IT was a gorgeous, warm, light autumn day, and I’d just had a lovely walk through Back Bay, one of my favorite parts of Boston. I had come to the neuropsychologist after my first year wading through readings and constantly fighting distraction at Harvard, wondering if I might have an attention disorder. (I didn’t.) Now I sat waiting the results of his evaluation. He called me into his office cordially. “First, I want to say how impressive it is that you’ve made it to graduate school at Harvard,” he began, “coming from where you come from, without a good education system.” Later that night, my girlfriend, who’d moved with me from Athens, Georgia and was working part-time as a teacher, told me how she couldn’t believe that schools in Boston only have one fine arts teacher per district. The public high school I graduated from—the worse of the two in Athens—has an entire fine arts building, with two full-time teachers for visual arts alone.
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The thing I find most personally frustrating about being a southerner living outside of the South—in Babylon, I often joke—is the common presumption that wherever one comes from must be a much worse place than wherever one is now. Near strangers will not hesitate to assume that the people back home must be poorer; the politics must be more conservative; the society must be more backward; the schools must be poorer, in both senses of the word; and the race relations . . . well, you know. The specifics of location are usually unimportant.
Of course, poverty, conservatism, and illiteracy are neither ubiquitous in the South nor absent in the rest of the country. Comments like the one my neuropsychologist made are most frustrating not because they imagine that this isn’t true, however, but because they shut down the possibility for nuanced thinking. Even when the South does live up to its stereotypes, those stereotypes prevent us from seeing the whole picture.
Take, for example, my alma mater, Cedar Shoals High School. In 2002, the year that I graduated, its retention rate was roughly fifty percent—even lower among black and Latino students. That’s terrible, but so is taking that statistic as evidence of the South’s failings in education. Doing so reduces a complex topic like education to a single measurement, ignoring the many ways in which my high school was exceptional; it also misses the fact that seventy-five percent of my school qualified for the National School Lunch Program—in 2002, that meant living on $33,000 or less for a family of four—and some 25% of Athens-Clarke County lived below the poverty line. Chalking my school’s poor retention rate up to a generally poor southern education system misses the good in my school, ignores the varied and nuanced reasons for the failings it does have, and turns a blind eye to the many problems of schools outside of the South.
I’ve written before that “there are Wal-Mart parking lots in Maine and California where racist good ol’ boys drive large pickup trucks,” and that “there are also financial districts in New York where equally racist good ol’ boys are driven in large sedans.” That’s true of all southern stereotypes, but it’s also true that the South sometimes lives up to them. Pretending we know something about the South—pretending, even, that there is such a thing as the South that can be known—keeps us from seeing how and why, and from ever being able to do anything about it. Nothing could be less impressive.