semper liberi

I’m going to take a break from librarying for a moment to talk about basketball.

I’m a Morgantown girl born and raised, 17 years. When I was young my dad and I had season tickets to WVU men’s basketball. Of course it’s been a while, and I haven’t seen much basketball since, but I was utterly thrilled to see WVU in the Final Four. Not something, let’s say, that ever seemed likely back when I watched them live.

Well, we got totally dismantled in the game. And our big star did something awful to his knee, bad enough it hurt just to watch him writhing on the court. But none of that is quite why this Yahoo column, or this article out of Wheeling, had me on the verge of tears.

“West Virginia, usually near the top only in things like obesity and poverty, captured the attention of the nation in a positive way this time…”

When we’re in the news, it’s generally some totally ghastly story like today’s mine explosion (may they find the missing, and something console the families of the dead). Or it’s state corruption or it’s poor health or poor education. Something miserable.

And what it comes down to is this. When you say you’re from West Virginia — if you’re very lucky, you’re talking to a college sports fan, who knows WVU or Marshall. Or maybe someone who’s driven through sometime, I-68 or something, and knows that you’re from the most beautiful place on earth. Good chance, though, that you get someone all excited because they have a cousin in Richmond. (I’ve never been to Richmond. I have only a vague idea where it is. In Virginia. A state which we seceded from. In 1863. FYI.) More likely you get some kind of incest joke.

Which — in case you somehow did not know this? — is not funny. It’s inherently not funny. But mostly it’s not funny when you hear it time after time. When the message you get, from the media, from practically anyone you talk to outside of your state, is that the only thing West Virginia is good for is tragedy and insult. If I tell people I’m from Massachusetts, they might think I’m a godless commie, but they might also think I’m educated or cultured or what-have-you. People may assume limits on my morals if I come from Massachusetts, they may assume my cultural perspective, but they never assume limits on my potential. But I tell people I’m from West Virginia and…and am grateful if they know it is a state.

And this is why I stayed up too late watching the game, all to its bitter end, and still get teary-eyed thinking about it. Because for once, for once, my state is on the national scene for a reason that is wholly good. For once people look at us and see something to cheer for. (For once, we look at ourselves and see something to cheer for. Because, sad to say, no one puts limits on West Virginians’ potential so severely as we ourselves do…)

You probably haven’t been to my hometown. So, just so you know: We were profiled by NPR for having had the lowest unemployment rate in the country recently. We have, of course, a sizable university, which filled my childhood with viola lessons, community orchestra, volunteer chemistry research, famous guest speakers, touring musicals all summer (as well as basketball). We have our very own monorail — no, really — driverless electric cars which show up on command and handle much of the students’ transit needs, as well as many residents’. (We have a bus system, too, for all you public transit fans.) We have one of my favorite indie coffeehouses ever, which has been thriving since I was in high school, and doesn’t just cater to students or musicians or stay-at-home moms or retirees or businesspeople, but everybody. We have a bike path and a Japanese restaurant I still get intense cravings for a few times a year. And it really, truly is the most beautiful state in the world. The green and hills and rolling lushness get into your bloodstream and define what land is supposed to be and I love my adopted city but sometimes I look around and feel lonely for the hills; everything is flat and desolate, not half green enough. Missing the way that land should be.

If I were from any other state, would I feel the need to write an apologia for it? But then again, would you know enough I didn’t have to?

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8 thoughts on “semper liberi

  1. Somehow, I don’t know how, I grew up knowing about the whole seceeding-from-Virginia thing. (Maybe thanks to Northern parents dealing with a Southern school teaching their children civil war history?) And I vividly remember driving through West Virginia as a 15yo with a learner’s permit, being allowed to drive for a stretch, and getting white-knuckle terrified driving on those hills with my lack of experience. I was quite happy to watch their stunning beauty through a passenger window after that. (Now, I’d be fine, and I’d actually prefer the gorgeous hills of West Virginia to the monotonous flatlands of southern Illinois, which hypnotize me into dangerous sleepiness.) I’ve actually heard more about the negatives of West Virginia from you than from the media — admittedly, this is mostly because I’ve heard anything about West Virginia beyond the aforementioned almost exclusively through you.

