A Sense of Place

I was in Atlanta for most of last week at a school leadership conference. The purpose of the conference is relevant to this post……because the participants  are all “aspiring heads of school” from all over the country. There are more than 1,400 private schools in the United States, ranging from small elementary day schools like mine to large boarding schools with national recognition. A not insignificant number of these schools are led by people who are approaching retirement age, which means that there will be a increased number of  openings at the highest level of administration within the next five to ten years.

One night, after finishing our evening session, I became involved in a conversation with a group of colleagues about the locations to which we’d consider relocating in order to take a headship. I must admit that I am unlikely to change jobs or move anywhere in the next five years, but the hypothetical discussion was fun.

The “take-away” for me was the range of reasons people shared regarding their possible destinations. Some people had excluded regions of the country out of hand: “I would never move to northern New England. The winter weather would be awful,” one person said. Other people were more inclusive in their lists: “My spouse and I have identified six places where s/he could find work and where we could build a new community,” was another common thought. A few people framed their job searches in an almost exotic sense, naming spots like Southern California, the ski resort towns of the Rockies, or popular vacation destinations. We talked about climate, social and lifestyle opportunities, proximity to major cities, convenience, likelihood of natural disasters, needs of family members, and the reality of uprooting ourselves and starting a new adventure.

When I was five years old, my family moved from Massachusetts to Kansas for two years. Much later, I spent five years in Washington D.C. during and immediately after college. Other than that, I have never lived more than 25 miles from the Atlantic Ocean or outside a 30 mile radius of Boston. I’ve traveled in Europe, the Caribbean, and all over this country, but I am a total New England girl. I’m not opposed to moving, but I’ve built a life here that seems fairly permanent. Still, you never know. Two of my closest friends are in the middle of major relocations. One has been living abroad for many years and is just returning to the USA; the other has lived in the same general area for her whole life and is about to move to a city two hours away. These are wonderful steps for both women and I can’t wait to follow their stories in their new homes. As much as I would embrace the newness of a move, as delightful as it would be to make new friends and build new routines, and as much as I can create an image in my mind of living somewhere else, I’m so accustomed to the seasons, the geography, and the culture of this region that I wonder if I’d ever feel truly at home in another region.

I flew home on Friday from Hartsfield airport, one of the largest hubs on the east coast. (I’ll post later about the kind and helpful TSA agent who helped me through security with my cane and my semi-functional leg–she made my day). My flight was at the last gate of a very long terminal. As I made my way down the corridor, I was particularly drawn to the destinations posted: Moscow. Mexico City. Frankfurt. There was an eager group of high school students gathered at one gate, wearing T-shirts announcing their excursion to Peru. I remembered my own excitement more than 30 years ago when I left with a group of classmates to study in Spain during our junior year. How will those kids from Georgia feel about Atlanta when they return from South America? Will they be glad to be back in familiar territory? Will they be hungry for more chances to see the wider world?

How big is the “wider world,” anyway? I thought more about that question when it became clear that approximately one-third of the seats on my plane were filled with a tour group of senior citizens from San Antonio on their way to Boston. They were all wearing lanyards bearing their names, and most of them were bursting with questions and observations about their journey. “What time zone is Boston?” one lady asked. “I sure hope it’s less humid than Texas,” someone else commented.”I’ve never been farther north than Charlotte,” one gentleman noted. They talked about the places they would visit (islands were particularly interesting), the food they would eat, the accents they might encounter, and the accommodations they would find.

I sat in my seat, reading The Paris Wife, and immersing myself in the life of American expatriates in the 1920s. What was the sense of home for the artists and writers of Hemingway’s cohort? What does it mean to be an expatriate today? How far away from “home” do you need to go before you feel as if you’ve been expatriated? Did my Texas flight mates feel that they were being taken to a foreign land?

The plane banked over the familiar spectacle of Boston Harbor, the water glowing directly underneath, shimmering pink and orange with the beginning streaks of a summer sunset. I don’t know how many times I’ve felt my stomach clench as I hear the landing gear drop down when there’s no ground visible beneath us, but on this night, it was all smooth. It’s good to be away, but it’s great to be home.

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2 responses to “A Sense of Place

  1. Best post yet!

  2. This is a great post and such a worthwhile personal reflection for you on your place and what it would take to change it. I, personally, think it’s useful to have contemplation like this. It helps you know yourself better.

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