The Folklore Project


Omaha, Nebraska

The Things I Didn’t Know About the South

By Kristine Langley Mahler

That “-ville” was pronounced “-vul.”

That my teacher’s Southern accent would be so thick I couldn’t understand him.

That I had to pick a team upon arrival — Carolina or Duke — and stand by my choice. I chose Carolina simply because I preferred light blue to dark; I lost an early friendship as a result.

That I would be picked to perform the role of the “Valley Girl” in our school’s Christmas play since I had moved in from the other side of the country; I was the only one who could get the accent right.

That I would have classmates with last names derived from nearby counties — Rowan, Carteret — because their people had been in the state that long. Where I came from, everyone was as new as the Oregon Trail.

That it mattered where I came from. That when I was asked which school I had last attended and I answered “Wilson,” because that was my elementary school’s name, the teacher would nod, incorrectly assuming I was referring to the town 35 miles away.

That the kids in my suburban neighborhood would be bused 20 minutes north, into the dying center of our town, to integrate an elementary school positioned so precariously there was an eight-foot fence surrounding our playground. We could still see men lounging on the front steps of the crumbling shotgun houses across the street, still hear their stereos cranked up so loud they permeated our classroom’s cinderblock walls, and my teacher would have to call the cops.

That girls were named after their mothers — literally given the same name as their mothers, their mothers’ first names for their first, their mothers’ maiden names for their middles — and the girls were invariably called by their middle names. It was a confusing chain I couldn’t unlink.

That I would be served iced tea during dinner with my friends’ families, and it wouldn’t be that Nestea-powdered sweet stuff my mom mixed; it was real, brewed black tea, poured over ice cubes and bitter in its tall glass at the dinner table where I was too uncomfortable, too eager to be polite, to ask for the two-percent milk I drank at home.

That roaches would come flying down the chimney, littering the living room; where I once had feared spiders, there was a new, hard-shelled foe.

That summer would come on like a wet yellow blanket across my face, pollen thick in the air, humidity so deep it made me cough.

That an inch of snow would keep us out of school for five days — no one knew how to manage it.

That we weren’t supposed to rake up the pine needles that covered most of the backyard — they formed a mulch, and no one else exposed the bare, packed dirt beneath.

That my neighborhood would look like a campground — I’d never seen so many tall trees anywhere but a forest — and the pines would sway every time we got a storm; we would go for a walk around the neighborhood afterward to see whose house had a log lodged against it.

That the land was so flat there was nowhere for the rain to go; there was a drainage ditch snaking behind all of the houses, the banks wooded and thick, and I mistakenly thought it was a creek. When the rains would come, the water levels would rise, currents would form, and I would fantasize about hopping in a canoe and paddling away.

That I would start to say “y’all” once I left and it wouldn’t be sardonic; that I would quickly slip into a slowed accent when it suited my purposes; that in the decades that followed, whenever I heard anyone speaking with a hint of a twang I would immediately find a way to say “y’all” to prove I knew the code, to prove I had learned how to belong.