One of my favorite things about travel is the way it dispels stereotypes. It's so easy to make assumptions about people, or rather about an entire group of people.
I used this stereotyping to my advantage when I went to college in Minnesota: the mystique of the hip California girl was strong and when people I met during that first week of school would assume I surfed or smoked pot, I would smile enigmatically, indicating (I thought) that I was well-versed in those fields, although I had never engaged in either activity.
More recently, stereotyping has been the bane of my existence. As a transplanted Iowan, I'm incensed by the lack of knowledge most Americans have about this state: the idea that all Iowans are farmers (and all farmers are uneducated); the assumption that "salads" in Iowa always involve jello and marshmallows; the constant jokes about hogs and corn fields.
But I do understand why people create stereotypes...it's easy. It means you don't have to think very hard about something or someone. Seeing things in black and white, can be so much simpler than digging into complexities. And at a time when trying to decode health care reform or grasp the beliefs of Shiites and Sunnis, much less figure out what's healthy to cook for dinner and whether Glee is appropriate fodder for eight-year-old minds can leave one exhausted on a daily basis, digging in and holding tight to stereotypes can make life simpler.
As my trip to the John C. Campbell Folk School this week proved, it's always best to have those simple viewpoints challenged. I've spent only small bits of time in the south, and to make life simpler, I bought into many Southern stereotypes: people who are small-minded and not bright, (some of those same assumptions people make about Iowans, I notice). And once again, being among the people I labeled has proven how wrong a stereotype can be.
I learned about the school when my friend Mary Lou Weidman mentioned she was teaching there and it turned out to be something that my husband and I could do together: I could take a quilting class from Mary Lou and Paul could partake of the musical offerings. It offered the opportunity to spend two days driving and talking ("windshield time"), to sample a variety of barbecue, and to learn something new. The trip was all of that and more.
One of my favorite things about John C. Campbell is that at meals (the food is very good) you are encouraged to sit with new people each time. I talked with book arts folks from Pennsylvania, jewelers from Edmonton, spinners from Georgia, woodturners from Alabama, bakers from Florida, and blacksmiths from North Carolina. Being surrounded by people as obsessed with their craft as I am with sewing provided a level playing field from which to start conversations, and they took off from there.
You are encouraged to avoid talking politics and religion, and interestingly few folks asked about what you did in your "real life." The focus was on the craft of your choosing, and those conversations led to many others. And those conversations, as well as the relationships that developed in my quilting class, definitely broke down stereotypes, as the obvious was affirmed: people in Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia are just like people in Iowa and even California: we love our kids, we enjoy watching birds at our feeders, we read and talk about good books, and we love the satisfaction that comes from making things and sharing them with others.
I'll talk more specifically about the class in another posting, but these are some pictures of John C. Campbell Folk School and the week's activities (including a show of classwork on the last day).