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Homeland insecurity

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, September 5, 2005

My name is Peter Schroeder, and I’m from a town. No, I’m not from a suburb, or from “around” anywhere. I’m from a town.

Beginning with Freshman Orientation, we all know the experiences of introductions. 1. Your name, 2. Your major, 3. Your dorm, 4. Where you’re from. The first three questions are gimmes. Everybody knows where Dillon Hall is, or what a Marketing major does (and no, it’s not nothing, funny man), but with that last one, it’s all up for grabs. Being that Notre Dame is a national campus with students from across the country and the world, one always answers that last question with an assumption in mind. One always assumes that this person is from somewhere far, far away from your home, and one must be as general as possible.

Why be general? If you have to ask, you’re not from a town. In the beginning of a towner’s college career, the optimism and pride of their homeland is evident. Ask a freshman where they’re from, and they’ll tell you the name of their town, its approximate distance from the nearest place you may have heard of, and then draw you a topographical map on your forearm.

However, the life of a towner is a grueling one. Every single time someone asks where you’re from, you have to submit yourself to the Spanish Inquisition, as people try to ascertain where your stupid shack in the woods is. The name of your town is always met with the same blank stare that says, “I have never heard of that place; therefore, I hate you.”

Eventually you’ll see some towners who have just given up, the ones that are perfectly willing to lambaste their own town before you can. Ask them where they’re from, and you usually get responses like, “Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, you’ve never heard of it,” or “Prophetstown, Illinois, it’s just a rinky-dink town in the middle of nowhere,” or “Milburn, New Jersey, it smells funny.” These people are ones who have given up on their towns, and it’s only a matter of time until they forgo naming their town at all and opting for vague geographical generalities.

The best example of these generalities is the “near Chicago” squad. While Notre Dame is a national campus, a large chunk of its student body hails from the Midwest, especially Illinois. As such, when going around and telling hometowns, there is probably a one in five chance that somebody will be from “near Chicago.”

Alright, near Chicago, that must be near Chicago, right? Well, that’s what you would think. “Near Chicago” basically is a term that translates to “the Central Time Zone, possibly Mountain.” People who claim to live in this abundantly populated area could live as much as three hours from Chicago, and still claim their nearness. People, it’s time to stop hiding in the shadow of the Sears Tower. Embrace your townitude!

I have a confession to make; I too was once part of the “nearest recognizable name” rabble, although Pittsburgh was my crutch. In Theology 100 my freshman year, we had to go around the room and introduce ourselves in the standard boilerplate fashion. It got to me, and fearing the blank stares of unfamiliarity with my backwoods village, I took the easy way out and said, “Pittsburgh.”

Of course, in Theology, there was no way the Big Man was going to let me get away with that one. Two student introductions later, a girl stated that she too was from Pittsburgh. Naturally, our professor asked if we knew each other. The shame I felt, in Theology class no less! It was on that day I resolved; never again will I hide behind cities with NFL franchises and skyscrapers and Barnes and Nobles, and embrace my hometown. You’ve never heard of Johnstown, Pennsylvania? You better learn, because that’s where I’m from!

Towns have plenty to offer, even if they won’t light the bulb above everyone’s head. For example, my hometown, Johnstown, is the Flood Capital of the World, with historic floods in 1889, 1936, and 1977. It is also the filming location of the movie Slap Shot, and home of the world’s steepest motorized vehicular inclined plane. No town is too small to not have something to be proud of. Hoople, Illinois, population 98, is home to the new University of Wisconsin football coach, Bret Bielema.

So I say to you, Observer readers, don’t hedge your bets anymore and just spit out the name of the nearest metropolis, get a hold of your town’s name and never let go. Join me in the fight against townism, and let’s defeat common town stereotypes. No, we don’t all wear overalls, and no, we don’t play jugs for fun. And for the last time, she’s just my cousin.

Peter Schroeder is a senior English major. His favorite word is “ennui.” He can be e-mailed at pschroed@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.