Small Town America: Arkansas Edition

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arkansas.jpgEver since Sarah Palin became the new Britney Spears, there's been a lot of talk about "small town America."  Apparently, "we grow good people" there, people with much better values than the Washington network of old boys.  This is somewhat standard Republican campaign nonsense, but Ms. Palin's glaringly excessive pride at having governed a small Alaskan town with its impeccable moral standing, reveals that the concept of the moralistic small town has become as pervasive as stuffed elephant souvenirs in the aftermath of the activities in St. Paul.  In light of this current political position, I've decided to share my personal experience of living in what the Republicans deem the proper American Utopian environment. 

We were living, ironically, in Washington DC when the US Air Force decided to ship our family down to the heart of the deep south.  Arkansas exhibits a relatively understated mystique, this being based on its claim as the birthplace of Presidential charisma (i.e. Bill Clinton), but the state bears a very individual sense of pride that is often intertwined with dogmatic arrogance and seemingly, for lack of a better word, bigotry. BBQ, southern comfort food and super-sized people roamed the land, speaking more slowly than Jeff Conway on the last season of "Celebrity Rehab" while hanging out on porches under the Confederate flag. We had moved to the Bible Belt, but we still had hopes of fitting in.

This proved far more difficult than anticipated for all of us, but perhaps most notably, for me.  The first incident occurred in my 6th grade Gifted and Talented Class (GT) held three afternoons a week in the trailer behind the North Little Rock elementary school. That's the class where if you can spell and sit quietly for ten minutes, they assume that you must be a genius that needs extra special attention and unfortunately, more homework. We were busy making some sort of arts and crafts project when a fellow student, Kate, asked what church my family would be attending. "Um, we don't really go to church," I replied, as she yielded one of the more priceless facial reactions I've experienced in the last 24 years, a cross between utter horror and panic. Kate looked at me as if I had just shot her dog. Kate leaned across the desk, having put down her scissors and Elmer's Glue stick carefully before making the following statement. "We are soldiers of God, Molly, and we are here to save you," she said in as grave a manner as is possible for a sixth grader. 

This situation was bound to come up though, the incomprehensible fact that there were people in the world like my family that did not attend church on Sundays, did not pray and thank Jesus for dinner and did not believe in some unremittingly domineering higher power.  Still, as you can imagine, there was a significant learning curve.  Yet, in time, I situated myself in between the lines of telling the other kids how crazy they were by arguing against religion and racism and that of silently observing, creating my little safe niche in North Little Rock High School society as a person who kept to herself, wielding neutrality as her most prized and invaluable of aptitudes. The moral hypocrisy of those around me and in my classes never caused as much resentment as self-predicted, regardless of how bad it seemed to get. team_arkansas.jpgWhile I was playing tennis, the church-going and self-proclaimed believers drank, smoked and had sex. On Sunday they asked for forgiveness and all was right with the world. Somehow, God understood their antics and underage activities. He even understood teen pregnancy and the high drop-out rate as as the number of high school graduates that would leave with babies soared.

One of my first friends in Arkansas was a girl named Marcia, by 10th grade she was pregnant. While I went on to attend college in New York City, the only kid from my school and likely state to do so, Marcia went on to take care of her one year old son with another on the way. My old GT classmate Kate had become known as one of the more promiscuous girls who apparently gave lessons in blow jobs. For a community that boasted purity rings, a substantial association of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and an undying love and worship of God, it had a horrendous track record among the younger population. But lest this become a rant against the place of residence that attempted to mold me into an inferior version of myself rather than an argument against present political notions, I will say that my character grew exponentially through my experiences in Arkansas.

bristol.jpgSix years after graduation, I keep in touch with a very rare few from those high school days, opting to ignore the Facebook friend requests from those who may see my status in the Big Apple as something to venerate. I peruse their profiles and find only a select number of old classmates who have yet to take the popular, small town route of getting hitched early and procreating out of college. This isn't to say that marrying and having babies at my age (24) is wrong, but it's the only choice that those kids I used to sit next to in English class saw possible. And that's what I find disheartening. And it's also what's increasingly paradoxical about the stance opined by Ms. Palin, and others from the RNC, that this idea of the moralistic small town is what America should supposedly model itself after.  America is about opportunity, not conforming to moralistic rules.  And seriously, attempting to maintain a strong position on morals while announcing that your own unwed 17 year old daughter is 5 months knocked up seems so ludicrous, not to mention politically unsound, that I can only laugh out loud at its utter absurdity.  But maybe I'm off base; in Arkansas a pregnant unwed seventeen year old is hardly rare.

2 Comments

  • 1

    Wow, it's like a page out of my own Texas experience (Texxperience?). I remember the first and only time I went to Catholic church in my tiny hovel of a town, with a friend after spending the night at his place in 4th grade, I didn't know what the rosary was for so I put it around my neck, causing a wave of laughter and pointing from every redneck in the congregation to ripple outward and fill the church.

    Oh yeah.

    Anyway, I second your emotions. I like some folksy small towners, but the vast majority in my town were the same screw-and-eat-Chicken-Fried-Steak-then-beat-wife-and-kids-all-week-then-apologize-on-Sunday mold.

  • 2

    I don't recommend ever going back...or maybe I DO...

    I finally escaped my oppressive little hometown hellhole
    -conservative, redneck, small-minded- when I was 23.
    Five years later I’m finding it worse than I remembered.
    Leaving New York or Europe for a place like this
    is as close to self-immolation as I ever want to get.

    But- If intelligent people give up entire chunks of our country
    to the American Taliban (racists, holy war mongering christians,
    moralizing anti-choice plutocrats, oil&gas developer greed)
    what does that say about us?

    Michelle Obama's mom and dad ,(and lots of other moms and dads)
    wondered what would happen if every young person
    went back to their roots for a little while.
    For starters they should be prepared for social death
    because nothing kills a buzz like a crowd of
    (gaahhh, rip out my eyballs I've actually SEEN this)
    Women for McCain t-shirts.
    On the other hand it's creatively and politically
    exhilarating to be surrounded by the enemy.

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