    Your apologia reminds me of the author’s note at the end of The Help, which I reviewed recently, in which the author talks about being from Mississippi. Georgians make fun of people from Alabama; Alabamans make fun of people from Mississippi; people from Mississippi seem to have no obvious targets handy. Growing up two states away from there, I haven’t had much opportunity to observe Mississippians first-hand, but I suspect the psychology is similar.

    I’ve also seen that “limiting their own potential” phenomenon all too often. My SIL, who is freakishly psychologically healthy in spite of her family of origin, has a cousin who tried to go to college. He was doing fine at first, but his grandmother kept telling him that he wasn’t good enough for college, until he finally believed it himself; his grades dropped dramatically over the course of a few semesters, until finally he just dropped out, defeated. And my SIL’s highschool English teacher didn’t bother teaching them much in the way of grammar, because “they’re just going to be farmers anyway, why would they need this?” Um, yeah, if they never learn it, then they’ll never do things that require it, but isn’t the whole point of education to exercise minds and open up possibilities? Gah. I wish I knew how to fix that sort of thing.

    Newt

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    1. Of course I don’t mean to say that everything about my state is love and kittens, just that those parts wouldn’t be appropriate for this post…it is sadly true that no one can put limits on themselves so much as, well, themselves, and I spent 5 of those 17 years very unhappy (in large part because of those limits). But at least when I talk about it, it’s in a context other than disdain or ignorance.

      The hills: yes. Lovely, but truckers regularly lose their brakes — my parents in fact, when moving to Morgantown, lost theirs on the final approach; not a great place for a learner. But hey. Take a road trip to the Cass Scenic Railroad or something; we did a class trip there in elementary school; good times.

      Mississippi: yeah. I restrained myself from making the jokes, because if I’m going to complain that other people say that stuff about WV…but you could swap “Georgia” for “WV” up there and it would still work. I guess people always want someone to look down on.

      Fixing it: I don’t know how either. Note that, per that Yahoo column I linked to, nearly all the talented people I knew in high school have since left the state.

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      1. Oh, you can go through the whole middle part of the country with “At least we’re not…” (for example, Pennsylvanians say, “at least we’re not WV”, then West Virginians say, “at least we’re not Kentucky”, and so forth) I’m under the impression it actually ends in a loop between Mississippi and Louisiana.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation, and welcome to the site! I am, of course, always in favor of adding to the list of books to read.

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  2. Given that I’m very likely moving back east this summer (MD/DC area), and will be missing the hiking terrain and possibilities of California, I’m very much looking forward to hearing some recommendations for favorite treks across your beautiful state! It’s been years since I’ve been there now, most recently probably for skiing in high school… but I still do remember the sweeping vistas seen from the approach to Morgantown’s airport for a memorable party once upon a time. 🙂

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    1. I admit I never did do much hiking! I appreciate the outdoors more in the abstract ;).

      That said, the New River Gorge is, well, gorgeous, as is Canaan Valley (which also has skiing, if that is your sort of thing). And there’s hiking the Appalachian Trail, if the Mark Sanford euphemism hasn’t put you off that forever ;).I have to admit (sigh) that the southern half of the state is on average the prettier, and of course I don’t know it as well…But for *you*, I would say an obligatory trip would be to the Green Bank Observatory (situated, of course, in the midst of stunning territory), which gives the opportunity for a side trip to the Greenbrier hotel in White Sulphur Springs (it’s the fancy rich-person hotel we all grew up hearing about, with an extra bonus Congressional bunker!).

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  3. This article too:

    “Then, on Tuesday morning, we would wake to triumphant headlines in sports pages across the country. At last, we would say, something good has happened to West Virginia. The whole nation would see us in a new light. And we would cry.”

    (nytimes)

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