You ever get one of those questions that just stumps you completely? For me, they seem to happen with someone you don’t know very well, but well enough to ask personal questions to get to know you. You have a little back and forth, each one sharing their opinion or story or perception, and then WHAM! You just get stopped. In the moment it’s novel, but then later you are plagued a bit by the answer that is still missing.
Now, about 10 hours after first being asked why I left my hometown, I’m writing in hopes of discovering the answer. 10 hours ago, all I could muster was “I just knew I had to.”
I come from Barberton, Ohio, a town of 26,500, according to Wikipedia. They’re most known for their unique style of fried chicken and more locally recognized for basketball. Their glory days were in the 70s, and now they have a nice gymnasium where regional tournaments often host games.
It’s a modest, Midwestern town. Despite the population consistently declining since the 70s, albeit in small increments, the once home of the Blue Tip Match company is going through somewhat of a comeback. There are new schools and roads that make it look much nicer than 10 years ago. There’s a nice YMCA in what is an otherwise dead “downtown.” Splashes of purple, the high school’s color along with white, can be seen on festive fire trucks, hydrants, and drain covers. From an outside point of view, things are looking up for another gleaming example of Rust Belt success ruined by the decline of industry.
Many people there will tell you there is nothing to do in the town, and they almost wouldn’t be exaggerating. Perhaps that’s why I got out, but when I made the move I was more than content playing poker, basketball, wiffleball and anything else with my friends. The answer can’t be that simple, though, because it seems to be the case that more people stay than leave.
Thinking back on my last couple of years in high school, I can remember clearly the process of looking at colleges. Many of my friends were doing the same, and most looked at no further than nearby Akron U or Kent St. In all honestly, I never considered those until after I left and felt a little homesick. My first target, instead, was the tiny Pittsburgh Institute of Aviation (PIA). After a visit from one of their representatives, I asked my dad to drive me out there and check it out. In retrospect, I have no idea why I thought being an airplane mechanic was for me, but I do remember being blown away by just being in Pittsburgh. I remember seeing the houses high on the Appalachian hillsides and thinking I was in an exotic world. Though it was just another struggling Rust Belt remnant (also currently going through a Renaissance), the idea of being there screamed my name. I almost signed a commitment letter that day, but my dad asked me to hold off. Though he liked the idea of a small, and cheap, technical school, he somehow knew that his eldest son needed to see something else. I’m so glad he did.
That was in early fall 2006, and sometime in November of the same year I was offered to hitch a ride to the University of Cincinnati with a friend and his parents. I really knew nothing about the city or the school. The closest I got before that was a visit with my grandparents, who went when I was 11. I dutifully decided to play goalie in a game in which we lost 7-1. But this time I got to miss class, an enabling activity for anyone’s rampant senioritis, so I joined.
It took only a few minutes to realize this was where I wanted to go. The campus sat in the heart of a big city, not unlike PIA, but the campus was so much more impressive. The tour guide ambled down Main Street, which curves through the heart of the campus, and I struggled to shuffle along with the rest. I wanted to run up and down every set of steps, in and out of every building, so I could get to know it a little better before I enrolled. Yeah, I had already decided. In fact, it was probably the easiest decision of importance that I have ever made. “No-brainer” describes that process well.
I’ll admit, the first year or so wasn’t the honeymoon I expected. I got introduced to heavy alcohol consumption and demanding scholarship requirements that stress you out like none other. I had good friends (who I now know are the reason I stayed) but I missed my group from Barberton. Frequent weekend visits did not help. During the winter of my second year, which I now recognize as probably my worst bout with depression, I resigned to go back to Barberton and transfer to Akron. But as I mentioned before, my friends at UC were enough for me to want to stay. I returned for my junior and senior year.
In March of my senior year, 2011, I reached the point of no return. Specifically that happened when I went to Guatemala, and my boundaries extended past Ohio, past the States, and past the First World. I went somewhere that was so startlingly different from where I had come from that I instantly knew I could never look at the world the same. I felt so ignorant. How there could be people living like they were in Guatemala, just a 6 hour plane ride away, was mind-blowing. They had so little, even compared to my modest Barberton upbringing. I was converted in my first days there. In that moment I became one of those that can never go back.
But the question still goes unanswered. At this point, I don’t know if I’ll ever get a hearty answer that can be used in a Miss America pageant. I’m coming up on seven years since I filled my ’93 Grand Marquis up with clothes and new school materials and headed down to Cincinnati. Eventually I’ll laugh at how I thought seven years was so long, but in terms of human development it’s an eon. In my opinion, that shy kid with unkempt hair and oversize T-shirts (a silly, and frankly stupid attempt to look bigger than I was) is barely related to me now.
There is one link, however: a desire to learn. Ever since I could read I’ve brought books home in backpacks or Borders bags, or virtually on a Kindle I’m only now adjusting too. I watch movies from countries all over the world and test my hand at recipes that I can’t pronounce. My introduction to Spanish in 6th grade was a revelation, and I’ve never looked back in my pursuit of languages. I seek out conversations with those I know the least about, dating back to walks with my Serbian classmates that were more like interviews. You can guess who was asking the questions.
(This is where a good writer would put a sensible transition but I’ll lazily give you a parenthesized warning about the discovery of an answer.)
The Sandlot was my favorite movie from the time I got it for my birthday (I think I was 9) until I went to college. Then it became October Sky. Though they may not seem related at first, I just realized how they are, and in turn how they relate to me. Both movies center around kids with big dreams who live in a small town. They fight against all their doubters and challengers, trip over hurdles until they leap over them, and eventually arrive at the place they wanted to go from the beginning. It’s cheesy and feel-good and formulaic and oh-so-applicable to me.
I wish what I wanted to be was as as easy to say as “baseball player” or “rocket scientist,” but it’s not. In all honesty, I’m still searching for a job title that fits it. Unfortunately it’s not acceptable to list “Philanthropic Anthony Bourdain” on a resume, but you can imagine what that entails. I want to know the world and all its cultures, all the while helping them with what they need. Obviously, this changes everywhere. Even more obvious, I won’t have time for this in what is a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things. It takes a lot of time to come anywhere near knowing a culture well enough to be trusted with making changes within it. Maybe it takes a lifetime. I don’t think I’ll ever know. However, as long as I’m learning and growing, I think I’ll be satisfied.
“So, why did you leave?” I ask myself, like I did for Dragan our sophomore year of high school.
Well, now that I’ve had time to think, I want to learn as much as I can. That’s why.