When I was in high school, ambition meant two things: escaping my hometown and becoming a writer. I’d planned to be worldly in a blurred sense that included handbags, passports, and publications. I never planned to move back to my hometown, until at thirty-three I did.
Greensboro, North Carolina, is a city that doesn’t want to climb the summit or see its name on a book jacket. It’s a city that likes to be in the back room, laying out the tablecloths. Local closets house Civil War rifles, their bayonets spearing the dust beams. Street signs bear the names of old, revered criminals. Half the people here believe this place has changed too much, and half the people believe it hasn’t changed at all. Most of us are wrong.
In my first college fiction class, we were asked to describe where we came from. After a month in Chapel Hill, a full hour away, I believed I saw Greensboro with unprecedented clarity. Dashing off a piece deriding its tameness, I sketched out the thoroughfares running parallel to each other, the gridded downtown streets, the polite provincial moms who seemed to me (how arrogant!) like placid cows, dead inside. My professor wrote back something to the effect of “I’ve been to this city. Isn’t there more to it?”
In my view then, no. Never mind that as a fledgling driver I didn’t even have the streets right; I rewrote the layout to suit my artistic purpose. If I needed parallelism to symbolize repression, well, I’d just make it up. Decades later, I still flush when I remember that gentle rebuke—I’ve been to this city—a physical reaction to how wrong I was about the place I thought I knew. Back then, I didn’t want to write about anything I knew.
What did I know? At seventeen, I knew the bagel store in the strip mall where all my friends worked, where closing up after hours we’d blast Nirvana and hurl stale bagels across the counter. With the kitchen door propped open, we smoked on the back stoop, feeling at home amid the dumpsters and the stars.
I knew the vaulted Presbyterian church around the corner and down the hill from my parents’ house, the lovely wide steps that led to a park’s edge and caused some teenaged girls to fall into paroxysms of tulle-stoked wedding fantasies.
I knew the parks and playgrounds where we tried to stay one step ahead of the police cruiser seeking to break up our loitering, not that we had any real fear of the police, because when the people we knew got tickets, their parents got angry, grounded them, and paid off the fines.
I sensed our juvenile attempts to rebel against suburban monotony might be a misguided waste of time—sneaking into hot tubs in distant apartment complexes; calling each other endlessly in a tedious landline chain to find out where we could go and who could drive. What was it all for? I wanted to escape the banality of both extremes: what we rebelled against, and the cliched rebellion itself.
I knew how it felt to drive my friend’s emerald-green 1979 Camaro. Even twenty-five years ago, that car was old. All the boys wanted to drive it; only sometimes did we let them. Occasionally we got stuck in low-slung ditches leaving campgrounds on the edge of the city where we’d gone to drink Aristocrat vodka, so cheap it came in plastic handles. Our fingers rummaged in packs of Camel Lights. We lamented the soft packs we were forced to buy when the Latham Quik Mart was out of hard packs. The pamphlets from the American Lung Association that our parents left on our breakfast placemats we ignored.
Over and over, we punched in the Camaro’s enormous cigarette lighter and brought its bright red face close to our own. We cranked the volume on Nine Inch Nails to scream along with Trent Reznor. On Thursday nights, we went to Girl Scouts, where our leaders handed out motivational cassette tapes from the national scouting office. When we pressed play, a female voice sang out, “You’re a young girl going places!” We scoffed—and believed it.
As kids, we had fished in the creek for crawdads that didn’t exist. As teenagers on summer nights, we lay on the pavement and let the heat ride up into our bones. We knew the first chance we got, we’d be gone.
For most of its history, the word ambition has been used pejoratively. From the Latin ambire, it is rooted in the idea of people “going around” to solicit votes for political office: hence, a naked desire for power, maybe fame. Ambition meant clawing for something. Like pride or vainglory, it was something to be wary of, lest it led you astray. Ambition manifested as overreach, trying to attain something you either didn’t deserve or didn’t need. Only recently have we begun to think of ambition as desirable, beneficial. Or, as Merriam Webster—with perhaps an implicit note of caution—coolly puts it, “Neutral or positive senses are modern.”
My parents claim that at two I clutched a postcard their friend had sent from Nepal and wandered the house chanting, “Kathmandu!” This seemed prescient when, in my twenties, I did end up in Nepal, among other places: Cambodia, Thailand, Namibia, Northern Ireland, Guatemala, Bolivia. I’d been sure I’d never return to Greensboro beyond those occasional summer stints during college, waitressing at a Mexican restaurant where the managers and dishwashers smoked pot under the overpass out back, and where no one was, in fact, Mexican. We blasted Jay-Z in the kitchen and endured Joan Osbourne while bussing tables. The whole time I thought about leaving.
I had a primal urge to be someplace other people were trying to get to. Everyone I knew was trying to get out of Greensboro, but I couldn’t articulate where I wanted to go. Someplace where people were less likely to put ribbons in their daughters’ hair. Someplace where people walked occasionally, or took the subway, instead of driving cars one 8-minute stretch after another, as if underwater, or sedated by the heady adult drugs of reasonable distances and little traffic.
