By Saffron Forsberg
Putting into words the surreal historical moment to which we all currently belong is a difficult task. It's difficult because, more than any other reason, we’re not looking back on it just yet. We’re sitting in our homes—if we’re lucky—with its heaviness right alongside us. How is one to even verbally disassemble the mess we’re finding our way through? Until popping my knuckles to begin this piece, I opted instead for a nice, drawn-out groan. But, of course, bemoaning a situation—while satisfying for probably far too long a time—does nothing to bring us any needed clarity. So, our cheerful friends and acquaintances on our social media platforms of choice do what they always do in times of general strife. They bake bread and paint walls in spring tones. They read good books about strong people and then form book clubs to discuss the good books wherein the strong people dwell. They plant colorful things in their yards and then compose their own series of eerily similar songs on their acoustic guitars in awe of their work, their productivity, their growth. And it’s probably the most admirable way to handle the immense and unprecedented struggles of the present. However, I’d like to counter their unwavering positivity with my own approach to the great, looming iceberg that is COVID-19: communal gloom and commiseration. It’s important to acknowledge that this just plain sucks…and for such an array of reasons. It sucks in a different way for every person you speak to, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone for which it doesn’t suck. Though the extent to which COVID-19 proves difficult differs from person to person, its difficulty is inarguably universal.
For most Oberlin students, the COVID-19 pandemic is so difficult because, in its wake, we have been pried from the strange little open-minded hamlet for which we fled. There is a reason those of us who fled have found our way to Oberlin no matter where we happened to grow up. One reason is, of course, because Oberlin is Oberlin, but there is also the fact that if one flees to a place like Oberlin there must be a place from which one flees. And there lies the thoroughly complicated dot on the map that is one’s hometown. Because, for me and everyone I know, a hometown is not a place where one grew up, but a living, breathing organism quivering with personal history. I feel no sense of belonging to my hometown, but to say it has not defined my entire being would be an outright lie. A hometown is not merely a place one comes from, but an emotional animal one has a multifaceted relationship with. That relationship forms the basis for whether one orbits it with a forgiving sentimentality or dreams of a day when one can clamor from even the suggestion of its existence. Or, more likely, something in between. So, now that a great many of us have trudged back to the childhood bedrooms from whence we came, I think it's time we think again about what they mean at such a strange moment as this one.
Saoirse Dempsey, an Oberlin College first year, has a turbulent relationship with her hometown. If you ask her where she’s from, she’ll probably tell you New York City, but, speaking to her online, I soon learned she spent much of her childhood in Millbrook, a small town two hours outside of the city. She’s residing there now. “Once I found out about the Coronavirus pandemic and how it would be affecting my school life, I was immediately thrown into processing what this means for my day-to-day life. I consider my home to be NYC but coming back from a place where I could've been exposed, and then going to the epicenter of the world didn't seem like a great plan to me and my parents,” Dempsey told me. “Especially when my mom would still be working with her elderly patients, as well as 60-70 hour weeks at the hospital she works for, and a severely disabled brother with asthma, our chances for getting sick were just far too high…once everything settled down and the reality and risks of our situation came to light, my Dad came to Oberlin and drove me back to my hometown.” Temporarily moving back to Millbrook has been difficult for Dempsey, whose relationship with her hometown had not been founded on a sense of belonging and comfort. “My hometown could be described as a little bubble where racism, homophobia, bullying, and good ol' Christianity are rampant! Having not lived there for nine years, I had considered my home to be the city, and Millbrook just where I grew up,” she mused, later admitting that her move to New York City had not been without its share of emotional hardship. “We moved to the city when my parents separated, so I came to associate bad memories with my hometown, as I got older and put more distance between myself and my childhood. It really enforces this whole ‘growing up and growing out’ idea to me where I feel like I’m slowly becoming less and less attached to these places that used to hold so much meaning to me. I've been living the past few weeks surrounded by childhood clothes, left behind family relics, and moving boxes. Not to be dramatic, but it feels as if I'm living in a time capsule dedicated to my parents' split.”
