BY JACKIE MADER
Intro: As a native of the Pacific Northwest, commentator Jackie Mader heard plenty of stereotypes about Southerners. They were hunters with shotguns, superficial debutantes, or racists. But she had to rethink that when she moved south of the Mason Dixon line.
In 2009, I got my dream job through Teach For America, teaching middle school special education. I was living in Los Angeles, and when I told my friends the job was in Charlotte, North Carolina, they did all they could to make the transition easier. My best friend made a card and drew what she labeled “Southern Jackie” on the front. In the picture I was eating at a place called “Bojangles,” with a man my friend said was my new southern boyfriend. He was wearing a pastel colored polo shirt.
In Charlotte, I could barely understand people’s accents. The girls I met during training seemed like caricatures. Most of them had been in sororities at huge southern schools and only talked about the South.
So I clung to my west coast culture. I turned up the grunge music while my roommates listened to Kenny Chesney. When we went out, they wore colorful dresses, I wore jeans. One girl gently asked me if I was really going to wear that. I insisted there was no reason to wear a dress to a bar, just like there was no reason to fry every single food you could find.
I stuck out even more when I started teaching. I was a white, blonde 22-year-old Northerner in a mostly African American Southern school. My colleagues let me know they expected me to quit. They assumed most white Teach For America recruits came from money and weren’t invested in the kids.
But my students were the first Southerners I’d met who were excited to learn about me, and their immediate acceptance was humbling. In getting to know them, I saw the effects of decades of poverty and segregation. Many of my middle schoolers couldn’t read, but were eager to learn about the world outside their own neighborhoods. I wanted to know everything about them, and started using what I learned. For starters, I began saying ‘yes m’am’ and ‘no sir’ to the other teachers and parents. I realized it was an important sign of respect, especially when speaking to someone older than myself. I started asking more questions. I also started saying y’all, because honestly, it was just more efficient. The stereotypes I had grown up with were extreme, but I started to understand the history behind them.
As I felt more accepted by my colleagues, I noticed other things. I was lingering by the dress section in boutiques, and casually asking the girls I trained with, now my friends, where we were going to watch the Alabama football game. They were ecstatic that a Yankee like me was “turning southern,” as they called it.
When I left Charlotte last July and moved to New York, I found myself missing certain things. Sitting on a porch in the heat, watching fireflies, and eating fried food.
Now, when I hear the song “Country Roads” I even miss pretending to hate it.
But I have made it a point to keep the manners I picked up. Calling people ma’am and sir has become my secret weapon. New Yorkers instantly soften, and then give me a curious, confused smile. And when they ask me if I’m visiting from the South, I couldn’t be prouder.
Back Announce: Y’all can find Jackie Mader sitting next to you on the subway, secretly blasting country music.