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Sam Lyons

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The People We Met Along the Way

Posted: 07/30/2012 9:29 am

Maybe it's because I've always loved to argue and play the devil's advocate, but I can never sit idly by and let my friends spew endless insults about the American South. I get where they're coming from, though -- the way the region is portrayed in the media casts the people in a bad light, often as uneducated, bigoted hicks. And before you begin typing hateful comments about how insensitive and controversial I'm being, I encourage you to finish this column before you do so.

You still reading? Good, because I'm about to do my best to disprove those negative stereotypes.

Last week, my mom and I had a little adventure, driving all around the South to see some colleges I was interested in. Armed with a pack of CD's and a big book of maps and directions, we drove to a different city every day and slept in a different hotel every night.

I was completely entranced with everywhere we went. The scenery had so much gravity and history to it; my mom would always joke about "the red coats hiding in the foliage" as we drove through the countryside from Virginia on the way to North Carolina. The long country roads seemed almost hidden by all the trees, and I imagine how incredible it must all look in the autumn -- something Californians like me don't experience that often.

However, while the scenery was beautiful, the most remarkable thing about wherever we went was the people. Literally everyone we met treated us like friends, told us about good places for dinner, raved about my intelligence after I told them what schools I was looking at, and just helped us out in general. A few shout-outs are in order for the two families from Virginia that we met on the plane there, the clerks at the gift shop at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's house), our waitress from Florida at a restaurant in Birkdale Village, a cool collection of restaurants and shops in Huntersville, North Carolina, and every single hotel concierge we met.

There's one particular story that stands out, and really epitomizes what I found on our journey. To complete our Southern experience, my mom and I got tickets to Friday Night Opry in Nashville. After a bit of seat shuffling because there was not enough room on our bench at first, my mom and I were seated center stage about 10 rows back, sitting next to the most "typical" Southern couple we could ever have thought of meeting. They lived in Georgia, but would come up to Nashville all the time to see country music like this and to see NASCAR races (coincidentally, the woman's father was a NASCAR driver). They were die-hard supporters of the University of Tennessee, and went bananas when one of the acts that night played a Tennessee fight song. And boy, were their accents thick.

But guess what? They weren't uneducated hicks. They weren't bigots. They were easily some of the kindest, most charming people I'd ever met. Some readers might be surprised that they weren't hostile to a Jewish boy from SoCal. But I wasn't concerned about stereotypes when talking to them. I was simply fascinated by their stories, and they were fascinated by mine in turn.

We walked back to our hotel with them in the pouring rain, and that night my mom and I talked about how I simply HAVE to write about this. I had been suffering from a very serious case of writer's block for many weeks, and I needed something inspired to get me going again, and this was it. Now that I've cranked this one out, I'm sure that the creativity's going to flow like water and I'll be back to writing more often like before.

But back to the topic at hand. This journey has made me even more passionate about ending negative stereotyping. The people from states like Virginia and South Carolina are just as American as people from New York or California. Not everyone there is a racist bigot, and people who think so are just as closed-minded as the people they're talking about. We're all living in the same country, and I hope that we can all show respect to each other. I know that I'll try.

 
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