I’m so excited for this guest contribution! I’ve written on here quite a bit about my own efforts to work through and understand my identity as a rural person who is now an out-migrant. I’ve also discussed my analysis of the tensions in rural identity in Nora Shalaway Carpenter‘s short story “Close Enough”. Which really spoke to my own experiences in the world.
All of these are efforts to figure out how and where we fit – in rural spaces that are(n’t) our own and non rural spaces alike.
Defining and navigating our identities – especially in the ways they are connected to place(s) – is tricky. Even just defining what rural is and what counts as rural is fraught. The Census Bureau basically defines rural as the “not urban” but there is a huge amount of variability and variety that exists within that definition.
Rural is defined as all population, housing, and territory not included within an urbanized area or urban cluster. As a result, the rural portion of the United States encompasses a wide variety of settlements, from densely settled small towns and ‘large-lot’ housing subdivision on the fringes of urban areas to more sparsely populated and remote areas.(Ratcliffe et al., 2016, p. 3).
This definition also fails to recognize those of us who grew up rural, who still identify as rural, but who no longer live in rural places, aka out-migrants. These and other reasons are why in my own work I follow Mara Tieken (2014) in preferring to let the rural identify itself.
- Do the people I’m working with identify themselves as rural? If yes, then they’re rural.
- Do they identify their town as rural? If yes, then it’s rural.
In my experience, the folks who identify themselves or their town as rural share similar cultural and linguistic practices to me, even if their town was bigger than mine or they’re from a different state than me. As Monica Roe and I recently discussed – there’s just something about being rural across states and, in her case, even nations that allows us to relate to one another and instantly build rapport and understanding.
So, I was immensely grateful and excited when Gretchen reached out and wanted to share how she has and continues to navigate her own rural identity. Her story continues to expand on and acknowledge the nuance in building and having a rural identity. Thanks, Gretchen!
But I didn’t live on a farm: Growing into my rural identity
When I was a kid, I would never have identified myself as rural. I thought that term only described people who lived on farms or out in the countryside. I lived in a town, albeit a very small one, along the Ohio River in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Sure, there were people a few miles away that we considered to be living “out in the country,” but those few miles felt like a big difference. We called those people hoopies and I definitely wasn’t one of those. The fact that I was born in West Virginia didn’t make me consider myself rural either. I was only born there; when we came home from the hospital, my parents took the bridge back over the river and we were back in Ohio.
Therefore, none of those West Virginia jokes applied to me, right? I didn’t even think I was rural when I got a grant to attend college for living in Appalachia. As I mentioned before, it was only the foothills, so it hardly counted.
It seems I had a deficit mindset around rural identities before I even knew what a deficit mindset was.
When I headed to college, I met a lot of people from small towns like myself, but I met just as many from large suburban areas outside of metropolitan areas and I could definitely see that there were differences between us. For one, some of the language we used was different. No one there knew that I meant a shopping cart when I said “buggy,” and they certainly weren’t using words like “crick” instead of creek or calling a group of people “yinz.” Also, our parents had different types of jobs.
My dad was a Union plumber/pipefitter and my mom stayed at home with us for the majority of my childhood before working in a local pharmacy. My new friends’ parents were more likely to be professionals who worked in offices. And, our childhoods seemed to be filled with different kinds of activities. While I have wonderful memories of playing at the river and “crick,” or hiking through the woods as a kid, my suburban counterparts didn’t have these same stories.
While the saying goes “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone,” my experience was “you don’t know you’re rural til you’re not in a rural place anymore.” The things that made me different from the new people I was meeting didn’t make me ashamed of where I came from, rather it made me feel proud. While I was growing and changing during this time in my life, I wanted to hang on to those roots.
After college, I moved to a city and lived right in the heart of downtown. I love the city life and all there was to do and experience. But I got a teaching job in a small rural community. Home of a Sweet Corn Festival (what could be more rural than that)?! I didn’t intend to stay there long, but here I am at the beginning of my twenty-first year in that school district.
Sure, there are places in and around the city where I live that would be more conveniently located and even pay a better salary, but I keep commuting out to the corn fields because there is just something about this place that is special. Whether it’s the small classes, how well I get to know my students, or the fact that I feel like I have something to offer these students that perhaps a suburban student wouldn’t need from a teacher, I feel invested in teaching rural students.
Last year I began a doctoral program and I quickly realized that no matter what my research is, rurality will be a part of it in some way. As a kid, the fact that I didn’t have a barn or a cow kept me from identifying as rural. Today, even as a city dweller, rurality is an important part of my identity, my work, and my research interests. It just took me a while to realize what had always been there.
Contributor Bio: Gretchen Schroeder grew up in Toronto, Ohio and now resides in Columbus, Ohio with her husband and two daughters. She is a high school English teacher at Millersport High School and a doctoral student in Literature for Children and Young Adults at The Ohio State University.