Back home in rural northern Michigan, my last name places me in the fabric of the communal history.
I introduce myself as a Joseph, and people immediately figure me out, relief comes over their faces: They have me pegged.
I find myself annoyed when the person I’m talking to doesn’t recognize my name; it is then that I have them pegged: You are not from here.
I moved to Moab and got that look when I met my first Holyoak or Shumway or Dalton. I was pegged, and I understood.
If the people of my hometown perceived a flood of left-leaning (sub)urbanites, they would feel the same. If they overheard a newcomer say, “That’s so Onekama,” they would cringe. They would think to themselves, “Don’t they have the sense to go back to Chicago after Labor Day? If our schools aren’t good enough for them, they should go back to Ann Arbor. Four generations of my family did just fine, thank you very much.”
It must be human nature.
Early on in Moab, I got it. I didn’t have to learn what it meant to be a local.
I knew in my heart.
I knew that somewhere I was a local but not here. So I found the next best option: I am a transplant. I put down new roots, learned last names and family connections, and I cozied up to my fellow transplants. It turned out my fellow transplants were actually transients.
I went through two rounds of friends before I found the folks who were sticking around. I married a mountain biker, did the obligatory restaurant and gift shop work, found my perfect river ensemble, memorized the phone numbers of the library and movie theater, and got used to doing my shopping online, but something was missing.
There was a disconnect.
I kept hearing about old Moab and new Moab, as though someone had picked sandlot baseball teams and it was time to suit up. Here we were, in a tiny town hours from anywhere, and we are supposed to divide our allegiances? Aren’t we all Red Devils in the 259?
That’s when I started to wonder: Is the old Moab/new Moab distinction a matter of birthright or of perspective? Where does a girl with a Michigan accent and a small town outlook fit in?
Eventually, I found my place at the schools in the early days of the BEACON afterschool program and Grand Area Mentoring, the only options for a non-educator who wanted to work with at-risk kids.
I loved it.
I worked with a cross-section of the community, I got to see kids grow up. I worked with people who understood the challenges faced by kids in Moab. The distinction between new and old faded a bit.
In the midst of it, I became a stepmom and saw my stepkids enveloped in the unconditional support of caring adults: I was in my element.
But still, something was off.
My peers’ eyes glazed over when I talked about the kids. They thought I was joking when I said I was excited to see the high school musical. I wondered, how can we all be sharing the same tiny valley and pay so little attention to each other?
Then, by necessity, I turned inward to focus on my family. I put in my time until I found a year-round job with benefits. I hunkered down and focused on getting by. Something was still missing.
When a friend suggested that I run for school board during a financial and political crisis that fell smack dab in the midst of the national recession, it all clicked.
Moab’s strength was in what transcends our differences and commonalities, how we found ourselves in Moab, how we worship (or don’t), how we recreate (or don’t). When it comes to the schools, one couldn’t be pegged old or new, pro- or anti-tax any more than they could be pegged anti- or pro-education.
Everyone is pro-kid. The overwhelming interest in the recent superintendent search proved it. The feedback was loud and clear. Moab wanted a strong leader who was focused on making sure each of the kids had the best we can give.
The criteria wasn’t a last name; it was about being invested in Moab’s kids.
Moab’s Venn circles cross in summer evenings at the ballparks, red shirts on Fridays and kindergarten graduation, so that’s where you’ll find me.
Beth Joseph is a stepmom, crafter, city worker and school board member.