town speaks with a heavy drawl; long vowels, extra syllables, and soft rs that sound more like l or h. Southern people would say I’ve lost my drawl. It started when my family moved to Hickory in the middle of my seventh grade year – we’d lived in South Carolina before, which was deeper south but a little more urban than this North Carolina town. When I moved to Hickory, my new friends laughed at the way I talked. By the time I was in high school, my Canadian science teacher was asking if I was from the North. That’s how much weaker my accent is, comparatively speaking. Hickory, North Carolina is the farthest north I’d ever lived, and here they don’t believe I’m a Southerner. I can pick the accent up again, with effort, but I have to think about it. Those I know from above the Mason-Dixon line can hear my slight Southern drawl, but the people I’m tied to don’t think I sound like I belong here.
Maybe I can look at my town more clinically because I wasn’t born here, because even though my mom grew up here and my parents got married in the Methodist church down the street, they moved fourteen times before settling back down in Hickory, North Carolina. Maybe it’s because my parents have been candid about the effects of a college diploma, or lack thereof, on providing for a family. Maybe I don’t feel the pull to stay as hard as others do because I’ve lived in other places. But this is where I’ve been the longest. This is where I finished middle school, graduated from high school, where I went to football games and learned to drive. This is where my friends and family are. This is home.
This I know: in spite of countless attempts to otherwise persuade me, I refused to be taught those cardinal skills, shooting and driving a stick. I’m not incredibly opposed to guns. I just don’t see the need to learn when I don’t believe I have to capacity to use one, even if threatened. As for learning how to drive a stick shift, I’m far too scared of the thought of possibly wrecking someone else’s car, no matter who it is offering to teach me. This is only heightened by the fact that those who have wanted me to learn have either driven Mustangs or worn pickup trucks they’d paid for all on their own, and none of us ever had the money to replace the cars if I had wrecked them.
There’s reckless generosity that leads a person to offer their car as a teaching device, then there’s just plain recklessness. And a sense of just plain recklessness unlike anything I’ve ever known has seeped into the very fabric of my small town. There has been at least one person involved in a car accident and/or another kind of alcohol induced death in every graduating class of my high school since I was in eighth grade. It’s been seven years and at every graduation there’s an empty chair, a single rose, and a pair of crying parents whose kid isn’t walking across the stage because he’s under the ground instead.
We’ve got a giant rock dedicated to dead students, for crying out loud. Every time somebody dies their friends go spray paint the rock with fresh “RIP”s and “You’ll Never be Forgotten”s and a new date. I’ve never been close enough to the kid who died to go, but youthful death wears you down, no matter the level of acquaintance. And then, two or three days later, we have – not a funeral – a celebration of life. What bullshit. A celebration of life ought to happen when a kid’s lived long enough not to be considered a kid anymore.
Boe graduated with me and, like so many of the guys, stayed in Hickory afterwards to work and take community college classes. We were in band together through middle school and our freshmen year of high school. It’s not that remarkable, only he was always so friendly and sweet. He was a redneck country boy who lived in flannels and torn jeans, always had some silly hemp necklace with an orange-spotted mushroom stuck around his neck. He may have been crazy, but he was so genuinely nice that you didn’t have much choice but to like him and laugh.
Boe was a great guy, but too fearless and impulsive for his own good: when we were freshmen, he set fire to his own legs when he inadvertently doused both them and the logs in kerosene at a Friday night bonfire. He had to use a wheelchair for months afterwards, but he always smiled when he joked about the incident, which left him with second and third degree burns. Boe died a year and a half after we graduated, almost five years since that first disaster. The newspaper said he was going forty over the speed limit of a back country road and didn’t even take the turn. He just crashed through someone’s fence and wrapped his pickup truck around a tree. Boe died on the scene, and the girl who was with him didn’t even make it out of the helicopter they airlifted her in. There was a half-empty bottle of Jack on the floorboard.
Here’s what they didn’t tell you about what being Southern is, what being small town Southern like I am, is. It’s watching half the people you know limit themselves in as many different ways as there are crickets chirping on a summer night. It’s watching friends like Boe died needless, drunken deaths because they thought they were invincible. It’s finding out that some of the first EMS responders to see this young man’s dead body were his best friends and hating that every bit as much as the awful accident itself.
Being small town Southern is watching your friends get married and have babies and hearing your internal clock begin to tick because you aren’t doing the same. It’s hugging your young men – brothers, lovers, friends – in uniform as they leave for foreign countries. It’s waiting, waiting, waiting for phone calls and letters and any news at all.
Being Southern is always being a little bit blue collar, no matter how many white collars you put on later in life. It’s knowing the value of sweat and hard work for a paycheck. It’s understanding the dilemma of choosing between baling hay on a pittance and loving it, and being cramped in a desk job that does more than pay the rent.
Being Southern is an odd mixture of alternately loving and hating being stuck in the town in which you grew up. It’s either staying there forever or moving all over the place with the military, as if being restless somehow solves your problems. Either way, you didn’t choose that lifestyle: you caved under the pressure and comfort of staying close to home, or you gave the military the right to choose your location for you.
Being Southern is being able to throw open your windows in March and leave them that way until October. It’s watching the sun set below the pine trees and the Blue Ridge rise up out of the clouds. It’s being okay with praying in schools, but dealing with bigotry and hate even if you do live in “the Bible Belt.” It’s knowing teenage card-carrying members of the KKK, who love that cool black football player and the chill musician with the dreads but are genuinely ignorant of their strange hypocrisy. Being the kind of Southern my Momma taught means growing a spine and looking past the intolerance and narrow-mindedness that sometimes fall hand in hand with religion, because it’s only then that you can see the face of God in that sunset and those pine trees.
Being small town Southern is learning how to live in grayscale. It’s not all bad or all good, and it sure as hell is not easy. It’s coming to terms with all sorts of things and, somehow, still dearly loving being a part of the South.