Dempsey’s candid account of the childhood time capsules that hometowns often become hits home. The bedroom in which I type this could surely be classified as a museum exhibit dedicated to sixteen-year-old me. It feels stagnantly tenth grade with its ticket stubs and once-worshipped paperbacks. Good, bad, or otherwise, it is apparent why I no longer reside here, and equally strange to be back indefinitely. “Long story short, ‘home’ is feeling a little bit up in the air right now,” says Dempsey. “Just when Oberlin was starting to feel like a home to me, we were ripped from our [source of] comfort and thrown into the unknown.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
This sort of cultural stagnation seems to be a large deciding factor of the Oberlin student body’s decision to leave their hometowns. “After eighteen years, I was crawling on hands and knees desperate for people who think differently, have lived different lives, and maybe aren't just retired in the middle of the woods,” says Hazel Macmillan, a first year from Moretown, Vermont, where she’s returned after the Oberlin campus closure. Unlike Dempsey and I, Macmillan loves where she comes from. She’s a proud Vermonter with a warm sense of humor regarding the small, rural town where she lived until her first year of college. Giving me a quick run-down on her hometown, her voice is rife with good-humored regional slang. “It’s a funny mix of flatlanders who moved up here from cities in the ‘70s to ski Mad River Glen, and multi-generational farm families, mainly dairy. A lot of weed, nudists, dirt roads, prayer flags, living off the land, hunting, snowmobiling, sugaring, Grateful Dead, mountain biking, white people, et cetera,” Macmillan told me of Moretown.“I do indeed feel a connection to this place. While I am lowkey trapped in-between two mountain ranges where I’ve barely left my whole life, there’s a lot to learn here. I didn’t realize how much I know about, like, ecology and growing food and ‘outside things’ until I got to Oberlin and started talking about that stuff with people who didn't come from rural places.”
This being said, Hazel Macmillan—and before her, her sister Eloise Macmillan—left Moretown to attend Oberlin College for a reason. “[When] I went to Oberlin, I found this gay little mecca of weirdos who have so many fascinating stories,” she told me. “Oberlin kind of filled in all the holes I was feeling in my life at that time. And the spots that were missing that I didn't even know were missing. Which is amazing! I've explored so much regarding self-expression, friendship, books, haircuts, joy…going to Oberlin, I’m realizing how little access I had to capital ‘C’ culture like movies and music and art (the only museums in this state are farms.) Vermont's also pretty homogeneous in a lot of senses: [it’s] very white, a lot of straights, not many languages spoken.” Though proud of where she comes from, Macmillan often felt she lacked community as a queer teenager interested in areas of social justice that reached outside of her tiny town and high school. “Vermont can be extremely isolating, especially when you're young and queer because there aren't really options for creating community around those identities…one thing I've realized while being in Vermont is how I need to plan out parts of my identity in relation to home as well as school,” she explained. As for the activism to which Macmillan wishes to devote her life, leaving Vermont has broadened her perspective on what it means to affect change. “Basically, all of my political and organizing knowledge is rooted in [Vermont] and it's problems/systems. I will always be incredibly grateful for the radical activists [in Oberlin] who taught me, gave me a place to belong, and helped me figure out my purpose in high school when I was alone and lost.” In Oberlin, Macmillan sought the acceptance many Oberlin students from small, conservative, or otherwise prejudiced hometowns do. Oberlin isn’t just a place of education for us, but a place of social refuge and discovery.
As for the complications of learning Oberlin material while residing in Moretown, Macmillan is grappling with the same sense of loss many of us are as we attend classes from our beds and kitchen tables. “Being home, I now have to try to grow and be on my own without that cushioning and support of the Oberlin world,” she told me. “I don't think I'll get much thinking done without that onslaught of information and culture.” From Millbrook, Saoirse Dempsey, too, confesses that “being forced to take my college classes in my elementary school bedroom has certainly enhanced a little bit of regression to some bad coping mechanisms that are slowly but surely creeping their way back in.” It seems that as we stand our designated six feet apart in the grocery store and learn to sew elastic straps to our homemade masks, we should also be thinking about how we might make sure those who are no longer in environments of belonging and acceptance still feel a distinctly Oberlin sense of community. Because, despite its flaws, those who attend Oberlin and wish to return to its bustling Northeastern Ohio campus, do so for a reason. If this great hardship has proven anything, it is that where one comes from is important, but where one chooses to be is even more so.