Barreling down a freeway in a massive charter bus that had come to feel like home, the world stopped spinning. I no longer felt the black hole in my stomach that begged my legs to take me home and my thumbs to call my mom. Surrounded by friendship and darkness on our way back to the Land of Lincoln, the group of Illinois teenagers, who were sponsored to go to Washington D.C., were homeward bound after this weeklong adventure. None of us were comfortable in the beginning, but some of us were better actors than the rest.
I woke up in Ohio just as the sun was beginning to rise. Once we got off of the bus it was back to family vacations, lazy mornings, and band camps. The tears and hugs we shared were indicative of a shared realization—we’re all just folks. Overcoming our judgments of each other is what bonded us. The fact that we realized this later in the trip than we should have just brought more tears. Even if I met these 62 rural kids at college or even in my high school, we could never share a bond as remarkable as this one.
I can’t discredit the fear and judgement that came first. We kept our troubles a secret until we realized we needed one another. Teenagers are easily influenced, and a lot of our world is political. We listen to our parents, our friends, and our commander in-chief of these Divided States of America.
But we aren’t that different. We all have dogs, families, futures, ideas, and cornfield towns which are somehow all “about 4 hours from Chicago.” Being a rural kid from Illinois can mean a lot of things. We each face completely different realities, but we all spend a significant amount of time hanging out in Walmart.
This trip would not be the same if we went to Disney World or New York City. We were selected to go to the nation’s capital because a group of adults from our communities took us seriously and saw the potential in us. Being surrounded by influential people and places reminded us of who we are and how important our voices are. From standing together in awe at the beauty of the World War Two Monument to sitting on the Capitol steps wowed by Tammy Duckworth’s heroism, we didn’t care about grades, class rank, extra curriculars, or political party. There is no single story of rural America. We’re all people with the same desires to be happy and content with the little time we’re given.
Politically, there was one thing we could all agree on. Our system isn’t working. Our democracy, one built on independence and freedom of speech and conflict and disagreement, is no longer fostering American ideals and especially not in rural America. To make matters worse, social media and the 24-hour news cycle create more conflict than facilitate communication. The divided nation represented in Washington D.C. as shown on TV didn’t match my idea of democracy or the values of my hometown.
The truth is we can’t be more divided than the America deciding whether or not to fight the Revolutionary War or even the Civil War. But we are fighting our own wars within our towns and states and country; it’s time to find common ground and remember why we are all here.
Now, months later, I’m back in the classroom, scribbling down the numbers on the chalkboard: “54% Republican, 46% Democrat….” I look around the room and realize how incomplete that story is. Just like the strangers on our bus, my town is an unexpected group of people who come together to form a community. We all sit on freezing bleachers watching football games; cheer and throw candy during parades; buy Girl Scout cookies and Boy Scout popcorn from neighbors; celebrate holidays three weeks early with our festivals; and appreciate the “funeral” or “new baby” lasagnas. My town, my school, my state, my generation and my America is more than the numbers. We will fight for our community and our values, once again.
Annie Powell is a junior at Macomb High School.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.
Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.