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Sweet Home Montana

March 2, 2009

            The carnage of bugs on my windshield is evidence of the many miles I’ve traveled since June, when I pulled out of Amherst, Massachusetts, and left grad school, a boyfriend, and the East Coast behind.  Before and since that day, life has been a rollercoaster of sweet highs and sour lows. 

            But as I drive across an expanse of prairie in southeastern Montana, on my way home from a horseback ride, I breathe in deeply, contentedly, with the realization that my life has finally settled on a stable plateau.  Country music is my soundtrack as I fly along the pine-studded hills lining the valley in front of me, and no one can take away the feeling of joy that pulses through my body along with the tunes.  “She needed wide open spaces,” the Dixie Chicks used to sing to me from my stereo in high school.  Yes, she did.

            I laugh to myself as I think how beautiful the crooked fences and rugged corrals of the ranches are – and to think I was in planning school just last year.  The fuss over attractive design and intentional layout seems so silly out here, where the splendor of the natural landscape is so overwhelming that it doesn’t matter what the houses or yards look like.  There’s a trailer and six cars in my neighbor’s yard?  Really?  I hadn’t noticed.  But the salmon-colored sunrise radiating over the hills, that I noticed.

             There is so little pretentiousness in this part of the country that I haven’t even found it yet, save for a few cocky cowboys.  Nobody’s asked me about my degree or my salary or whether I’ve invested in a solid mutual fund.  My students don’t seem to care what my background is – they just care that I care about them.  And it’s such a release. 

            To know that the most important thing to the people around me here is how I treat them makes life seem so much simpler.  I treat them with respect and they treat me with respect, and that’s all there is to it.  All that’s ever mattered to me in life is how people treat people, and now I’m finally in a place where that’s appreciated.  No one here knows that I had a 4.00 GPA in college, that I’ve published two professional journal articles, that I once gave a keynote speech at a conference – and I’m so glad that they don’t because those are not the attributes that I want people to value me for.

            I was almost sickened by how hard my grad school professors fought to keep me in my program last year because I know a large part of the reason they wanted me to stay was because my CV made the department look good.  With the exception of a few professors and students, no one really seemed to care about my motivations, about my concern for the way human life is handled and mishandled, about my strong desire to make people feel capable and valued. 

            Until I moved to Montana and started working at a community college where the faculty and staff appreciate exactly that about me, I had never been able to put my finger on why I felt so uncomfortable in academia.  Why should I feel uncomfortable?  I excelled in it.  But nothing ever felt quite right to me when I was in school.  And now I know why:  because in academia, the proof is in the data, not in the soul.  Not in emotional cognition but in numbers. 

            For as good as I am at deconstructing concepts and conducting detailed analyses of given topics, I am a person who is governed much more by emotion than by intellect.  I don’t need to read a comprehensive report on poverty in America to feel convinced that public policy and personal behavior need to change; all I need to do is look into the eyes of one of my students and perceive the struggle it is to make it through school when babies are sick, relatives are passing away, significant others are getting drunk or high.  It seems pointless to me to waste a bunch of time putting together a report when I could be doing something.

            Well, now I am doing something.  I’m teaching math in a community that has a hard time finding and keeping good teachers; I guess the people who come here to teach have a hard time living an hour and a half from the nearest Wal-Mart and Best Buy for more than a few years at a time.  Not me.  If I ever leave, it will be for other reasons; maybe a little loneliness will eventually sink in if I can’t find a man.  But right now, this place is home.  I can feel it in the sense of awe that comes over me every time I see the sun rise over the ridge to the east and set over the ridge to the west; in the surge of joy that floods my body when I gallop across an open field; in the sense of peace I feel after spending a day patiently helping my students with their math.  

            There really is no place like home.

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