While Marion’s been busy welcoming me, I’ve been busy judging it.
You may have seen me around. I look, as one astute youngster put it last summer, “very short for a 15-year-old,” but in fact I’m a 21-year-old University of Illinois graduate.
I came to Marion having never lived in a small town before. I had never considered doing so until about three months ago. Yet, after a week and a half I’ve already tried a “red beer,” attended my first tractor pull, and milked a goat — very poorly, I might add.
I come here knowing nobody. It’s my first professional journalism job, so I’m learning the differences between a college newspaper and a professional one (spoiler: there are lots). My eyes have been wide open for the past couple weeks as I try to absorb everything and figure out how to live in this ocean of plains and farmland.
I’m not a rural guy. There was one rural reporting class offered at the university I attended. I did not take it.
I’m originally from Springfield, Illinois, a town of about 120,000, and I went to college in Champaign-Urbana, two adjoining towns whose combined population is, well, about 120,000. So I’m not a big-city urbanite, but this one-grocery-store-town stuff is something else.
As a journalist, I want to experience life. So far, that experience has taken place in the middle: Middle-class background, living in middle-sized towns in the middle of a state that lies in the middle of America, which considers itself the middle of the universe.
Well now I’m in the middle of nowhere.
That isn’t to say I don’t like Marion; I’ve really enjoyed my experience here so far. Everyone’s been really welcoming, and it’s been an honest thrill to be around welcoming people.
There’s the small-town “charm,” the small-town “way of life,” and even the small-town “the” (e.g. “The plumber died.”). All these things are created by outsiders who consider small towns the little old ladies of civilization. We’ve created a playful vernacular, you just have to ignore the condescending undertones.
I want to make it clear that I’m no tourist. I’m “judging” everything so I can better understand it.
I’m not interested in the pamphlets about why travelers should stray from the highway to spend a few hours here. I want to know what it is about this place that makes people want to spend their lives here. And what the rest of us miss out on by never experiencing it.
Most of all I want to know your stories, and share them with your community. My time here should serve me well, but my journalism should serve you.
This whole deal is new to me, so pardon my dumb questions and dumber assumptions. And if I develop an inauthentic twang in my speaking voice, I apologize for that too.
When my (now long-distance) girlfriend asked me what I like most about living here, my own answer surprised me: It’s the absence of stuff I don’t like. It’s the simplicity. There’s (almost) everything you need and (almost) nothing you don’t. People don’t get annoyed when you talk to them. There’s no city-slicker cynicism. Instead, there’s an at-large sense of community. As an outsider, that’s nice.
I’ll never be a rural guy. I expect to be talked down to about certain things. That’s fine. But my goal for the time I’m here is to make a genuine connection to the community and do some good work for the newspaper in the process.
I’ll never know the feeling of raising a goat and earning a prize ribbon at the county fair. But I’ll know what its udders feel like, and that definitely counts for something.
— ELIOT SILL