Hometown Confusion

“Hey, would you mind? I’m, uh, sort of sitting here.” The stranger points awkwardly to the middle seat next to me. The woman behind him with a screaming baby grunts her disapproval at the holdup. “Yeah, no, sure of course,” I say, standing up to let him squeeze past me. I curse my habit of getting on planes obsessively early. As he settles into his chair, Netbook open on his lap, he smiles weakly. “Where’re you from?” he asks. To most, this is an ordinary question, one that requires no thought or beating around the bush. However, with every one of these flights back and forth to Boston, the answer is always more complex. Growing up in Iowa can give someone a sense of caution about an occasion like this one, at least for me. I live constantly with the irrational fear that someone will hear “Oh, I’m from Iowa,” and think, “Oh, she looks like she’s from Iowa.” So, to avoid this, I find myself embarking on an unnecessary and rambling explanation to give them the right idea: I wasn’t born in Iowa, I was actually born outside of the U.S., my parents are middle class professionals, I have never tipped a cow, I live in a quasi-development and not a farmhouse, there are big schools and malls and movie theaters that cost more than two dollars. We have pizza and football teams, we just got our first French restaurant and yes, corn happens to be my favorite vegetable, but not for the reason you think. By this time the man might think I’m quite insane, as many others have. Though I expect most of you don’t share my particular hometown stigma, there comes a time when, at a place like Andover, you start to question where you call home. I don’t know anymore whether, after two years living independently halfway across the country, I am still considered an Iowan. After all, I don’t have much in common with the people who are still back in Iowa, living the life of a midwestern teenager I was so desperate to escape. And the Iowa life that I once treasured as a hideaway from the grade pressures, social pressures, everything—suddenly has its own tensions. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I was always restless, or maybe it’s because I feel a certain disconnect, but I no longer feel completely comfortable with talking about where I’m from. At the same time, however, it is equally implausible for me to consider Phillips Academy home. Because Andover, for all intents and purposes, is a college, a machine: It grabs you from a pack of promising fourteen year-olds, puts you through hoops and ideally spits you out a more intelligent, open-minded and aware person. And though friends and adults you trust are all very important, it would seem to give Andover undue credit if I said to this airplane stranger that I am from PA, and when I go back to school, I am essentially “coming home.” So I sink into my seat on the plane, running these realizations through my mind as the man taps on the screen of his Netbook, waiting for an answer from the strange girl who doesn’t know where she lives. And my mind turns to an email from my dad, with a Time Magazine article in the subject line and the message, “Thought you might enjoy this.” The article chronicled Barack Obama’s day after his speech on the healthcare victory in the Senate, which took place, coincidentally, in Iowa City, about a mile from my house. It depicts a frazzled president as he hunts through Prairie Lights, my beloved Iowa City independent bookstore, for the children’s section, to find something for his daughters. He picks up books for his aides and Axelrod, and for a moment, I am walking through the bookstore at his side, whispering covertly, “It’s in the basement, Mr. President.” In those rare moments, some things just flood back from distant memory. Like farmers markets on Wednesday mornings, sidewalk sales in March, birthday dinners at my favorite Italian restaurant, the ridiculously amateur pageants at the county fair and the stolen summer days sneaking books up to the café at the top floor of Prairie Lights. And I am certain that, at least in that moment, the plane taking me back to Boston is not taking me home. “Iowa. I’m from Iowa,” I reply, finding my place in the trashy novel again. “Oh, I saw the president on CNN a couple days ago. He was in Iowa,” he says absentmindedly, tip-tapping on his keyboard. “Go figure,” I say. Thea Raymond-Sidel is a two-year Lower from Iowa City, IA.