A Tri-Coastal Woman: Small Town Girl

Friendswood Friends ChurchI was born in Houston, but most of my childhood was spent in Friendswood, a tiny town just beyond the Houston suburbs (it later became the suburbs) founded by conservative Quakers.

We lived on fifteen acres, with a creek and woods and pasture and horses. Our creaky old house was well-stocked with books. I have lots of memories of riding my horse the two miles into Friendswood to get a coke at the grocery store and other memories of spending hot August days curled up in an easy chair, a fan turned directly on me, reading.

We didn’t even have a key to our house and left the keys in the car when we drove into Friendswood. Everyone in town knew everyone else.

Sounds idyllic, and in some ways it was. You didn’t run into huge crowds unless you went into Houston to go shopping or off to Galveston to go to the beach. People were friendly in that laid-back southern way.

But small towns are a lousy place to be different. What you learn, if you know you don’t fit in, is to either copy the ways of other people or keep your mouth shut.

The only thing about me that fits into a small, conservative, southern town is that I’m fifth-generation Anglo Texan. Meaning I can pass if I keep my mouth shut.

I’ve never been good at keeping my mouth shut.

It’s not just that your social life tanks if you’re different, particularly when you’re a teenager. It’s that there’s nobody to talk to.

I was fortunate in my parents, who were always different despite living in their native culture. I could talk to them. But it’s good to have people outside the family to talk to: friends who share your passions for ideas or stories, teachers who give you a new way of looking at things. Those things were in short supply.

You get very little exposure to different kinds of thinking – not to mention different kinds of people – in a small town.

I left home to go to college at eighteen and haven’t lived in a small town since.

Austin and the University of Texas opened the world up for me. Ideas and people to talk to about ideas everywhere you looked. I was hungry and I gobbled them up in my usual disorganized way.

For a couple of years, I lived in a small city – Wichita Falls – that was just as narrow as a small town. There I figured out that the dividing line between a narrow place and one vibrant and full of intellectual life is not necessarily based on population. A hundred thousand people live in Wichita Falls and the city has a college, but interesting conversations were in short supply, at least back then.

There’s nothing like big cities for providing the ferment and yeast and diversity that allow human beings the freedom to be the person they’re supposed to be while providing them with challenges along the way so that they can grow and expand.

Austin led me into co-ops. Washington, DC, expanded my martial arts opportunities and gave me the opportunity to be the only person of my race in the room (or on the block). I’m still finding my niche in Oakland, but the diversity and culture are giving me more ways to be and act.

Many people accuse us all of living in a “bubble” these days. They usually mean social media and the internet, and imply that we’re all getting fake news because we share things with our friends who agree with us.

As far as I’m concerned, the small towns of this country are the original bubble. The internet opened the doors for those stuck in those towns to realize how much else was out there.

There’s a reason the educated people leave the small towns and migrate to the cities, and it isn’t just jobs. They’re all looking for new ideas, opportunities, people worth talking to about something more than the weather and where you go to church.

Some of them – like me – would love to live in a smaller place if it provided the intellectual ferment and diversity of a big city. But big cities are not just the future, but the present. 83 percent of people in the US live in urban areas these days.

The solution for getting the best of both worlds might be to come up with ways to bring the community spirit found in the better small towns into city neighborhoods.

We’d better leave the horses behind, though.

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A Tri-Coastal Woman: Small Town Girl — 9 Comments

    • It certainly seems to be true of some university towns, but not all of them. I notice interesting things going on at Texas A&M, but I don’t think College Station, Texas, would be a place I could live unless it’s changed a lot more than I think it has.

      The towns with small liberal arts colleges are pretty nice, though. I like Yellow Springs, Ohio.

      • Are you ever right about A&M! It NEVER changes.

        You are also very right about small towns with those small liberal arts colleges. The problem is that these are called legacy and boutique colleges for real reasons. But Chestertown’s Washington College is one of those and the people we knew / know there, connected or not overtly connected to WC, are brilliant and became friends for life.

        Whereas my bro etc. live in a small city with a college or two and that is BUBBLE all the way from east to the river (on the others side is the black part), from north to south. Nobody ever sees anybody who isn’t just like them thinks just like them and if anyone ever dare have a different idea they know to keep it locked down inside in silence. They never talk about anything except the coming babies, the children, the weather and sports. I die, die, die, die there.

        • I’ve only spent a little time in Chestertown, but I did like the place. Whereas Wichita Falls, a larger city with a state college, is much like the place you describe at the end.

          A&M is changing in that there are good professors and programs there doing good work on things like climate change and the environment. Their press is putting out some very interesting books. But I wouldn’t want to live in College Station.

  1. Chestertown is an extremely pleasant place to live, particularly for those who are aging.

    It’s so community-minded. It had an anti-slavery club even before the War of Independence — there, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which remained staunchly CSA during the War of the Rebellion, though the rest of the state ensured Maryland didn’t secede. It’s very activist still, for environmental causes and social justice. It has a very active community theater. The college brings in all sorts of brilliant people. It has all sorts of annual festivals and every early summer the town and college host an international music workshop that brings in college music groups from all over the world, with open rehearsals for everyone. The kids stay in the homes of people in town.

    It’s a very special place. 🙂 I can express what a privilege it was for us to live there for a year!

  2. And Texas A&M now has open carry on campus and in the classroom. Professors feel supremely anxious about it, some have even left. It’s a massacre waiting to happen.

    • Texas law now requires all state colleges and universities to allow open carry. The law took effect on Aug. 1, 2016 — the 50-year anniversary of the day Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas tower and killed all those people. (That was on purpose; most new laws in Texas begin on either Sept. 1 or Jan. 1.) People at UT are very upset as well.

      • Everybody would be upset!

        One of the immediate objectives of the orange chaos demon’s ilks is to force states and cities like NYC to repeal weapons possession laws and bring in open carry. One can’t help but notice how state’s rights etc. no longer apply when those rights contradict what They want.

        Have you by chance seen this piece? Though published in July, 2015, it feels very appropriate particularly in the context of what is going on in Alabama right now.

        http://prospect.org/article/how-american-south-drives-low-wage-economy

        [ ” How the American South Drives the Low-Wage Economy
        prospect.org
        THE SLAVE ECONOMY OF the South dominated the antebellum American—and indeed, much of the European—economy. The Industrial Revolution, which first emerged in the … ” ]