Those who never try living in the middle of America are missing out. I’ll probably end up back in Northern New England some day, but in the meanwhile I’m more than content with my eight years plus in Kentucky. Referencing those who ignore the 3,000 miles between the coasts, Jason Aldean sings in his recent hit “Fly Over States”:
They’ve never drove through Indiana
Met the man who plowed that earth
Planted that seed, busted his ass for you and me
Or caught a harvest moon in Kansas
They’d understand why God made
Those fly over states
The country song reminded me of an unpublished essay draft I wrote for my alumni magazine back in December, 2007. I had recently returned from a trip to New York City, and my sister Carolyn had been featured in the magazine for her amazing world travels. Middlebury College’s choice to highlight its international scope helped me realize that my choice to move to Kentucky via an elite liberal arts college in New England was pretty rare and, in many cases, more foreign to my classmates than traveling to another continent:
Where’s your postcard, Barnwell? Nice picture of the younger sis. Just where and what have you been doing? I laughed as Middlebury friends chided me over the holiday break during a visit to New York City. They were reacting to my younger sister’s public relations involvement with The Middlebury Initiative, apparently complete with a colored postcard mailed to all alumni with a heading Where in the World is Carolyn Barnwell? (I have not yet seen it).
Carolyn Barnwell, class of 2006.5, has been traveling around the South Pacific on her Watson fellowship. She is focused on climate change and its effect on island communities. I couldn’t be more proud of her adventurous spirit and ability to deeply connect with people. It doesn’t seem to matter with Carolyn—she’ll bond with folks as disparate as country store clerks in Ripton, rice farmers in Thailand, Proctor dining hall staff, to fisherman in Tuvalu. Out of all her travels, she has seemed to become most comfortable and willing to learn about Southeast Asia and various Pacific Island nations. I’ve also been lucky to do some fairly extensive traveling in my life, but I’ve settled down a bit in a place a far cry from Carolyn’s focus. I have chosen my own path as a public school teacher in Kentucky.
It isn’t groundbreaking news to report that Kentucky isn’t a hot destination for recent college graduates from the east coast. When I mention the word “Kentucky” to friends and family back home—those who haven’t yet ventured down south to visit—the images many conjure up are of toothless tobacco chewers lounging in rocking chairs on rickety porches, dilapidated mountain coal towns, and the finish line at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.
Had I followed a more typical track of my colleagues, I’d have rushed to inhabit the exciting, but exorbitantly expensive, eastern seaboard cities of Boston, New York, or Washington D.C. Or joined the Peace Corps to work on rural development in Chile. Or taken a year off to backpack across Europe.
Reading over outlines for Middlebury’s Global Initiative, I wonder how domestic places within the United States fit in to the plan? How many Middlebury graduates are encouraged to extend their influence and skills to “foreign” places within the United States? For many within the Middlebury community, Kentucky and other oft-overlooked— and dare I say, belittled—states are as foreign as small countries peppered around the globe. But Kentucky has been a surprisingly fertile place to grow personally and professionally.
Back in the cramped Upper East Side apartment, I entertained friends with my own tales of living and teaching in and around Louisville, Kentucky. I have taught disillusioned students from housing projects, Mexican immigrants, many tobacco farmin’ John Deere tractor aficionados, and students from modest subdivisions sprung up in former corn fields. I have embarked on several quests for the best barbecue in the region (jury is still out). I have bought and renovated a century-old shotgun style home in a recently named historic preservation neighborhood. I have attended the Kentucky Derby, listened to Grammy-Award caliber bluegrass bands picking away during free concerts at the local park, and met countless cordial, intelligent, and generous people in Louisville.
What I am most proud of accomplishing thus far in Kentucky, however, has been my ability to connect with and inspire many middle school language arts students. I credit Middlebury with fostering in me many qualities relating to critical thinking, communication skills (both oral and written), and creativity. These characteristics, when put to use in a classroom, give me advantages when planning lessons, interacting with frustrated parents, or reviewing school curriculum with the principal.
Middlebury’s Global Initiative is truly impressive as the college moves to become an even more dynamic institution in the competitive field of elite higher education. Middlebury graduates can make immeasurable impact branching out in service of others, whether by investigating the impact of climate change on South Pacific Islanders or provoking excitement in middle school students over a new novel or creative writing assignment. Sometimes I feel like I’ve chosen an even more exotic location than many Middlebury graduates who do reach beyond the national borders—let’s not forget the 3,000 miles of America between Atlantic and Pacific coasts.