“And she has the accent to prove it.”

Recently, a woman called me out on my East Texas accent. But here’s the thing: I don’t have an East Texas accent anymore.

To be clear, a Southern accent is not the same thing. I don’t really know how to describe why an East Texas accent is different, and I honestly can’t mimic it without overexaggerating. You just know it by how it sounds. To me, it sounds like home.

When I arrived on W&L’s campus two years ago, I didn’t sound like the majority of the other people from my home state. Most of the other Texans grew up in the metropolitan areas, and they sound like it. They might have driven through small towns or occasionally gone hunting in the rural areas of Texas, but that’s not the same thing.

I think people who aren’t from the Lone Star State assume that you can just lump us all together and categorize all Texans as the same. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t exhaust this point, but being from a major city like Dallas or Houston and being from Carthage is not the same thing. That’s because, stripped to their bare bones, Dallas and Houston are just metropolitan areas that you could find in any other state (okay, I’ll be fair – any other Southern state.) Sure, they’ve been decked out with all the Texas trappings: billowing flags featuring the Lone Star, bluebonnets, an annual rodeo – but that’s not my Texas.

During my freshman year of college, people pointed out things about the way I spoke that I had truly never noticed before. To my untrained ear, I merely sounded like the people I’d been surrounded by my entire life. Granted, I had definitely noticed when someone else in my community had a particularly pronounced accent. But did I think my own was that strong? Not really. Ironically, I think I was under the impression that I actually sounded sophisticated – after all, I made it a point to never use the word “ain’t.”

But back to my recent interaction with this woman. I had just met her and told her my first name. When she asked where I was from, I said, “I’m from a small town in East Texas,” and she responded, “And she has the accent to prove it.” I bristled just a bit. I couldn’t help it. At that point in the conversation, I’d venture to say this woman had heard me speak maybe 10 words – and for the record, “y’all” wasn’t even one of them. Could she really have picked up on my so-called “East Texas accent” in that limited amount of time, with that little dialogue? I don’t think so. (That same week, I had just had much lengthier, unrelated conversations with people who said, of their own volition, that I “didn’t sound like East Texas.”)

Maybe this woman’s comment wouldn’t have stung so much if she hadn’t delivered it so condescendingly. I can’t recreate the scene for you or describe her tone or inflection convincingly enough, but trust me, her response was condescending, to the point of being derogatory. I realize that this comes across as me being overly sensitive, but this isn’t really about this woman’s isolated comment. This is really about how her comment helped me realize one of my most significant underlying insecurities.

I gradually lost my accent at some point between my first and second year of college. Don’t get the wrong idea. I did not spend hours and hours re-training myself on pronunciation each night. But I would listen to how I spoke with a more critical ear. I would interrupt myself with a “whoa!” anytime I started to say anything with a particularly strong twang. Then I would start the sentence over again, speaking exaggeratedly clearly. I can’t remember exactly when my parents started noticing, or when I began picking up on the differences in how we sounded.

I’ll be honest. It hurts when my younger sisters say, even jokingly, “You don’t sound like us anymore.” Because they’re right – I don’t. They were overjoyed when I found out I was going to be spending last summer interning in Austin – “Now we can work on getting your accent back!” My sisters are still young enough that they don’t understand the segmented Texas that I’ve come to know – if they did, they would have known that Austin was the last place where I could have allowed myself to slip back into my East Texas ways.

I smile and shrug. I laugh it off. I blame it on my journalism major – although I gravitate toward print/digital journalism, the department trains us in broadcast, too. You have to know how to articulate your words clearly and understandably on camera, right? But if I’m being completely honest, that’s not really why I lost my accent.

I vividly recall an episode where I volunteered to read aloud from a short story for my Creative Writing: Fiction class during fall term of my freshman year. This wasn’t my own story – it was a published one that we were reading as an example for class. The story was about a farmer, and the section I had naively volunteered to read included dialogue from this farmer, talking about a range of farm-related topics like his pigs and his tractor and his barn. My East Texas accent was still very heavy then. You can imagine how the dialogue sounded.

When I finished reading, there were mumbles and small coughing laughs from the rest of the class. One girl murmured something along the lines of: “It just sounds so real when she reads it!” Despite what I sounded like, I could clearly read the subtext of their murmured comments: “She sounds like she belongs on a farm.”

