Growing up in small town in east Texas, I had a “Friday Night Lights” high school experience. The most prominent building in my town was the high school football stadium where, on Friday nights, the whole of the county came alive and descended upon the lights to cheer on the Lions. Friday night was a cross between a Norman Rockwell painting the modern American aggressive character. One hundred kids in the band, 20 cheerleaders, 80 football players, and a stadium filled with people.
The front yards of the football players were adorned with signs bearing a football with their jersey number. Girls would drive by in the night and sign it, marking the idea that maybe she likes him. The rodeo was the biggest attraction along with the county fair. On the weekends we always ended up on someone’s land with a few cases of beer and way too much ammunition. The jocks were on one set of trucks, nerds on another, girls were walking around in groups of two and three. As a teenager, it was a fun life. But I knew, by looking at the 19-30 year olds that showed up to the games, that there had to be life outside of this small town.
The group I’m talking about consisted of people that were tied to the town. Their entire family, extended included, lived within the county. They usually worked in the paper mill, ammunition plant, tire factory (which downsized in the early 2000’s), or went to the lumber yards. Many of them had gotten pregnant directly out of high school and had no choice but to marry. They simply didn’t know a life outside of the county. Don’t get me wrong, many of them loved the small town life and were very happy staying. But upon talking to many of them near the concession stands or along the fence line of the field, it didn’t take me long to see many of them were full of regret. They were divorced; having a hard time keeping a job, family was borrowing money, and a myriad of other problems. As I listened to them tell me about their lives, the sentence “I wish I’d left” was a common phrase.
I was completely out of my element being dropped off at college. The University of Texas was coming alive on a hot August day and buzz was in the air. Students that I would have never seen in my small town were everywhere. The first night there I ended up drinking with a guy who’d grown up in an embassy in Asia. His head was shaved save a pony tail that came out of the side (it was dyed red). He regaled me with tales of traveling through Thailand, Australia, and China. I was entranced and addicted to college. I couldn’t get enough.
I joined the rowing team, made the third boat, met my hot fresh-out-of-college coach named Patty, and assumed a set of friends that would stay with me for life. The rowing team was the United Nations. He had two Germans, a Dutchman, a Scot, a Nigerian, and the rest of us were from Texas. One of the rowers grew up in Austin. His parents were divorced; Mom came out of the closet and got a girlfriend; so he grew up in a house with two moms who raised him vegetarian. I was fascinated by my surrounding, and was quickly realizing the many shortfalls that my personality carried.
Small town Texas guys are taught to be tough, not patient, and demanding. Instead of dealing with a problem by staying calm and finding the best solution, we got angry. “Suck it up” and “Take the hit” were common phrases growing up. Basically, if it could be applied to the football field, it applied to all boys.
The University of Texas changed all of this. I didn’t have a choice really. I was surrounded by 55,000 students from every corner of the globe and different outlooks on life; if I wanted to make friends, adapting was mandatory. I loved this new population of people, soaking up all of them. When I would hear an accent I would bolt to them and ask questions. They probably thought I was some type of hick from the sticks, but that didn’t matter. These new people were surrounding me, and I wanted to meet every one of them.
For some odd reason, I joined a fraternity for all of 8 months. I met a couple of them in my dorm and they convinced me to join. And after many weeks and a few hundred cans of beer, I agreed. What I found was a very wealthy group of young men who acted like they were from my home town, just with money. Some of them were good, but most of them were typical frat guys. Not understanding why I was there, I quit. Let me put a disclaimer out there: I’m not anti-frat. Many of the members loved being there and saw it as their glory days. They dated and married out of that life. It just wasn’t for me.
The rowing team took me to every corner of our country; my teammates taught me travel, culture, and loving different people. Austin gave me a river to float in the summer time, friends to be on that river, and experiences that I never imagined. Upon graduation I sold everything and bought a one way ticket to Paris, and my next journey started. I worked as a tour guide in north France, farmed in Holland, and crewed a boat in the Mediterranean. I loved every minute of it.
The point is this. Small towns are great. When I go back, the familiar sites and running into old classmates brings back good memories. If small towns are where you love, then I back you 100%. But I would encourage anyone from small town America to at least spread your wings and see other things. Whether it’s taking a road trip to the gulf or simply eating dinner with a family who speaks a different language, the world is an incredible place that needs to be explored.