Earlier this week, WV Public Radio show Inside Appalachia posed a question on Twitter: did Appalachian ex-patriates regret leaving? Were they homesick? How did they alleviate that?
My answer is probably obvious — I named my blog The Homesick Appalachian, after all. I left, and I have regrets and homesickness. Those regrets have grown up only in the past few years, and I’ve been thinking a lot about them.
The question sat in my mind for a couple of days, and I started pondering why I left. After all, now I do have regrets, although I didn’t for a long time. What had been going on in my 17-year-old mind? What was I thinking then that’s different now?
While there were several reasons why I left, one stands out as something I think is worthy of a larger discussion.
I think I left in part because I was expected to.
It wasn’t spoken, that I recall, but I feel like there was always an understanding there — that if you could leave, you probably would. If you could get into a prestigious college, or get a good job somewhere else, you should go. If you left, you probably wouldn’t be back to stay.
It’s hard now to pinpoint the source of that expectation. Was it just my mother, who most definitely did expect me to go to the best school that A)I could get into and B) we could afford? I don’t think it was just Mom. I think, peering back through the fog of the years, that that expectation was coming from other adults, the teachers and the parents of my friends.
I’d be interested in hearing if other Appalachians felt that unspoken expectation when they were young. I also wonder if my former classmates — particularly the nerdy, college-track crowd — remember that understanding the same way. Of course, a lot of my classmates still live in or near our hometown. Clearly not everyone felt this expectation to leave. But Facebook and the couple of reunions we’ve had tells me that a fair number of other classmates live elsewhere now.
While I feel that there was the expectation from the grownups that we should go, it wasn’t about Bluefield being a bad place. It was a good place, a safe place, the schools were good. It’s still a good place, especially to raise a family. It wasn’t necessarily a great place to look for a career, or for adventure.
Because of course, when you’re 17 or 18, raised in a small town, you want out. You want adventure, you want to explore something bigger. I do think leaving, for a while, is a good idea for anyone — living somewhere you didn’t grow up is an educational experience, whether you grew up in Appalachia or New York City.
I bring all this up because I wonder what expectations kids in Appalachia are feeling today. Do they think they’re expected to leave? Are they urged out of the nest and out of the mountains? What kind of messages are they hearing?
The other weekend, there was a conference, or festival, or something in between, called It’s Good 2 Be Young in the Mountains. I am neither particularly young anymore, nor in the mountains, and I wasn’t there, but I did hear about it. I don’t even need, really, to read their schedule — the mere title of the conference says to me that kids in Appalachia might be hearing more reinforcement to stay than I heard when I was their age.
I don’t remember anyone, 15 or 20 years ago, talking about finding ways to stay, finding ways to build a full life there at home. Perhaps I wouldn’t have listened if they did. But I don’t feel like we ever heard an overt message to stay when I was 18. Not from our teachers, or local governments. It seems like we’re hearing more of those positive messages in the past couple of years, and that’s a good thing.
Last month I heard a story on NPR about an ad campaign in Montana, urging its grown kids to come back home. Turns out it’s a businessman urging Montana’s grown natives to come back and telecommute to the jobs they already have.
It’s an intriguing idea for Appalachia, where it can be hard to attract new businesses. There’s a lot of talk about Appalachian revitalization and ways to build a post-coal economy. Wouldn’t it be great if we could live in Appalachia and work remotely for companies anywhere in the world? It would save trying to lure them to the mountains.
People leave their hometowns for all kinds of reasons, of course, not always for an education or a job. It can be hard to be different in Appalachia, as it probably is in any small town or rural area. It can be hard to find your tribe. Some people want the benefits of city living, or warmer weather, or nearby beaches. Some people think the place they’re from is backwards and dying, and they want forwards and living.
I went off to college, moved back home afterward because I hadn’t found a job elsewhere, and stayed a couple of years, working. But at 23 I still didn’t think home was big enough. I thought I had to go after bigger things and more adventures. And so I left again. I did not have a particular plan or destination in mind, I did not really leave Appalachia on purpose. I just chased a job. And then another job, further away, advancing my career.
But when you stay gone, you put down roots without even planning it. I left for jobs and adventures, but I did not think about where I wanted to build a life. I thought I would get to that, after the adventures, and maybe that’s where I am now, thinking about where I want to build a life, even though I’ve spent rather a long time building one where I live now.
I try not to second-guess my younger self. I didn’t regret leaving until recently, and I had a good career that I thought was what I was meant to do, for a long time. The things I want now are not the things I wanted then.
It’s self-indulgent to give unsolicited advice, but no one can ever help doing it, and I can’t either. If a young person in Appalachia today asked me if he or she should leave, I would say this: Think really hard about where you want to build your life. Be deliberate about where you grow roots. Go explore, but it’s ok to stay, and it’s ok to come home.