A few years after I graduated college, the Mexican restaurant closed. In the same building, a martini bar opened. I was back in Greensboro, newly returned from the Peace Corps, grading standardized tests for $9 an hour. Friends worked at the martini bar, people who had moved home after college and were taking painting classes during the day or saving up to move to New York. I thought it was another version of the same thing. The overpass still bore graffiti and people still smoked pot under it.
“Just please don’t become an English teacher,” an acquaintance and fellow English major begged me that year, with the hubris only a 24-year-old can muster. “I get so depressed when people do that.”
“Oh, I won’t,” I assured her.
Six months later, I became an English teacher, but in California, a justifiably safe distance from my former self and my former school.
Teaching high school could be considered the occupational and emotional equivalent of returning to one’s hometown. In movies, both are almost always portrayed as a failing: a backwards slide into a place you once couldn’t wait to leave. You are marked as lacking ambition, or worse, having tried and failed.
But I loved teaching, and I was good at it. Since my ambition was always about writing, I used to think teaching meant having failed at writing. But after being in the classroom and realizing I wasn’t in retrograde, I wasn’t failing at all, I felt old patterns start to shift. I felt a new map forming.
At the early college where I now teach—in my hometown—many of my ambitious tenth graders want to be doctors. Even the ones who swoon over Zora Neale Hurston and ask to borrow Edith Wharton over break. The rest mostly want to be engineers or data analysts. Still, I try. “What about an English major?” I ask, and they smile at me, kindly. I want them to know how much joy teaching and writing can give to people who love people and language. But teaching is not prestigious. They find internships and selective summer programs, for which they all need letters of recommendation.
Each day these savvy students and I read and laugh and write in one corner of a mildewed trailer we euphemistically call “the modular,” conveniently ignoring the fact that modular is an adjective. We forget the grungy desks and the black mold on the ceiling. We are hanging out with Elie Wiesel, Alice Walker, Mark Twain. Who am I, to these teenagers? Just some lady in a blazer with a scrim of sarcasm, a ready ear, a green pen that never runs out of ink; someone nowhere near as antagonistic as a parent, but with more clout than a friend. I’m someone who occasionally lets the balance tip, who needs Tik Tok explained to her again and again, who knows none of the YouTube influencers scattered throughout their conversations, who will pause the discussion of ethos versus logos to demand a definition of the term VSCO girl. Most days are a joy.
In Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, Amy March, reinventing herself in Paris, bemoans her perceived lack of talent as an artist. Frustrated, she declares, “I want to be great, or nothing.” I remember not liking Amy when I read the book as a girl, or maybe I just intuited that I wasn’t supposed to like her, that every girl with any sense should be rooting for maverick Jo. As an adult watching the film, I felt compassion for Amy, and a tremor of recognition. If I’m not going to be great at it, I’d rather not even try.
When I was Amy’s age, I wanted to Make Art, so I could be worthy of the lists my college roommate and I compiled on our dirty carpet remnant, stuck in a ninth-floor cinderblock dorm room, despondent because the simple act of going to college had not transformed us into the adults we wished to become. We made T-charts: Things We Want to Do and Ways We Want to Be. The lists included: Drink martinis. Go to Paris. Paint. Write. We thought if we could just pin down the words, make it true outside ourselves, the magic of the manifesto would enact its logic on our lives. I had the vision; I didn’t want to do the work.
Like ambition, discipline derives from Latin: discipulus means student, pupil, follower. Discipulus comes from discere, to learn. In Old English, however, the connotation was less of learning than punishment: the treatment that corrects or punishes; the order necessary for instruction. And although one Middle English definition feels like an apt description of writing on my worst days—“mortification by scourging oneself”—I like best the idea of order: a system of rules and regulations necessary for any learning to happen. The modern connotation leans toward training, as in practice.
The more I value discipline, the more suspicious I am of ambition. I push against it in my students when they drop hints that the pressure they face to succeed makes them unhappy. I question the mostly male characters who possess it—Iago from Othello, Jack from Lord of the Flies—and their moral compass, or lack thereof. I bat it down in myself when I feel it rear its head, kitten-like, yellow eyes fixed on my shortcomings. The best antidote I know is, still, to write.
It turns out, I needed to leave, but I also needed to come back. I needed the children that line Elm Street to cheer the fire truck’s slow procession during the Christmas parade, their grubby hands awaiting the blurred arc of candy tossed from plastic buckets. I needed the farmer’s market where the man with crates of apples—Staymen, Winesap, Arkansas Black—insists on giving my daughter a free apple each week, and where I sometimes run into my father.
