Early-on in our travels across Laurel, I got lost. That's normal: I have absolutely no sense of direction whatsoever. Just, none. Once I was traveling from New Orleans to Tennessee and I ended up in Texas. On the train going back to Laurel, I got lost on my way from the observation car back to my seat. (Like, actually lost. Like, I had to talk to someone about it, because I could not figure out how to get back to my seat.) Not only am I bad at directions, I also always insist that I know exactly where I am going. I know what you're thinking, but no, I am not a stereotypical man on a sitcom. This is just the way I am.
So I was kind of curled across the cracked screen of my iPhone, trying to understand what was going on with my GPS (yes, I had access to a GPS and I was still lost), when this white SUV slowed to a stop in the middle of an intersection, and a blonde woman with a cane syrup accent said, "Oh huh-ney! Ah you lawst? Ah can hey-elp you!" I was like, "No! We're not lost!" And she smiled a cane syrup smile and rode away. My travel partner said, "WE ARE OBVIOUSLY LOST WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT?" I said, "No, I know exactly where I am going." I am still not a stereotypical man on a sitcom. Seriously.
But the cane syrup SUV woman ended up being a nice symbol for all the people we met in Laurel. Everyone was freakishly kind and happy. That's a cliche about people in the South, but it must be a cliche for a reason, because it was honestly like everyone in the entire town had been drugged. The cashier who rang us up at 10:30 p.m. at the Winn Dixie had the bounce and pep of a Kindergarten teacher on the first day of school. The woman who helped me find the Genealogy Wing of the library gave me a hug after she'd given me directions.
I tried to ask people how they felt about living in Laurel. It was like they had all been programmed with a recorded answer: "I love Laurel. It's a great small little town. Everyone knows everyone else, and it's great!"
At some point, this all started to feel very Stepford Wives-y to me. But then I started to think about school. Because when are teachers ever not thinking about school? I started to think about the kids who are upset all the time. My mindset is always, "They have every right to be upset all the time. They're suffering, they're struggling." But it's difficult to always act compassionately to constant negativity. It's the same way with teachers: when a teacher's M.O. is to complain about what's going on at school, I agree with him point blank, but I also don't internalize his criticisms as much, because they're constantly flowing. But when a kid (or a teacher) who is generally pleasant and kind has a complaint, or expresses discomfort, I snap to attention. I want to help. I listen.
This is that whole "boy who cried wolf" story. If you whine and complain all the time, people will stop listening to you.
I do not know if the people of Laurel ever stand up and fight when they are uncomfortable. The Southern stereotype says no: living in the South means acting pleasant through all the pain; it means shoving everything into a rigid little box, and if something doesn't fit, shove harder.
Dan Savage is always telling gay people to just get out of the South and move to a place like Seattle, where people are kind and accepting of difference. But that always grates at me. I fundamentally believe that humans are suffering everywhere -- including just inside those right-wing Christian churches we love to vilify and dismiss. The answer is not a mass exodus of all the accepting people: we need to learn how to stand up in places like Laurel, too.
I liked the people of Laurel. In case you've been wondering: the racial demographics there are pretty much split down the middle (about half white, half black; although there is a slight black majority). It's a poor city: almost 30 percent of the people who live in Laurel are below the poverty line. The average annual income there is about $25,000. There is also an art museum there, and it's the home of the Mississippi Center for Mental Health. Right now, they have a Democratic mayor; that hasn't always been the case; the federal government officials who have come from Laurel have all been Republicans.
Southern kindness is not simple. I am sure a lot of the reason why I was treated so kindly in Laurel had to do with the color of my skin. And really, nothing is more irritating than someone you meet who seems fake, right? We all hate that.
But can't we take something from it? Can't we also learn from it? Leaving Laurel, I felt moved by the entire city. The thing is, this country has a history of slavery and oppression; of sexism and brutal politics. Running away from that past is both useless and irresponsible. I like living in the South: I want to raise up the stories of those who have persevered, and who have fought to love the land they live on. And I want to believe in people. I want to believe in the genuine possibility that all human beings have the capacity to change.