Thursday, September 27, 2007

My Students Would Rather Live in Arkansas

This weekend I took off and drove up the coast a bit. I was looking for a beach--a laid-back affair, something sandy (which is a rarity in this state, whose beaches lean more toward the craggy side of existence), something that would be just the right place to spend a few lazy hours with the latest copy of People and a stack of brownies.

I went to Popham. Entrance to the state park was $1.50--which the gatekeeper seemed embarrassed about taking. "But it's definitely worth it today," she said, and I told her I bet that was definitely true.

And it was.

When I climbed the hill that swelled above the East Beach, this is what rolled out in front of me:

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The beach--which is pretty big and split into two distinct parts because of water flows that cut down the middle--wasn't overrun with people, but there were some brave Mainers who were bobbing in the ocean water which is in the mid-fifties. Paired with a wind, that can be cold. But those people--five, six, maybe seven--didn't seem to care. But I cared. I was wearing my bathing suit, but I kept my shorts and shirt on--and, later in the afternoon, a sweatshirt--but I did go in up to my knees. I hitched my shorts up and let the waves tug me this way, that way, whatever way they wanted.

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There were people sinking their fishing lines in the churning water just off the rocks. There were kids splashing in tide pools. There were girls combing the sand where the ocean was spitting up thousands and thousands of glittering shells. There were purple shells and black shells and orange shells and, of course, sand dollars--the big prize. I didn't think I'd find any, but on my first long walk, I stumbled across four. By the time I got back to my beach blanket I'd already broken one of them, but I found four more when I went on my second walk.

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There were two lighthouses in the distance, and every time I got the inclination I could look up over the cover of People and off toward them, thinking how romantic it would've been to be a lighthouse keeper. I imagine it would be a very simple, salty life--scrambled eggs and toast in the morning, a long climb up the tower, a day filled with minding waves and boats that slip so easily across the horizon, one eye on your light, one eye on you, always.

So this weekend it was pretty easy to see I was charmed by Maine. Charmed right out of my skin--not that I hadn't been already, but my trips to the coast (a thirty minute drive) have solidified the fact that this place is pretty great.

Some people have said to me, "Oh sure, it's great now, but just wait until winter."

They say this like I don't know winter. I wonder if it's possible that they've never heard of Buffalo, how it gets bitch-slapped by snow for six months of the year. I wonder if they've never heard of Minnesota, how cold it is, how your nose hairs freeze the second you step outside in the twenty below cold. I wonder if they know that for three years I walked a mile to school and a mile from school each day in that kind of weather, and if they know that for most Halloweens of my life I wore full winter gear--snow suit, parka, hat, gloves--over my costume because that's just what October 31st can be like in my hometown. Because of these things, I'm pretty sure I will still have a deep fondness for Maine even after the leaves have fallen and the beaches have crusted over with ice.

But not everyone here has the same fondness for this state, and I found that out yesterday.

I was in my first class of the day, and my students were having one of those before-class-starts chats. I was looking over the reading we'd done for that day and vaguely listening to their conversation. Suddenly it was revealed that one of their classmates had moved to the state from Arkansas.

"Wait a minute," one of the girls said. "Did you just say you moved here from Arkansas? You moved here?" Her tone was one of disgust. She sounded like she'd just been soaked by a shower of repulsiveness: news of baby frogs being stomped to death, of kittens being declawed for the fun of it, bees having their wings ripped from their bodies.

"Yeah," the guy said. He shrugged.

"Oh my God," the girl said. She looked frantically around the room. She wanted backup. "Come on," she said. "Who moves here? Why would you move here?"

At least five of her classmates nodded vigorously. "Yeah," they agreed. "Why come here? What's so great about here?"

You could've knocked me over with a feather. I almost had to reach up and shut my gaping mouth. I hadn't heard any of this before--adult Mainers seem so pro-Maine. They like the kayaking and the hiking and the giant LL Bean and the lobster and the rugged image they've spent years and years crafting. It was hard to imagine anyone getting fed up with all the beauty--the mountains, the lakes, the ocean, the trees, the coast, the winding roads into nowhere. I could imagine being a little miffed about the lack of good malls, but about everything else?

The students' disenchantment was severe. Severe. After all, they were blaming a guy for giving up his life in Arkansas and trading it in for a life in Maine. I couldn't imagine living in a world where Arkansas had a better overall image than Maine.

"Good God," the first girl continued. "That would be like me deciding to move to Minnesota."

I thought I was going to die laughing then--oh, clever comparison--but I did recover quick enough to tell her that, you know, Minnesota really isn't that bad of a state. Sure it might have a problem with soybeans and bagged milk, and maybe they don't know anything about taste and flavor there, and maybe your nose hairs do freeze and fall out of your nose in the winter, but, my God, if you understood the beauty that is walking from a hockey stadium to the bar while thinking you might very well die from exposure in the twenty feet you have to go--well, then you truly know love.

I bet you'd never feel that way in Arkansas.

1 comment:

mainetoboston said...

There are those who leave Maine and come back. There are those who leave and just come back to visit. And there are those who have never been anywhere else. It's hard to appreciate the strengths of Maine without comparing them to other places. It is easy to recognize the shortcomings though. And there are plenty of shortcomings growing up in small town Maine.

My favorite beach was at Reid State Park. I like the rocky coastline, but there is something special about having a stretch of sandy beach between craggy outcroppings.