This was not a freshman seminar – this was a class filled with a range of upperclassmen, and I had a hard enough time finding the courage to speak up as it was. I might have smiled good-naturedly. I might have acted like I thought it was funny, too. But I can promise you that I did not find it funny at all. I was absolutely mortified. I don’t think I spoke for the rest of that class period. If you want to know why I lost my accent, that experience was one of the major contributing reasons.

Can you honestly say that you don’t automatically make assumptions about how “smart” someone is, based on how they talk? Be honest. It’s okay – I’ve realized I’m guilty of it, too. And it makes me ashamed of myself, especially because I am a product of my father – a man who has lived in East Texas his entire life and is continually scolded by my mother for using the word “ain’t.” But my father is so much more than that – he’s a man who was a first-generation college graduate, was accepted to and entered veterinary school after completing only two years of undergrad, has taught himself through reading countless books to understand the stock market, and who knows the Bible backwards and forwards. This is a reminder for myself, too: don’t ever make the mistake of judging someone’s intelligence based on what they sound like. You’ll miss out on some of the best people in this world if you do.

I definitely still have a Southern accent, no questions asked. And I even still say some things funnily, perhaps in what could be called the “East Texas way.” I continue to pronounce museum as “myoo-zim” (rather than “myoo-zeum”) and lawyer as “lah-yer” rather than “loi-yer.” And it will take something pretty earth-shattering for me to ever strike “y’all” from my vocabulary – like I recently tweeted, I can still throw three “y’all’s” in one sentence in a pinch. But I can’t “do an East Texas accent” on command. I can hear myself slip back into my accent on certain words or phrases, just a bit, when I spend any extended amount of time at home – but never enough to where anyone says: “Hey, you sounded like the old Sutton just then!” Honestly, I don’t think I ever will sound like the old Sutton again. And there’s good and bad in that.

This is what I’m coming to understand: no matter what I sound like when I speak, I’ll always be an East Texas girl at my roots. I will always have grown up living “out in the country,” surrounded by pastureland and neighbors who never fail to wave when navigating their vehicle past mine on our narrow, poorly paved county roads. I’ll always have grown up in a community without a shopping mall, where I can still remember the dark days before the Wal-Mart finally upgraded to being open 24-hours, and where the local two-screen movie theater was converted into a church while I was still in high school. I’ll always have been taught by teachers and preachers who speak a little slower and with a bit more of a drawl, yet are some of the most insightful and intelligent people I’ve met. I’ll always have lived all of that for the first 18 years of my life, and that has shaped me irrevocably. Whether that shaping shows itself through my speech patterns or simply the way that I conduct myself when speaking, I’m proud if someone walks away from a conversation with me and says: “Now that is an East Texas girl.”

A Summer of City Life & Liberation

Never have I ever lived in a city. Ever. I grew up in a small town in East Texas where the grand total of the population is just under 7,000. This isn’t a small town on the fringes of a city. This is a small town in a loose cluster of other small towns, an area secluded deep in the Piney Woods that act as a buffer against it and the outside world. Our closest city is in Louisiana, and the closest major Texas city is Dallas, which is three hours away. We’re truly isolated.

To be clear, I love that I’m from my hometown. It’s cliché, but I’ll go ahead and acknowledge it: my childhood in Carthage made me who I am. My experience of growing up in Texas was very different from that of someone who was raised in one of Texas’ metropolitan areas. As a man recently told me when talking about his own beloved town in deep West Texas, when you’re in one of Texas’ major cities, you might as well be in any metropolitan area in any other state. But when you’re living in a small town in East or West Texas – that’s when you’re truly in Texas.

I agree with him, to an extent. Nobody in Carthage ever rode their horse to school, but a lot of us did grow up on county roads and a fair share of people own livestock. Football is big – very big. You can’t walk into Wal-Mart without running into one of your grade-school teachers or someone who knows your dad. Honestly, you can’t go anywhere without seeing someone you know, at least through a mutual acquaintance. When oil and gas is low, the entire town hurts. We live all of that.

And when I left Carthage, I decided to go to a very small liberal arts school in a Virginian town just slightly larger than my own, a town where a solid percentage of the population is made up of the college students. There are less than 2,000 undergraduates on my campus. And I fit well there – the small class sizes suit me, my professors genuinely know and care about me, the rural town and close-knit community reminds me of my childhood.

