I attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Twenty percent of Carleton’s students are Minnesotans, and the rest come from all over the U.S. and abroad. This was largely what drew me to the school, and I was excited when I found out that my freshman roommate hailed from exotic Missouri. I quickly made friends with people from all over the map. Knoxville, Tennessee. DeKalb, Illinois. Pepin, Wisconsin. Miami, Florida. I mean, Miami. How much more glamorous and exciting did it get?
Carleton strives to recruit a diverse student body, and as a Minnesotan, I often felt that my presence contributed nothing to that diversity. I had classmates who attended private prep schools in Paris or spent their summers volunteering at Russian orphanages or grew up in Tokyo. My life felt so boring by contrast. When people asked me where I was from, I said, “Minnesota,” and quickly changed the subject. What else was there to say? My hometown wasn’t even as cool as Northfield. At least Northfield had thrift shops and a coffee house. It had culture.
My self-consciousness about being a Minnesotan only intensified when people made fun of my accent. I wasn’t even aware I had an accent, unlike my friend Mike from Tennessee who referred to his favorite female body part as “nippos.” I made an effort to say “soda” instead of “pop” and reminded myself that “root” rhymed with “flute” and not “put.”
Even though I now said “casserole” instead of “hot dish,” I was still a small-town Midwestern girl at heart. And I needed gossip, which I got every Friday when my hometown newspaper arrived in the mail. I opened it eagerly, hoping to see another engagement or birth announcement from someone I’d known in high school. I always made a big show of groaning about the news to whoever was nearby. “Can you believe this? They’re only nineteen! And they’re getting married! What are they thinking?!”
My friend from Miami, Cara, soon became addicted to my hometown newspaper and joined me in the student union every week to read it. She especially loved the sheriff’s report. “Barn fire on the Johnson homestead,” she’d read solemnly. “One hundred chickens lost in the blaze.” Cara admitted that the Miami Herald never reported such things. “Oh?” I replied, smirking. “Aren’t there any chicken farms in Miami?”
Spring of my freshman year, I arranged for Mike (a.k.a. Mr. Nippo) to attend prom with my friend, Ann Marie, who was still in high school. Mike was single when he agreed to go, but by the time prom rolled around, he was dating Cara. She was cool with it, though. I brought Mike, Cara, and the rest of our posse to my hometown for the weekend. We all went out to dinner with Mike and Ann Marie at a local restaurant. Compared to the mild-mannered natives, my friends were a rowdy group, laughing loudly and demanding extra baskets of friend cheese curds. Much to my surprise, they’d never eaten these before, and they were crazy about them.
After dinner, we headed over to the high school to watch the Grand March. In my hometown, prom is held at the high school and starts with the Grand March. The couples parade before the whole town (or at least as many as will fit in the gymnasium bleachers, which is a hefty chunk of the entire population). Each pair walks out into a spotlight, and the principal announces their names. Then, they walk along a path in front of the crowd. It costs a couple of bucks to get into the Grand March, and people arrive a few hours early to get the best seats.
My Carleton friends were absolutely stunned by the whole thing. None of them had ever seen a Grand March before, and Cara insisted on taking pictures of the crowd and the gym to show her Miami friends. “They’re never going to believe me if I just tell them about this,” she said. “I need photographic evidence.”
That evening, as I watched my friends take their first bites of fried cheese curds and stare in awe at the Grand March, I realized something important. Culture is not defined by palm trees or art museums or even thrift shops. My hometown had culture. I’d just never noticed before. The things that I’d always taken for granted as normal and boring were new and exciting to my friends. They were digging the scene.
I won’t say that this experience magically cleansed me. I still didn’t have enough confidence to let my accent and Minnesota-isms creep back. I still felt sheepish when asked where I was from. But I recognized that I came from a place with real culture, and its value was reflected in my friends’ fascination. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become proud of my Minnesota roots (rhymes with “puts”). I wouldn’t want to be from anywhere else.