I once gave a class of creative writers an assignment that required them to write about their hometowns. There was some groaning, so I reminded them that while many of us tend to think of our hometowns as ordinary places not worth writing about, in truth there are no ordinary places, and every place, if you just pay attention, will give you more than enough to write about. I don’t remember specifically, but I probably quoted Wendell Berry: “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”

It wasn’t long before one of my students raised her hand: “But what if you’re from a place that actually is just a stereotypical little town?”

I thought on that one for a minute. Then, in a moment of pedagogical inspiration, I said, “Why don’t you tell us about your hometown, and we’ll tell you whether it’s stereotypical or not.”

“Okay,” my student said. “It’s a farm town in Montana. One stoplight. One high school. One Catholic church. One Protestant.”

I had to hand it to her; things were sounding pretty stereotypical so far. 

“Everybody rides around in muddy pickup trucks,” she said.

I started to sweat. Maybe this girl actually did grow up in a stereotypical Montana town.

“Let’s see…” she continued. “The tallest building in town is the grain elevator.”

I saw smirks on two or three of my students’ faces. Let’s see you talk your way out of this one, the smirks seemed to say. This felt like it was about to get out of hand.

“We do have traffic jams sometimes,” the Montanan said. 

I straightened up a little in my seat. “Yes? Go on…”

“When the train comes through on an auction day, I’ve seen as many as three cattle trucks backed up at the crossing near the sale barn.”

I slouched back down. Somebody snapped their gum and snickered.

“And at Christmas,” my student continued, “everybody goes to the grocery store to sing Christmas carols.” 

I straightened up again. The smirks dropped from every face, and all eyes turned to the Montanan. “Everybody goes to the grocery store to do what?” one of the other students asked. 

“You know, to sing Christmas carols. The whole town goes down to the grocery store, and there’s hot chocolate and hot cider. And we sing Christmas carols. Just like every other small town…Right?”

No, not right. Nobody in the class had ever heard of such a thing.

“Why don’t you tell us some more about your hometown?” I suggested, not gloating at all.

It soon came out that the students in this girl’s hometown often rode their horses to school (this was around 2013, mind you), and that it was the principal’s responsibility to take care of the horses during school hours. The student didn’t seem to have any idea there was anything unusual about this arrangement. 

I find it distasteful when a storyteller becomes the hero of his own story, so I should probably end the story here. Suffice it to say that everyone in my class learned a valuable lesson that day. And while it is true that all my students resisted the urge to stand on their desks and say “O Captain, my Captain,” I suspect it taxed all their reserves of restraint and self-discipline to do so.