You have to be there when it rains

I’ve been sitting on something for a few days, and it’s not been comfortable.  It’s been a bit like sitting on a hot leather car seat in your underwear.  I’ve been squirming and twisting my face into a silent scream, needing, yet unable, to sit for a good long while.  My rear end can’t take it anymore, so it’s time I stand up and let it go.  So, here goes:

I have been offered (and I have accepted) a position as the 2013 Americorps volunteer at the Oberlin Heritage Center.

As part of the Local History Corps in the Ohio History Service Corps, I will be working in Oberlin on public outreach, education, heritage tourism, collections research, and whatever else they decide to throw my way.  It is, quite literally, my dream job.  The landscape of Oberlin reads like a historical text–every step you take through the town and College has meaning whether we recognize it or not.  For example, I once made out with someone near the place where Charles Grandison Finney’s house once stood.  Upon realizing this, I had to take my kissing partner’s hand and lead him to a more innocuous nook.  The liminality of it all was just too much.  Even a casual stroll to class unfolds time.

When I say that the chance to work at the Oberlin Heritage Center is a dream come true, I definitely mean it. Now, just for fun, add to that the fact that I’ll be doing just what I imagined myself doing when I confessed to my former advisor and current Professor-Boss that I wanted to go into public history.  Seriously.  This position was made for me.   So, one wonders what the problem is.  Why the thinking?  Why the sitting?  Why the doubt?

Well, I honestly couldn’t tell you.  Part of it might stem from the fact that I like where I am right now.  I like making burritos for 12 hours each week.  I like driving an hour to get to a fantasy world where I’m wearing a hoop skirt, living in the 1800s, and asked almost hourly by schoolchildren whether I’m a princess.  I like making just enough to live and go bowling.  Most of all, I think I like the safety these jobs provided me.  Not safety in an emergency, exactly, but safety to leave and know I’ll be able to come back.  As long as I do my job well and ask far enough in advance, I can take a week or two off on a whim.

I had a plan for the fall, and it wasn’t having a Tues-Sat full-time job.  I was going to take all my money–frugality be damned!–and run off to Europe.  I was going to visit my friends in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Ireland.  I was going to explore new places like Belgium and the Netherlands, maybe even try Prauge.  If I ran out of money, I could do odd jobs at hostels and farms.  I was going to get away.  I was going to see the world, and the people I left behind were going to miss me.  They were going to envy me.

Which, interestingly, is the perfect segue into the other reason I’m antsy about this coming year: people.  I’m nervous about the school year starting and everyone coming back.  My quiet, happy summer in Oberlin is about to be derailed.  Even the weather smells of crisp, new beginnings.  I’m nervous about being forgotten somewhere between working hard and playing hard.  But, before anything else, I’m afraid of the looks I’m going to get.  Strangers are confused that I still exist in Oberlin, and some of them are uneasy that I fell straight into the service industry, as if by seeing me, they are seeing their future.  Friends are concerned, and advise me almost daily to leave, get out, start my life.  They mean well, and they want the best for me, but how am I supposed to interpret that, having the brain I have?  I feel like a disappointment, like a runner who was too busy admiring a butterfly to hear the starting gun.  Sometimes I think if just one person told me they were happy I stayed (said it outloud–deep down, I know it), I might not feel so bad.

But, here’s the thing, and I will say it again, because I’m sick of sitting on it, and damn anyone who judges me harshly for it: I love Oberlin.  It’s not been the best time of my life.  Calling it a struggle is an understatement.  But there is a beauty in that, and I belong here.  I can feel it when my shoes strike the sidewalk.  I can feel it in my heartbeat when I think of Lucy Stone.  I’m not going to let looks and imagined expectations mar that for me.  Sure, I have to wait another year before I can rock out to my “Leaving” playlist, but that’s a whole extra year I have to put more great songs on it.  Enough to get me where I’m going next without repeating a single song?  Maybe.  Sure, I won’t be kicking my feet in the Elbe or biking through Amsterdam, but if I’d not tried for this job and gone to Europe instead, I’d never have been able to forgive myself.

Because I love Oberlin.

And I’m going to love this job.

Below is my motivational statement, which I had to write to apply for the job.  Posting it here for my own future reference, and so others who are going through this hellish application process with no guidance have an example of what their program might be looking for.

Loving small towns has never been difficult for me. Growing up in a suburb near Columbus, every small town was a great escape. On family trips, I reveled in the brick sidewalks, colorful murals, and independent storefronts I passed in rural Ohio towns. Every yarn-adorned tree was a photo-op I could take home and breathe in on a rainy day. Throw in a covered bridge and I’d be set for life. The sun was always shining there, it seemed. The streets were alive with markets, art, and music; spontaneity and romance filled the air. It wasn’t until I started college that I realized words like “quaint” and “charming” were only a fragment of what it means to love a small town. To truly love a place, you have to be there when it rains.

My second year at Oberlin College, I participated in a service-based history course called Oberlin History as American History. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill lecture class. Its aim was to engage us, as college students, in the town that surrounded us. We went on walking tours, draping the street corners and buildings we saw every day in a quilt of earth-moving events, inspirational stories, and extraordinary people. It cultivated within us an invaluable sense of place and pride in Oberlin, but that wasn’t the end of it. The course also provided us the opportunity to share our knowledge and newfound passion with an Oberlin High School class. For weeks, we worked with a group of students to explore their local history. My group, which had a young woman who wanted to pursue a medical career, focused on women in medicine in Oberlin. After scouring the archives for sources, visiting the graves of a few nineteenth-century female physicians, and two oral history interviews with a retired female doctor in town, I could see the same excitement I had for Oberlin blossoming inside my students. By working together with resources formerly unknown to them, we discovered ourselves in the history of our community. We had seen what made our community special–its trials and triumphs–and we were inspired to work towards its future.

The African environmentalist Baba Dioum wrote: “In the end, we will only conserve what we love. We will only love what we understand. We will only understand what we are taught.” I most often hear this maxim with regards to environmentalism–the more we teach people about the natural world, the more likely they are to fight to save it–but I believe its message can be expanded to history as well. This is why I want to participate in the Ohio History Corps program. Local history is at its most powerful and dynamic when the memory-making process is shared. It has the power to bring communities together across racial, socioeconomic, and gendered lines. By making the historical process relatable and accessible to schools and families of all backgrounds, we inspire a generation to care, not only about where they’ve been, or where they are, but all the possibilities of where they have yet to go.

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2 thoughts on “You have to be there when it rains

  1. Jen. This is AWESOME. You’re a helluva wordsmith, innit! This news is exciting as all cuss, and I would like to second your sentiments re: eff the haters. Oberlin is damned lucky to have you!

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