By: Jennifer C. Mann
I am so excited and grateful for this week’s guest post! I started this blog hoping it would be a place where folks would do the very thing Jennifer Mann is doing here–reflecting on how their rural upbringing and identity are intertwined with their identities as teachers (and/or students).
I identified with and related to so much of what Mann writes about here and her writing also unearthed some things that I had yet to consider. I hope it does the same for you, and that if you’re a rural out-migrant teacher or student, you know that your writing to process and continue to learn about and build who you are has a welcome place and audience here.
Happy reading! — Dr. P
I didn’t understand my own story. I hadn’t really tried. I did what I thought we were all aiming to do, but I was one of the few who actually did. Now looking back, I realize it was much more complicated than I understood. I equated my rural out-migration with success. I left the place I was rooted, propelled by a feeling that unless I did, I wouldn’t and couldn’t be successful. I found a new place that was economically prosperous, and I settled.
I’ve now lived outside my rural hometown longer than I lived in it. But I’ve never felt at home with all the traffic, people, and general busyness. But I stuffed those feelings and plodded along– until this past April when I met a rural education scholar. Hearing that someone focused on rural education equally intrigued and puzzled me. I had undervalued my rural upbringing– marginalized it, really, and now I was being confronted with how I would make meaning and sense out of it. I’m a new scholar myself, working on my PhD at NC State University. I focus on and research matters of educational equity for a different group of marginalized people– refugee- and immigrant-background students– for displaced people.
I always felt a sort of kinship that I couldn’t pinpoint. I’m not from a refugee or immigrant background, but I’m a rural out-migrant, and I didn’t even know that was a thing. For those of you who were like me just yesterday– unaware of this term– a rural out-migrant is a rural person who left their rural place and settled in an urban or suburban place. I’m not trying to equate my life experience with people who were forced to relocate like the hundreds of students I’ve known and taught, rather, what I’m saying is that I’m starting to understand how it is I’ve always felt connected to their experiences.
The small town I lived in had a certain set of rules and functioning– a particular culture about it. I understood that culture. I knew the unwritten rules. I knew how to navigate it. I knew how to proceed, uninhibited. I knew the appropriate amount of time to small talk in the grocery line and what sort of topics I should stick to. Next year will be twenty years since I moved to the Raleigh area, and I still struggle to understand how to navigate unwritten social and cultural rules and norms. I can’t tell when my small talk is too much or when the topics I chat about are too personal. It seems that people get uncomfortable quicker here. I don’t fully grasp the culture.That part of me empathizes with my students.
I think also, I understand to some extent, their border thinking– this idea of living and navigating two spaces with different cultures. I understand what happens when you stay in the new place so long that you don’t fit in the old place, but you also will never fit in the new.
Like many of my students, I left my family behind. I had to.
That’s how it felt anyway. In order for me to find economic stability for myself, I had to venture into unknown territory and make my way. There’s a certain sadness to it. I grieved in many ways– not in traditional ones– because it felt complicated. Truth be told, I’ve been grieving more lately than I did then– grieving for what I lost two decades ago. I knew I had lost something. I knew I was choosing to lose it, without recognizing the cost of what I was losing. A cost no one mentions when they say that leaving leads to success.
I thought I was gaining a lot. I did gain a lot, but not without cost. The other parts of my students’ lives I have always understood in a deeply personal way deals with their and my experiences with poverty in the United States. I didn’t really talk to my colleagues about it– it didn’t feel wise to do so. People seem to get uneasy when issues of social class come up or when peripheral poverty issues enter the conversation. By peripheral poverty issues I mean talk about opioid issues, the implications of years of a lack of medical and dental care, even just never taking a family vacation as though it’s a given thing that people do.
My lived experiences differed so much from my colleagues. I read their discomfort and tried to say less. But I shared the realities of my upbringing with my students. I shared about growing up getting free lunch, being on medicaid, and living in a house that was wanting from wear. I shared about economic instability, fear, and trauma. These were issues they faced daily, and I wanted them to know I understood. Truth is, I was more authentic with them than I was with my coworkers. Because I felt my students– my refugee- and immigrant-background students– could understand my experiences, and I could understand theirs.
I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life walking alongside students who have been displaced– without ever recognizing my own displacement. Albeit a more chosen displacement. But what happens when I don’t want it anymore?
That’s where I am today. Wondering. Wondering if a rural out-migrant can return and what that might look like.
Jennifer C. Mann grew up in rural southwestern Virginia. She is currently a doctoral candidate in the Teacher Education and Learning Sciences PhD program at NC State, specializing in Literacy and English Language Arts Education. Her research includes critical literacy, culturally sustaining pedagogy, and the social emotional well-being of marginalized students. She has spent 15 years teaching students ranging from kindergarten to college, spending the majority of that time as a high school English Literature teacher, specializing in instruction to immigrant and refugee-background students.