But choosing that college also means that I’ve never had an opportunity to truly experience life in a city – until now. This summer I’m in Austin for an internship, and I’ve spent the past three weeks in astonishment, frankly, at just how different a city is. Yes, there’s traffic, and the cost of parking takes a significant chunk out of your wallet. But there are also so many different restaurants, and tire pressure pumps that register the PSI of your tires for you, and murals, and tons and tons of vibrant and interesting people. Oh my gosh, the people. So many here are just living and doing their own thing. Everyone is embracing life in their own way and not glancing around to see who’s watching. And I’m starting to learn from them. The word I keep coming back to is that it’s just so liberating.

I’ve realized that one of the drawbacks of constantly living in a small community is you feel like you can’t ever let your guard down – at least, that’s how I feel. I have to be careful about how I look, what I say, the way I present myself, because there’s always someone who knows me and might be waiting to analyze me. And living in Austin, where the total number of people I know is probably in the range of 10-15, I’m starting to let go of some of that pressure.

Most of you probably think of me as a quiet girl. I keep to myself. Even when I’m with other people, my instinct is to listen, not speak. I clam up in a group setting, especially when I don’t really know everyone in the room. It’s taken years of internally wrestling with myself to relax in that kind of atmosphere. And I’m still not great at it. I think for me, it’s a case of perfectionism mixed with self-consciousness and an introverted nature. I put pressure on myself; I care too much what other people think about me, wonder if they’re forming judgments about me. It takes energy and effort for me to spend time with people.

At home, with my family, I’m a different person – or rather, a real person. I’m goofy, and sometimes I’m downright delirious. I blare “Despacito” and demonstrate my new Zumba moves in the middle of the kitchen; I babble about the latest short story I’ve written and how I’m itching to write another. I try out new vocabulary words, let them roll out of my mouth and into the open, and I don’t worry about mispronouncing them because someone will challenge me and we’ll debate it back and forth before finally letting the audio pronunciation on Dictionary.com sort it out. I laugh loudly, and I sit crisscross applesauce in my chair at the dinner table. I’m sarcastic, but not biting. I tell jokes, and some of them fall flat, but I inevitably get in a few witty remarks. I’m my fullest self. It’s something about being surrounded by that combination of people who know you best, and your favorite memories, and the comfort of being protected by the 20 acres of pastureland between you and the rest of the world.

My very best friend was also my roommate for our first two years of college. She’s been to my house a couple of times, and the last time she visited, at some point maybe after I danced around the kitchen and before I started belting out the lyrics to some new song I was really into, she said, “I have never seen you act like this – you’re not like this at school!” And she’s exactly right. I’m not.

When I went back home last weekend, I’m not sure how it came up, but at one point I literally sobbed to my parents that I just couldn’t ever let loose and be my full self anywhere beyond our home, that I have such a difficult time opening up. They did what the best parents do: they assured me that hardly anyone is able to be that comfortable in unfamiliar settings.

But it’s my continued caution in familiar settings that bothers me. It bothers me that I second-guess myself about speaking up in class because I don’t want to get the answer wrong in front of people, and it bothers me that I worry so much about someone watching me that I can’t just enjoy dancing at a party. I should be better than that, bigger than that. I know that, more often than not, people really don’t care nearly as much as I convince myself that they do. So for now, I’m working on being comfortable with myself in Austin.

I go to museums by myself and don’t worry if the attendants question why I’m walking through the exhibits alone. I order hot coffee in Texas in the middle of June because I’ve never really liked it iced, and I laugh when the barista commends it as a bold move. I walk down the street with my chin up. I mix patterns. I smile at strangers. I pace the length of the neighborhood while talking on the phone, unconcerned about who might catch snatches of my conversation. I drag a barstool out onto my apartment’s tiny balcony because it’s a prime location for watching the sunset. I go to a Zumba class twice a week at a Latin dance studio full of mostly middle-aged women that I was honestly scared to death to walk into on my very first day. Now, several of the women know my name, and one of them even confided that she would miss me when I left at the end of the summer. At any point in all of this, when I feel my self-consciousness starting to bubble up, I remind myself that I’ll probably never see most of these people again, and that works. My shoulders lower.

Maybe I would feel differently if I went to school here in Austin. If I knew that some of the people I passed would potentially see me again – in the library, across the lecture hall, at a mutual friend’s apartment on the weekends. Maybe if that were the case, I would stiffen a tiny bit, duck my head a little more often. But I don’t really live here – I’m just a visitor passing through.

So am I cut out to be a city girl? Is living in a place like this the only way I’ll overcome my inhibitions? I think a month is probably too soon to tell. But maybe a summer of city life is just what I need to start letting my fullest self venture out into the open a little more often. I owe her that.