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COLUMN

Born in a Small Town

Veena Thomas

Small towns are a great place to grow up. But how about once you’ve grown?

Welcome to Brookfield, Connecticut, the kind of town which gives new meaning to the words “quintessential,” “New England,” and “Norman Rockwell,” the kind of place where time seems to stop. Last year when I came home for spring break, the most notable new development in town was the addition of a new right-hand turn lane in the center of town. We were now permitted to make right turns on red. How exciting!

Running errands around a small town is always an adventure. It’s best not to go out looking like a slob because there’s no way to escape seeing someone familiar. Have to go to the library? Say hi to all of the librarians behind the circulation desk. After all, they’ve known you since you were in diapers and chewed up the books. They’re the ones who put up with you all those countless hours you volunteered there, putting away the books, and they hired you to work there after school. You grew up with their kids. Make sure that your library books aren’t overdue, because otherwise you’ll regret the feelings of guilt that you get admitting to all the librarians that you couldn’t return your books on time.

People in small towns watch out for each other. Having read and loved Desmond Morris’s field guide to human behavior Manwatching when I was younger, I decided to check out his anthropological study of man, The Naked Ape. Imagine my surprise when one of the librarians expressed her concern to my mom that I was checking out books with the work “naked” in the title. I had to explain to everyone involved that it was a nonfiction book for a school report, not pornographic literature. No wonder I’m still too embarrassed to check out Glamour magazine from my library -- what if the librarians decide to question my mom about my choice of reading material?

Just as people watch out for each other in small towns, they also gossip about what they see. There’s only a limited number of places for high school students to find after-school jobs, leading to a proliferation of teenagers working in the grocery store and local drugstore. Some even fill your prescriptions. They know what you buy and what embarrassing medication you’re taking, and not everyone keeps the information to themselves. Hence people at school whispered about their unmarried teacher who regularly refilled her prescription for birth control pills.

Going places around a small town is somewhat of an ego boost. Everyone who recognizes you and stops and talks remembers you from your high school days of glory, back when you were somebody. “Oh, college must be easy for you,” they say, not knowing about all those nights you struggled with seemingly impossible problem sets, or studied for hours, only to barely make class average. Not wanting to disappoint them, you smile and say, “Well, I work hard,” and leave it at that. It’s nice to come back to your roots, and to have some people still believe in you and your abilities, even when you’re not so sure anymore.

As we approached graduation, our mantra was “I can’t wait to get out of Brookfield.” Everyone was sick of each other, since most of us had attended school together for as long as we remembered. You know you’re in a small town when there’s something called the 13 Year Club, composed of everyone who’s been in the school system since kindergarten -- and it’s fully a third of the class.

So why is it that now, two years after graduation, we’ve become closer than ever? Casual acquaintances have turned into friends, and we talk more to some people now than we ever did in four years of high school. A chance encounter in a gas station can turn into a real conversation, both people genuinely concerned about the other. Perhaps knowing each other for thirteen years, watching people grow, and finally graduating together in a class of 150 creates a special kind of bond, and links people forever.

While you may be just starting college, happy to finally be leaving your small town, don’t underestimate all that small towns have to offer. Sure, they may lack the excitement and bustle of a major city like Boston, and they may provide no further entertainment options than cow-tipping. However, on those lonely nights at college when you feel lost in the crowd and feel like no one knows you, don’t be surprised if you find yourself missing the one place to which you swore you’d never return. Sometimes it takes leaving to let you fully appreciate coming home.