I don’t like small talk. All those surface-level questions drive me nuts. I can never find that simple answer that rides the fine line of giving good information without going overboard. For example, when someone asks, “So, what do you do?” my reply can get a little confusing. “I’m a high school English teacher,” I say, “Except, not right now, because I can’t hold a full-time job because I’m moving all over the place, so I’m subbing instead. But I’m a really good sub!” That’s probably more info than my small-talk companion wanted, and the career question isn’t even the inquiry that frustrates me the most. Here’s my current pet-peeve small talk question:
“Where are you from?”
I should have a good answer ready; people ask me often enough. For the past several months I’ve been working with small-town kids, and every time I enter a new classroom, they’re curious about the outside world. I’m not from this little community, so I must be from somewhere else, right? They always want to know where. You’d think by now I’d have a quick response ready-made for these questions, but I don’t. “Where I’m from” encompasses seven (soon to be eight) states in the U.S., and a complex explanation as to why I move so much. I want to be friendly and personable with the teens I encounter, but in the context of subbing a class, I don’t have time to explain the details of my personal history. Even if I did, I doubt many of them would want to hear it. Small talk is supposed to stay surface-level. How am I supposed to answer a weighty question like “where are you from” without launching into my life-story?
Here are a few responses I’ve tried recently, to mixed results:
1. “I move around a lot.”
This answer doesn’t satisfy the curiosity of a small-town teen because I didn’t name any specific locations. They also usually want to know why I move so much…. and we’re back to trying to explain my life story.
I gave this answer once, and then rattled off all the cities and states where I’ve lived. A snarky student replied, “That’s only seven out of the fifty. That’s not everywhere.” Other times, the laundry list of big cities makes students cry out the follow-up question, “What are you doing here?!”
3. “I claim Wisconsin as my home-base.”
“Is that where you grew up?” “No.”
Do you see my problem? I can’t answer the question in just a few words. My personal history is too complex for one simple sentence.
But I love it. I treasure the adventures of my life, hitting the corners of this great country and falling in love with the middle of it. Every phase of my life has built me into the woman I am today. Every city and community has welcomed me with opens arms, worked itself into my bloodstream, and become a part of who I am. I am “from” all of them.
So let me break the conventions of small talk. Let me tell you where I’m really from.
I’m from Texas.
Forever engraved in my heart and on my birth certificate, Texas is the home of my childhood – the years of dress-up and fireflies, climbing trees and riding bikes down to the creek. At age 16, I life-guarded in the 100 degree summer sun, browning my skin until it could no longer be recognized as Caucasian. I learned to drive on the 8-lane highways of Dallas. I know what it feels like to be drenched to the bone in under 3 seconds in a summer storm, to watch in wonder as lightning dances across the sky, and then see the clouds melt away completely a just few minutes later. Even though it’s been over a decade since I last set foot in that great state, I still feel the spark of state pride that only a fellow Texan can truly understand.
I’m from Maryland.
Maryland stamped its name on my adolescence and my high school diploma. That high school told me I was popular, beautiful, smart, and yet somehow still completely un-date-able That high school gave me the paradoxical experience of the dateless prom queen. In Maryland I first felt the glance of man undressing me with his eyes, and I learned to loathe that feeling. In Maryland I wrapped teachers around my finger and fought for my grades, but I also learned that some adults are not worthy of my respect. I struggled through multiple family emergencies, learned first-hand the difference between sympathy and empathy, and felt the support of friendships that still mean the world to me. I found my internal endurance through all the tears that I shed, and Maryland gave me both the desire and the strength to set out on my own.
I’m from Wisconsin.
My college diploma, marriage license, and teaching certification all testify to Wisconsin’s impact on my life. That cold-in-temperature-but-warm-in-spirit state became the foundation of my adult life. Wisconsin gave me my identity and value as an individual, not just a pretty face. Wisconsin gave me purpose in my career and in love. In Wisconsin I found my first apartment, my first teaching job, and all those life-long friends that form through shared experience. I should also mention that in Wisconsin, my in-laws’ basement has become our personal storage unit (very graciously so!) and their home is our launching point for every new adventure. Though I haven’t had a home address there in four years, Wisconsin is still the tangible center of our lives.
I’m from Seattle.
My résumé and a file full of photos tell of Seattle’s role in who I’ve become. Seattle broke open my idealized, settled, Midwestern life and began a journey that keeps taking my breath away. Seattle turned my career upside-down, rattled my dreams, and set me on a path of goals that still surprises me when I think about it. I discovered that families can be formed in the most unusual places and some of the best conversations happen in rooms with splatter-painted walls. I lost my identity as a teacher, and in a moment of despair worthy of its own blog post, I found trust and purpose in a plan greater than me. In many ways, this blog is a direct result of Seattle’s influence on my life.
I’m even from Boston.
I’m a little loathe to admit it, but it’s true. Boston terrified me, but it also helped me reclaim and reestablish my career after the whirlwind of Seattle. Before Boston, I was a newbie teacher with a shaky work history. Boston showed me that I’m not only capable, I’m good. Schools fought to hire me and were disappointed to see me leave. For the first time in my life, I held out for higher pay on a job offer, and it worked. (I had to; their first offer didn’t even cover my rent.) I worked with administrators that, despite some pedagogical differences, saw my value, listened to what I had to say, and trusted me to set the course of their high school curriculum. My students shed tears my last day of work because they didn’t want to say goodbye to me. Seattle had given me a goal; Boston gave me the confidence that I can reach it.
I’m from Illinois.
I was only there for a short time, but it still became a part of me. You see, Illinois soothed me. After three years of stress and worry in the big cities, small-town Illinois took me under its wing and gave me a chance to rest and rejuvenate In a mere three months, I found successful work, a community that cared for me, and fellowship with my peers. Granted, it helped that I was living with family and not paying rent (certainly less stressful!), but even so, I felt at home.
Right now, in this moment, sitting on a couch in Bethel, Alaska, I am the sum of all these places. However, I think reciting all of that to a stranger would break the conversational conventions of small talk. I still need help. If you ask where I’m from, what is it that you really want to know? Help me understand, so I can find the right summary sentence to satisfy your curiosity!
And looking forward? When I leave Alaska, will I say that I’m “from” Alaska like I’m “from” everywhere else? Somehow, I doubt it. Maybe I just don’t see it yet, but I don’t feel the same life-shaping impact on my life that I felt in all those other places. I’ve been successful at work and get along well with the people I see every day, but I don’t feel like I belong in the community. When I leave, I don’t feel like I’ll have left my mark here like I did in Texas, Maryland, Wisconsin, Seattle, Boston, or Illinois. I’m OK with that. Not every place I live needs to be ingrained in my blood.
Of course, maybe there’s a simpler reason that Alaska doesn’t feel like home. You see, for the first time in almost five years, our dog hasn’t made the travels with us. Ziva, my lovable Muppet of a goldendoodle, couldn’t come to small-town Alaska in the middle of winter, so my in-laws are keeping her warm and safe in Wisconsin for us until we return. For the first time in five years, I don’t come home every day to that butt-bouncing tail-wag and goofy grin. Can any place really feel like home when your dog lives thousands of miles away?
I think I may have just found my small-talk answer.
“Where are you from?”
“Wisconsin, because home is where my dog is.”
I’ll try it out next time I sub and let you know how it goes.