In first grade, we performed a play, the ABCs of South Carolina. I marched on stage, holding my puzzle letter X in a sparkly black dress like Vanna White. We held famous people close here, as if we knew them personally- Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, and A’ja Wilson. We had to because when we saw South Carolina in a history textbook, it’s normally not because of anything good. On top of that, a lot of the true story is conveniently “left out,” focusing on the perspective of the rich, the white, and the male. In third grade, my classmates each drew a state symbol of South Carolina, then my teacher stitched them together in a quilt- a geometric amethyst, a wiggly spotted salamander, and a brown rectangle labeled sweet tea.
My mom made me wear my American Flag t-shirt that day in June. The whole family piled into our blue Honda odyssey and we drove downtown. I don’t remember anything else until we were in the dense crowd, sweating. A man ran by with a giant confederate flag. We backed up; afraid it would whack us in the face. I stood on my tippy toes as the confederate flag of the statehouse lowered inch by inch down the sleek silver pole. The crowd erupted. It was like finally losing a tooth that wouldn’t quite fall out, brown and decaying, you keep wiggling it with your tongue. We walked to our car that was blocks away. A man with something that my parents called a “boombox” strutted by on the street, the words “Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye” flowed out of speakers and into my ears.
On the way to the beach, we whizzed by vacant small towns, empty main streets, “for lease” signs, Dollar Generals, Arby’s, Hardees, and Pit Stops. It is easier on the highway; easier to ignore the stillness and silence of once vibrant towns. At Edisto beach, covered in sand, I knelt on a towel, helping my aunt dig up a nest of baby sea turtles. My salty hair swept into my face. Using my hands like shovels, I felt a squirmy creature wriggling in the sand. I held him in cupped hands, showing the little five-year-old’s who were slathered in sunscreen and cracker crumbs. We drew lines in the sand to guide the turtles, throwing shells at the screeching gulls to stop them from eating the baby sea turtles. When an unmoving turtle came out of the nest, we covered it quickly so the kids couldn't see. I ran into the ocean in my damp bathing suit covered by a t-shirt. The waves crashed over my head.
Today, when most people ask me where I want to go after senior year, my answer is automatic: “out of South Carolina”. I felt lost when my AP Lang teacher assigned us the essay prompt, “How should we improve the state of South Carolina?” It seemed like too much to fix; education, healthcare, covid-19 protocols, racial injustice, infrastructure, poverty, obesity, climate change, and more. I’ve felt shame for this state and for our history. I’ve wished I lived somewhere else; I will be honest. But disregarding South Carolina is also disregarding the aid provided by neighbors after the 2015 flood, the sweetgrass baskets on the country backroads and Charleston markets, the boiled peanuts and low country boils, and the block parties and potlucks. So, I hold them both in my mind, because the fact is, we are a messy state.
However, that does not mean we cannot improve. Such improvement does not come from partisan policy, Facebook opinion rants, or fences to keep the unknown out and the safe in. Our only hope is to sit down on the front porch, doorstep, or apartment balcony with another person, one who doesn’t talk like you, look like you, or believe what you do, and look them in the eyes, hear their story and try our best to love them. Hear their stories of elementary school plays and family beach trips, of the things that sing South Carolina. Because if we don't love our fellow South Carolinians, we cannot fully love our state. The only way to better this state is to take our individual stories, lives, experiences, and sew them together like a 3rd-grade class quilt; rips, tears, and unevenness, and all.