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Town and Gown: About That Townie Photo

Hanging at a painfully bent angle from the side of a porch post, a nylon Confederate flag droops in full view.  I see it every day when I take “the back way” home from town.  I never not think about it when I see it.  Something always crosses my mind.  Usually I roll my eyes and scoff at the stupidity of the thing.  The fact that Indiana isn’t in the South, and that we actually fought with “Team Lincoln” usually occurs to me first.  Then I think: maybe the people in there moved here from Georgia or South Carolina.  If so, then I guess that makes it something like 0.0005% less stupid.  Then I think: maybe they honestly have no idea what it actually represents.  I was like that, when I used to watch Bo and Luke Duke jump over flatbed rail cars in the General Lee every Friday night back in the early 1980’s.  Of course…I was 11-years-old back then.  Eventually I learned my history and knew better.

That flag crossed my mind again this week as the theatrical spectacle at DePauw University heated up my computer so greatly it almost melted the thing.  Of all the images, quotes, videos, comments (so…so…so many of comments) which slowed my hard drive to “low thyroid turtle on Quaaludes” speed, one particular image—buried in a personal blog shared on Facebook—grabbed me the most.

Three white DePauw students crowd around each other in the photo.  They’re dressed like hillbillies.  One (name withheld) is wearing bibs, proudly sporting a fake pregnant stomach.  The other is donned in a South Putnam shirt and a Chicago Blackhawks cap.  And the third student…yeah, I’m not even going to bother with that description.  The caption reads: “Putnam County, where dreams come true (punctuated by a tractor and checkered-flag emoji).”

Wheeler 7

I’m not surprised that some DePauw fraternities hold “Putnam County” parties, where they wrap themselves in their best Jethro and Ellie Maye getups and drunkenly revel in the general joy of having been raised in Carmel, Westfield, Chicago, Downton Abbey, Narnia, or Oz.  I will admit that when I first saw it, I was miffed.  It’s a natural, human reaction.

In a lot of ways I am the living embodiment of the kind of people those college kids were making fun of.  I grew up an hour south of Greencastle.  I have never traveled the globe.  Never summered in Europe.  I haven’t vacationed in the Caribbean.  I have traveled to several major U.S. cities (so there’s that), but I’ve never been to New York.  Some day I’ll go, I’ve just never felt the tug or the urgency.  Sure, I like the feel of the urban environment.  I like scooting around on the subways, and soaking in the spectacles in places like Chicago, New Orleans, and Memphis, but I wouldn’t consider fighting traffic, standing in long lines everywhere, and paying for an inflated cost of living as proof that I’m a better person than someone who opts for a sleepy town in the Midwest.

But in other ways, I’m nothing like those mock hillbillies at all.  If anything, I am more like the college kids under the costumes.  I earned my Associates, Bachelors, and Masters degrees at state schools.  I worked my ass off to get them.  I’m unabashedly proud of them, and faithfully devoted to the schools which gave me the opportunity to earn them.  I so loved my college experiences that, when I moved back to this part of state a couple decades ago, I intentionally narrowed my choices to this town and Bloomington.  I knew I wanted to live and work in the shadow of a college—be it big or small—because I wanted to work in more diverse classrooms, and I loved the way that institutions of higher education brought the world to our back yard.

And yes, since I’ve moved here I have had to wrestle with my own townie-hillbilly insecurities. I’ve had to politely dismiss a condescending remark about the inferiority of public universities.  I’ve had to awkwardly go about my way when my polite hello to a young DePauw student is met with a cold stare akin to the Lannisters as they uncomfortably trudge through the slums of King’s Landing.  I’ve had to shove the fat of my tongue into the back of my lower lip when the occasional DePauw professor uttered some version of the “stuck in Greencastle, Indiana” line, as if they’ve been consigned to purgatory.

I’m not surprised that some DePauw fraternities hold “Putnam County” parties, where they wrap themselves in their best Jethro and Ellie Maye getups and drunkenly revel in the general joy of having been raised in Carmel, Westfield, Chicago, Downton Abbey, Narnia, or Oz.

Photo by Richard Fields.
Photo by Richard Fields.

Badge DePauw

Town and gown frustration is part of the local scene.  Sometimes I fail the patience test (and always regret it).  When I do contain myself, it’s usually because I steer my thoughts back to these four important points:

One: The stereotypes are not the reality.  Anecdotal incidents of unpleasant behavior do not define the sum and total of the people who work and attend DePauw.  I know dozens of professors who are not only great, down-to-earth people…they’re good friends.  We talk over beers, we talk at soccer games, we talk on the golf course, and we talk as we listen to great bands gigging through a set-list on a Friday night.  I enjoy their company, and nothing they have done or said gives me any reason to assume they think less of me.  I also have met many great young people at DePauw as well.  My step-daughter’s sorority is filled with pleasant ladies who naturally make conversation…sincere, well-meaning, engaging conversation.

Two:  DePauw, and the money affiliated with DePauw, has been good for this town.  Some locals speak begrudgingly of the “DePauw takeover…”  Whatever.  In my eyes, DePauw (or the related alumni more specifically) have stepped up (some 30 years too late, I’ll admit) and filled the void left when IBM departed.

Three:  I knew what I was stepping into when I moved here.  For all the aforementioned headaches which come from entitled rich kids who don’t understand the difference between earned wealth and hand-me-down cash, I knew what kind of school DePauw was when I weighed my Bloomington-Greencastle decision.  I embrace it and all the warts that come with it.

Four:  We don’t want to harm or hurt each other.  The reality is that the societal Venn diagram hovering over Greencastle and DePauw overlaps much, much more than we perceive.  We all want the same things, and we all generally wish other people the best as well.

The problem, however, is that the story of Greencastle and DePauw isn’t told intellectually.  It’s told anecdotally…and optically.  And last week, the optics were bad.  Across the board…bad.  Fortunately, we are not defined by the images and symbols which stereotype us.  Not all wealthy students are defined by one Instagram photo, and not all townies are defined by one dangling rebel flag.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.

Featured Image courtesy of DePauw University Photographic Services.

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