The summer before I came to Stanford, I got an email from one of my first mentors. We had met at a Dallas admit reception a few months before, 180 miles from the place I grew up — Lufkin, Texas, population 30,000. Despite the generous and plentiful advice it contained, the most valuable part of the email was a reference to a line in a Mac Davis song, “Texas In My Rear View Mirror.” The narrator, reflecting on pursuing a career in Hollywood at the expense of abandoning his hometown, posits that “Happiness was Lubbock, Texas in my rear view mirror.” At 17, nothing was more relatable. I couldn’t wait to leave Lufkin behind, never to return. Now, at 23, the song is a fulfilled prophecy.
Lufkin isn’t exactly a two-horse town, but it is three hours from the nearest airport. The closest thing to a tourist attraction we have is our prized winter tradition that we put up in the main square: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Oil Pumping Unit, covered in Christmas lights and pulling a wooden cutout of Santa mounted on a tractor-trailer. As an adolescent with a dangerous mix of ambition and anti-authoritarian spirit, I never fit in or got along with my peers, my teachers or even my own family. To be frank, I thought I was better than everyone else. When I looked around, I saw a town stuck in the past: simple-minded, racist, sexist and paternalistically insistent that all those born in Lufkin should live and die there, too. Throughout high school, I carried myself with open contempt and disdain for those around me; it’s a miracle I had any friends at all. I spent my days dreaming of an elite education, of the city, of transcending my redneck past and launching myself into modern relevance. I couldn’t leave soon enough.
I worked my entire life to fulfill that dream, and when I got into Stanford I thought I had found my ticket out. Rolling into my freshman year, I did all that I could to distance myself from Lufkin. I never passed up a chance to disparage the town or its culture, and did my best to set myself apart from stereotypical Southern hicks by criticizing them as much as possible. No one worth anything could ever come from that place — other than myself, obviously! My first real test came at a San Francisco Giants game I attended with my freshman dorm. My high school’s only notable alumnus, Brandon Belt, happens to be the Giants’ first baseman, and far from having hometown pride, I relished in taking potshots at him the entire bus trip up to SF. As he stepped up to the plate for the first time, I smugly turned to my friends and explained that he was “just a mediocre baseball player.” He must have heard me, because he took the second pitch he saw for a home run, and would hit the far wall two more times before the night was over. Two years later, he made the All-Star game.
He made a fool out of me, and I deserved it. I was making a fool out of myself. One of the things I had to learn over the course of my Stanford career is that by rejecting Lufkin, I was really rejecting myself. My elitist attitude and eagerness to set myself apart said a lot more about me than it did in my hometown. No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t separate myself from or transcend my origins. Instead, I had to take a step back and think about what the town meant to me: what gifts it gave me, what experiences it left me with, and the people that helped me out along the way. That’s a process that doesn’t happen overnight, and will never quite be finished.
I dreaded Christmas break my first few years, when the dorms closed and I was forced to go back home with the stupid oil pumping reindeer watching my every move. Now, I find myself looking forward to my visits home more and more. With a little help from Brandon Belt and several years of reflection, the once one-dimensional image of Lufkin in my mind has given way to a multifaceted composite. The town isn’t at the vanguard of social progress, and it may be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s also a town that carries great humility, that shows incredible resilience in the face of economic decline, and that cares deeply about its own. While I may not have always loved it, it always loved me. Staring out the classroom window when I was younger, the pine trees that cover East Texas once looked to me like prison bars. Only recently have they revealed to me their deep and evergreen beauty.
Now that my love for Lufkin has come into full bloom, and as post-graduation looms, a new question has come to mind: What do students like me owe our hometowns?
The truth is that, at Stanford, students like me are a dime a dozen. Look around campus and there are a thousand students from small towns, each with their own Lufkin. Every year, Stanford expands its admissions pool to more and more students from areas of low representation and opportunity. This is a great thing for both the students, who are granted access to a level of education long denied to the rural and underserved, and the University, whose student body improves in quality and diversity. This win-win, however, has an unintentional, and frequently unrecognized, loser: the small towns like mine.
Rural youth migrating to the city is nothing new, but cases like mine I think are especially pernicious. In an ideal world, small-town students come to Stanford to receive a world-class education and return to their communities and put their newfound knowledge and expertise to work. They become teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, city councilmen and mayors. They serve on district school boards, are active in PTAs, and volunteer with Rotary Clubs on the weekends. They invest in and work towards the future of their communities, leaving them better places for the next generation to grow up.
