Girls from the south are named after great-grandmothers and the months they were born in, scraped knees and calloused hands, with honeysuckle straight from the vine.
By Kat Freydl
My name is Katelyn, and that’s only because my father rejected my mother’s desire to name me Jade, which he deemed “too new age” for any respectable daughter of his (or so the story goes). Unfortunately for both of them, I go by Kat and I am in no way respectable; also unfortunately for them (or perhaps more so for me), their divorce was finalized several months after my birth--as it turned out, baby names weren’t the only things they couldn’t agree on. I digress: while I enjoy sweet tea, barefootedness, and banjo ditties, sweeping landscapes and tobacco fields and kudzu dominating any half-living thing, the South and I have always had a relationship that precludes complete satisfaction. It is doubtful that this would be any different if I was named August or Pearl or Elspeth, but you get the idea: I’ve never been to a debutante ball in my life, I don’t even particularly like fried chicken, the idea of “going mudding” sort of makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry, printed wikipedia articles about ringworms clutched in my tiny fists, and my drawl peters out when I cross the Mason-Dixon. I am not, for all intents and purposes, properly Southern.
As aware of this as present Kat is, past Kat was even more aware, and found the discrepancy between who I was and who I felt I should be staggering. To me, it felt like I was well and truly the only outlier on the east coast. I went to a small school, a Christian one, and was exposed to a small sliver of my peers--an exceedingly wealthy sliver that often represented each and every stereotypically Southern trait you can imagine. At the all-boys lunch table I was always relegated to, the jokes were racist, the stenches were foul, and more than a few jibes were thrown towards both my gender and my weight. It was a fairly standard middle school experience, looking back, but as a fairly pretentious child, I felt duty-bound to find something better for myself. I didn’t feel academically challenged in the least by the school, and my mother forbid me from going to public school; I was in eighth grade when I mustered all of my 13-year-old defiance and decided that I was going to move to Michigan to live with my father.
I very specifically remember the heat waves, because they made the blacktop look excited to see me go. It was August. My life, packed into two boxes (just two) rattled in the trunk of my mother’s minivan, one of my best school friends at the time pressed against my side, the two of us crammed into the back seat, my little sister in the row in front of us watching The Incredibles on the portable DVD player. Over the crackling speakers of the minivan, my mother was playing a book on tape about the Iraq War, a whiskey-roughened narrator’s lilt interspersed with gunshots and grenade detonations. We were driving from North Carolina to Michigan. Somehow, eight consecutive hours of war sounds seemed an appropriate soundtrack for the drive.
I don’t know what girls from the North are named after, and there’s very little to romanticize about suburbia, particularly because my freshman year was spent largely in solitude. Suffice to say, moving from a tiny private school with a 30-person class to a gargantuan public one with a 700-person class was quite the experience. Being steeped in liberalism and academia? That part was nice. Being pulled aside after an English class and handed a sticky note with information about submitting writing to the school’s literary magazine? That part was nicer, especially since I spent all of my seminars huddled in the library, stacks of that very literary magazine at my feet, enraptured by the notion that student writing could be published and valued in any capacity. I was enraptured further still when I finally worked up the courage to submit a poem and found it nestled in the selective “editor’s choice” section.
What followed was a poetry slam hosted by the literary magazine that I attended, face-to-face compliments from staff members of it, and pleas to apply to be on the literary magazine’s staff my sophomore year. I landed a position as secretary. Consequently, I met several of the people that I hold as my dearest friends, caught wind of philosophy club and discovered a passion I never would have suspected in myself, developed my voice as a writer, and ultimately found a love for poetry that I’d ignored for years, dismissing it by thinking I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t good enough, I couldn’t possibly be good enough, how could I ever be good enough. As it happened, I was, and I am. I’ll be eternally grateful for those people, for that sticky note, for the poem that got me editor’s choice. For poetry slams and Panera meetings and people that gave me second looks when I couldn’t stomach first ones.
I wish this was an article about how following your heart will always lead you in the right direction, or that success is just around the corner if you push for it. It won’t, and it isn’t. While sophomore year held some of the most formative incidents of my adolescence thus far, it was also the year my depression became excruciating. It is the year that I tried to end my own life. This is the flip side of going solo: with staggering success can come staggering loneliness so brutal it can crush you if you let it. I did.
This is how it came to pass that I was sent back to the South, back to the land of dirt roads and camouflage prom dresses. It felt like my life was ending. This is the novelty of being 15--at the time, it was quite literally the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I would not be returning to my old Christian school, but would instead be attending my district public school. The thing was, I missed my friends. I missed the literary magazine and the curious feeling of finally belonging.
It was the week school started that I had the idea.
After a bit of research, I found that my new school did not have a literary magazine. This was all that I needed to hear before I was emailing a former editor-in-chief of my old school’s lit mag, asking for advice on how to start one up. The email was daunting and had about ten steps, eight of which I had no idea if I could ever do, but I set out with grim determination on my first day. Even if I had to do it all on my own, I was going to start a literary magazine.
My first day was fairly standard for a first day, no one to eat with at lunch and asking for directions from the least scary-looking teachers and a series of awkward interactions with my peers. There was one that stood out; I had several buttons pinned to my backpack, sayings such as “feminist killjoy” and “trans misogyny is still misogyny” among them, and a boy behind me called out to compliment me on them. There’s really no interesting way to tell this story. I could tell you about how my English teacher became my first friend at this new school, and she helped me start getting the word out about this idea I had; I could tell you about how that boy invited me to stand with him in the mornings before the bell rang and to sit with him in the one class we shared; I could tell you that he and his friend (and later, mine) became the first two staff members of the literary magazine. I could tell you about how months later, after bonfires and picnics in cemeteries and musicals and sleepovers and bookstore rendezvous, this boy had become my best friend, and it was he who stood next to me as I cut open the first box of the first ever print edition of the school literary magazine that I had created. I could tell you about how soon after, I published my first book of poetry and cried for days. I could tell you all of this, but as revolutionary as the experience was for me, it would make quite a dull read.
My point here is this. I am not named after great grandmothers or the month I was born in. I’m more parsley than honeysuckle, and the only callouses I have come from holding a pen and knitting a tad too vigorously. And it was in the South that I carved a niche for myself. Sometimes it felt less like carving and more like brutally forcing with a hacksaw, but it happened, and I’m here, and this is my life. That boy graduated last year, and I stand by myself in the mornings. In June, I will graduate with a class full of acquaintances. I am both happy and sad. Most of all, I have a literary magazine to run.
So no, this article isn’t about following your heart or success directly around the corner. The success is buried underneath a haunted house infected with necrotizing fasciitis built on a field of landmines. This is about using your heart like a sword, and when the sword breaks, using it like a walking stick. This is about being the bullet and the gun that shoots it.
This is about being very, very brave.