Because I teach part-time, at midday I leave school and drive a mile to the local library where I eat lunch in my car: unheated leftover curry, yogurt. I can’t overstate the bliss I feel at this fulcrum of the day. I spoon almost-cold yogurt into my mouth and watch people scurry in and out of the building. So many people come here: moms with cloth bags of Rosemary Wells books and droopy-armed toddlers, old men with laptops, recent immigrants meeting English language tutors. They’re all here, getting to work. I peer out the windshield at the dried leaves blown into matted piles near the sewer drain, listening for the occasional, alarming octave-jump of someone pulling up to the glass recycling center behind me to dump a crash-load of wine bottles and marinara jars. It always sounds like the universe breaking.
I might have forty-eight Hamlet essays to grade, two essays of my own bumping around my head, and three children to pick up in ninety minutes, but for this moment, no one needs me. I’ve taught my classes and now my day—this hour—is mine to do with as I please: grade, plan, answer emails, submit my writing, get lost on the internet trying to figure out where to submit my writing, wander the bookshelves looking for books I’ve been meaning to read or that I think my children will like. I walk into the library, shoulder to shoulder with everyone else, to do some of these things. There’s never enough time for it all.
My parents come over at least twice a week and we cook together or play cards or trade headlines. Often I go to their house, walking up the steps of my childhood home, past the granite stoop, over the red square porch tiles, to push open the heavy door that needs an upward tug on the handle before the key clicks into the lock. I don’t think about the motion, as familiar and comforting as childhood itself. I write at their dining room table, where I wrote my own high school papers, while they cut apple slices in my kitchen and dangle my kids upside-down by their ankles, to everyone’s delight. All of which is to say, the glass crashing is something breaking—and something being made new.
When we talk about our hometowns, we’re likely also talking about the rocky geography of adolescence: its intractable grip on our throats, which we might conflate with the landscape in which we were almost, but not quite, free. Adolescence is an age marked by deficit— what we don’t have, or don’t have yet.
Some version of stasis may be what people most fear about returning to their hometowns: facing the frozen past, or facing their frozen self, or both. What actually happened to me was alarming, as it was the opposite of stasis. I’ve had to acknowledge the past didn’t freeze. Many people and things I’d forgotten about are still here, and they have changed, too. In my first few months home, I misunderstood this. Everywhere I saw ghosts. After a decade home, I now see how the past keeps tumbling along, and I am aging alongside it..
Until she died recently, my elementary school librarian lived around the corner. I associated her big friendly laugh with Voyage of the Mimi, the intoxicating, vaguely scientific series we watched for years in the media center but never actually finished, about a troubled boy onboard a ship, The Mimi, taking a census of humpback whales. My memories of sitting on the carpet near my librarian, watching the whales—one of my most vivid pleasures of childhood—are now tucked under my memories of her crouching in the pansy bed, twisting to wave a garden-gloved hand. When her granddaughter ended up in the same preschool as my daughter, we chatted every afternoon. I knew her car when I saw it around town: a white FourRunner with a bumper sticker that read Youth is no match for old age and treachery.
Such experiences happen over and over. The most recent principal to hire me was my own tenth-grade English teacher. The cumulative effect of this layering is that now, when I pass demolition sites with rubble and stalled excavators, I see not destruction, but something new and preordained emerging, a change that was never not going to happen. The Mexican restaurant is always turning into the martini bar. It’s never the same thing.
My desk faces the wall; I don’t want to see the horizon when I write. As a kid, I was constantly looking beyond myself, beyond my world. What’s out there to see? To write about? Now, I just want one more hour, thirty minutes even, to work from within.
While writing, I’m free, but bound. At dusk, I leave my desk and collect the sheets from the backyard, unpinning their sweet starch from the line. Scattershot lamplight falls from the windows onto the garden pebbles, the air conditioning compressor, the scraggly lilac I need to dig up. The sheen of thunder ripples in the distance. Over the roof is a blue night sky clinging to its last bit of pigment, the way I cling to the sheets as I gather them, loving their stiffness, their strangeness after a day outdoors, and shoving them into reluctant heaps in the basket so I can bring them inside. That night the sheets hold a diagonal crease: the memory of the line, an imprint as obvious and useless as the adult our childhood selves once planned to be.
I got so many things wrong when I was young, not just the layout of the streets, but the possibilities for a good life here, a rich life. If someone had told me then, you’ll be a part-time high school teacher and writer and mother in this city, I would have been disappointed. I would have been wrong. I worry my students might think—as I did—that life is a loaf of bread to be baked. A timer will ding and they’ll know when it’s done, when they’ve arrived. They watch the oven, faces aglow with light refracted through the grease-streaked door.
No, I say. Life’s the dough. It’s the yeast in its dark jar, and the water from the pipes, the spatula that won’t get clean in the dishwasher and the cloth draped over the mound rising through the afternoon. It’s the bubbles frothing before the flour is added, the melted butter in the scorched pan, and, sometimes, the egg.
Writing taught me this; I try to pass it on to my students. For now, they’re biding their time in this city which seems so tame. Their eyes flit towards the classroom window where a breeze taps holly branches against the glass. They live in a land I’ve visited but can no longer reach, a place where the horizon still seems more promising than the desk. The first chance they get, they’ll be gone.
Rumpus original art by Teresa M. Beatty