Instead, in robbing places like Lufkin of its best and brightest, Stanford robs them of their futures. Stanford, acting as the agent of industry, puts us on the first bus to Google or McKinsey, the natural next rung in the social ladder. Students who have the potential to become the next leaders of their small communities and have tangible impact instead become mid-level project managers living in San Francisco or New York City. They escape the dead-end jobs and dull lives promised by the backwoods and enjoy their induction into the new American aristocracy, never to return. They find what they call happiness, Stanford secures its prestige and small towns walk away with nothing.
So what should students like me do for our hometowns? As individuals, we have the right to seek happiness for ourselves and the people we care about. It’s not like we owe anything to physical locations, or to an amorphous collective we were born into. Just because we wish we had more growing up doesn’t mean that we’re the ones who have to build it. It’s true that Lufkin invested a lot in me through its public school system, but I never signed a contract with my teachers and friends promising some amount of service in exchange for my upbringing. Most of them knew all along that I would never return. And more broadly, if we talk about serving impoverished or struggling communities, rural Americana isn’t even at the top of the list.
I think Kristen Powers ’16 struck a good, if imperfect, balance in her senior-year op-ed. Grappling then with the same questions I am now, she explained her decision to move back home post-graduation: “I’m not going to transform the South overnight. There are hundreds of people who have invested their entire lives attempting to move the South beyond its painful legacy of slavery and hatred towards minority communities. But I owe it to North Carolina to try.”
To tell you the truth, I’m not quite as committed as her. The best thing for both myself and society at large might be for me to move and work elsewhere. Even just the phrase — “to owe” — carries a wealth of connotations. One of the most pervasive and damaging attitudes on campus I’ve noticed is a sense of noblesse oblige, French for “nobility obliges.” The mentality holds that with great privilege comes the responsibility to assist those without it, to use our gifts generously when the time calls. This sounds nice and humanitarian at first, but cooked into noblesse oblige is the assumption that the societal elite not only exist, but that they also deserve their status. Our students make attempts to say an extra-nice “thank you!” to food service workers or Uber drivers, but it would be a mistake to think they viewed them as equals. We have had it drilled into us — by society, by the administration and by ourselves — that as Stanford students, even if luck played a part in getting us here, we are still somehow inherently better than those around us, that our internal lives are somehow richer. For many of us, our gestures of humility towards service workers fall apart the minute we have to converse with them for more than twenty seconds. Even the most disadvantaged and impoverished of us who make our way to Stanford often get caught in the trap of thinking that we have somehow earned our elevated status and opportunities, that it is ours by right, that we deserve it. Make no mistake: We don’t.
It would be a mistake to think towns like Lufkin need an enlightened, Stanford-educated liberal to show them the errors of their backward ways out of some misguided sense of obligation. What towns like Lufkin — and of every size — need are people who care about more than themselves, who are willing to listen, and who even (gasp) make real sacrifices for others. What we owe one another derives not from locality or geography, but from a basic shared stake in humanity. While the right to pursue our own happiness is important, as social creatures we also have a deeper commitment to one another. We are not islands. Thinking that we owe each other nothing, or only that which our privileged status requires of us, risks losing sight of what’s important. To keep hold of ourselves implies more than token sacrifice, and yes — sometimes that means turning down that Apple or Bain offer in the big city.
For those of us from small town or disadvantaged backgrounds, this can be unthinkable. Not only us but our families worked their entire lives to get us the golden lottery ticket to economic and social security we hold in our hands. Am I really suggesting that we give it up? Often at Stanford, we think of service and self-sacrifice in terms of strict dichotomies: I can give several years to Teach for America, or I can go corporate. This ignores the middle ground: our sacrifice should be real, but it does not have to be total. We can work for a conglomerate but sacrifice our time to causes we think are important. We can sacrifice the dream job title and work for a great nonprofit, but still live in a city we love. Whether we work at Google or a youth center, we should all make some attempt to balance our own interests with those of broader society. The fact that I grew up in Lufkin doesn’t mean that I have to live there and serve it in the future, but it does mean that I should use the lessons I learned there to help communities all over.
Once, happiness for me was Lufkin, Texas in my rearview mirror. I mentioned earlier that the song my mentor sent me is a fulfilled prophecy. The narrator of “Texas In My Rear View Mirror” may have been happy to leave Lubbock behind in his youth, but the closing of the song has him come full circle, fondly crooning in maturity that now “Happiness is Lubbock, Texas growing nearer and dearer.” It took coming to Stanford for me to understand what he meant. With graduation just a few weeks around the corner, I’m finding myself in a position I never would have envisioned my freshman year: In the middle of a stack of applications to places like Seattle, Sacramento and DC are some that take me home, back to East Texas, back to Lufkin and the Piney Woods. At a time when I’m still searching for my soul, it’d be a welcome homecoming.
Contact Anaxi Mars at anaxi ‘at’ stanford.edu.