Small Town Sweet and Sour, Part 3
Remember Hester Prynne’s red letter “A”? In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictional tale of adultery and religious zealots, the “A” Hester was forced to wear marked her as an adulteress. In small towns, if you screw up, you get to choose from an entire alphabet. And you get to wear that letter, or letters, forever, like a brand. Some of us look like a Wheel of Fortune puzzle.
In the small town where I grew up, I went to school with many of my classmates from Kindergarten through high school. Together we endured missing front teeth, the awkward spasms of puberty, first dates, and the development of adult personalities.
We were also marked by the errors we made. The kid who dropped his cafeteria tray in front of the entire school, the one who spent every afternoon digging through the trash can for his retainer, the one who threw up on her desk in fourth grade, the nerdy guy who was publicly humiliated by the wrestling team, the girl who suffered a miscarriage halfway through a volleyball tournament, and the guy who passed out during a party and ate a moth – to the delight of the gathered crowd.
(Of course, at our school when someone fell down, or dropped a tray, everyone applauded. Yeah, that’ll mark you for life.)
For better or worse, we wore those “letters” – labeled by our failures and our embarrassments – throughout school, and sometimes into college and beyond. Thank heaven most of us left those labels behind at some point … unless you moved to a small town.
I was an adult with four children of my own by the time we moved. And to my utter dismay, I found a repeat version of the childhood labeling system in the small town community. Only now the labels carry higher stakes. Anger the wrong person, or offend the wrong clique, and risk your ability to get a job recommendation, to say nothing of your social life.
Some labels are confirmed: “Hard To Work For,” “Can’t Tell the Truth,” “Sleeps with Married Men.” Others are based on assumption: “Probably Gay,” “Closet Drunk,” “Hypocrite.” Some labels are just silly, “Dresses Weird,” “Freaky Hobby.”
And the labels stick. Sometimes for life. They affect the ability to succeed, to grow up, to move past an embarrassing failure or a difficult period of life, or even a success. What about the person who is marked for life by his or her performance at a state sporting event? There’s something sad about a grown man or woman who lists “the best experience of my whole life” as winning a state meet or game or match way back in high school. Seriously? What about getting married? Or having children? Or grandchildren?
Hester Prynne is immortalized by the Scarlet Letter she wore. And in a small town, you might just be immortalized by your scarlet letter, whether it’s an A for ADHD, or a B for Bit Preschool Friends, or a C for Can’t Stop Crying in First Grade, or a D for Dandruff, or an E for Evangelical, or an F for Freak, or a G for Goofy Grin…
The only graduation ceremony from living in a small town is to move away or to die.
It’s one of the sour aspects of small-town life.
What was your letter?