Post-graduation: What working in my hometown after college taught me

Viewpoint: 

The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

Apparently, penning a popular column in your hometown disqualifies you from grocery shopping in pajamas. 

Indeed, returning home to work in the H-F community after graduating from the University of Illinois has layered an adult lens over so much of what I observed uncritically in my adolescence. Naturally, this grown-up vantage point has clarified some realities, like the absurdity of engaging in any public act dressed in pajamas. 

Still, my post-graduate perspective has crystalized other segments of my memory. Cocooning the sweetest parts of my childhood in a silken skin, rendered mystical and translucent by college and real-world experience. And, like spider’s silk, the envelope of my childhood consciousness maintains a strength greater than steel. Even against the chafe of time, memories of my formative years in H-F remain idyllic.

Perhaps, that is the treasure in revisiting historic grounds with contemporary perspective: everything is smaller than you remember, but there’s magic there, too.

Down in Champaign, I supplemented my journalism studies with a major in sociology. Since I can remember, I’ve been tormented by human suffering and consequently, captivated by social studies. Coming home to work as a journalist has been a field study in the humanity that I largely studied theoretically at the university.

Through my work, the local business owners, teachers and residents who were reduced to figure heads in my adolescent perspective, have emerged as human. This clarified view, complemented by my sociology studies, has illuminated the ways life shapes us into these micro-brands of values and resentments, pleasantries and pet peeves, that strangers accept uncritically. It’s granted me a presence of mind that I was devoid of in the blur of adolescence. 

Earlier this year, I wrote a Chronicle story on Maureen Mader, owner of Flossmoor’s Dunning’s Market and granddaughter of an Italian cook. As a vegetarian, I’d never thought to walk into Dunning’s where rich deli meats are the dominant draw for local patrons. Still, in my role as a Chronicle reporter, I discovered the incredible creative depths of heritage and lineage and community that guide Maureen’s vision.

In hosting resident-led cooking classes in Dunning’s kitchen, she’s created a platform for storytelling. Her own story was the inter-generational tale of her and her grandmother, eternally intertwined by the pasta they cooked together. That Maureen was so viscerally moved to share this piece of her heritage – of herself – with residents and customers, and her vision to explore the narratives that found so many of our traditions, transformed H-F for me. 

What had been a too-small, too-suburban community of traditionalists, became a village of people. People, complete with diverse traditions, and incredible passion, and genuine interest in the stories they suspect lie behind their neighbors’ eyes. 

Of course, the love I harbor for journalism and human development has proven largely nonreciprocal: student debt scoffs at writers’ ambition. 

And thus, in a fateful turn of events, I turned to substitute teaching in School District 161, where I grew up. Somehow, I spent the closing months of the 2019 academic year teaching alongside the women who taught me how to long divide, and spot a phony friend, and remember that I was smarter than all the hopeless boys who didn’t like girls in cat-eyed glasses and khakis. 

Of all that I’ve learned in my time back in H-F, one lesson reigns supreme: It’s important to go back home. Not because things have changed since you left – they haven’t. You go back home to retrace your steps, and marvel at the size of your footprint.

 

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