The best of both worlds

Published 9:08 am Wednesday, August 5, 2015

“What’s it like having two lives?”

That was the first of many questions my 13-year-old cousin Jamey asked me when I came home for fall break of my freshman year of college.

I wasn’t sure how to respond then; I had been in college for less than two months and was still scrambling to settle in. But now, as I face the beginning of sophomore year, I feel I finally have an answer.

It bears noting that my college experience is a sight different from my high school classmates. Most of Southampton High’s Class of 2014 attends in-state schools such as Longwood, James Madison and Virginia Tech — all of which maintain a rural, Republican and Southern atmosphere similar to Southampton County.

I, on the other hand, chose A­merican University — a small school smack-dab in the middle of Washington, D.C. In other words, ultra-urban, ultra-liberal and as unlike my home as I could find.

However, the stark contrast between the two environments doesn’t feel as if I’m splitting my time between a double life so much as if I’m getting the best out of everything life has to offer.

In D.C., my friends and I often spend our weekends wandering around downtown, exploring the seemingly endless museums, art galleries, historical archives, cultural events and restaurants that clutter the streets of D.C.

At night, I lie in bed and listen to the mingling sounds of car horns, police sirens and the drunken shouts of upperclassmen.

When I come home to Southampton, I spend time with my family and a handful of close friends, catching up on local gossip that I’ve missed while I’ve been gone, and luxuriate in the calm and the quiet of a small town.

At night I listen to the call of cicadas and frogs, and spend much more time gazing up at the stars, which are obscured by the lights of the big city.

This duality is summed up perfectly by the events of a single day. Last March, on the day I returned to school after spring break, I spent the morning at church in Newsoms, under the traditional stained glass and dark wood, singing the old-fashioned hymns as I’ve done since the day I was born.

After church, my cousins and I all walked down Main Street for our weekly Sunday lunch with our grandmother, again a tradition that has stood for time immemorial.

The walk down Main Street, with its well-tended front yards and blooming flowers will forever stand in my mind as the quintessential Southern small town.

At lunch we sit around my grandmother’s table and are surrounded by the clamoring voices of my large family, eating the classic Southern food our grandmother prepares each week.

After lunch on the Sundays when I return to D.C., my parents drop me off at the train station in Richmond — and one short train ride later, I’m back in D.C.

On this particular day, I rushed from the train station back to campus to prepare for a night of “monumenting” wherein my friends and I tramp around the National Mall to observe the various monuments at night, when the crowds have all but vanished and the marble monuments are lit up with spotlights.

Now when I think about Jamey’s question about having two lives, I think about that day and the contrast between life in D.C. and in Southampton County.

Students who are privileged enough to attend college can often feel as if they’re being pulled into a double life by maintaining a home persona and a school persona.

But for me, I get the best of both worlds: the exciting hustle and bustle of the big city, while knowing that I can always come home to Southampton County for the slow-paced and the quiet when I need some time to rest.

Walter Francis Jr. is a student at American University and is serving as a staff writer for The Tidewater News this summer. Email him at