This weekend I journeyed to a small town in northeastern North Carolina that I have the privilege of calling home.
A populous of slightly less than 600 people, Jackson has always been a charming place, equipped with all the essentials of Southern living, including but not limited to the local churches, fine Southern architecture, and local eateries that always delight. I regret that I was not able to enjoy the Embassy Cafe, though, as they are not open on the weekend, but if you ever get the chance to go through Jackson at any point during the week…do yourself a favor and go there. They still have one of the best club sandwiches I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying.
Perhaps nothing defines Jackson more, though, than its people. Everywhere you go, people say hello and are kind to you; at least that has always been my experience. Everyone knows everyone, and in Jackson, that’s never seemed like a bad thing.
Jackson, the seat of my home county, Northampton, is where home will always be. I don’t live there anymore, but going there will always be special.
I am not so naive to believe that it’s the only place like it in the world; I know it’s not! But to me, it is the only place like it. And the day I get the opportunity to buy Dr. Robinson’s old house (and if you’re from there you know exactly which one I’m talking about) and have a getaway home back home, I’m going to make it happen!
I’ve been back home several times since first leaving the area in 2014, but something about this weekend really stood out to me. On Friday night, I played in my fifth Alumni Basketball Game at my old high school, Northeast Academy, and probably had one of the best times I’ve had playing there since I finished my playing career just before graduating in 2005. I was able to play with some great friends, and reconnect with my old high school basketball coach, John Brown.
John coached varsity boys basketball at Northeast for over two decades, and is probably one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever known. Some students would not play for him. I remember being in school, even before I got to the age I could play, hearing students older than me say he was “too hard on the guys” or “was too tough to play for.” As a sophomore in my first season under John, I learned very quickly why people were saying those things: he would make you run until you didn’t think you could run anymore. I will never forget the number of suicides (I believe they’re called four-liners now) we had to run at the end of each practice, and how about halfway through people started complaining about how it hurt, or how tired they were, etc.. I respected John, not only as a tenured, championship-winning coach, but as a guy I simply wanted to impress. I wanted him to believe in me. And I have to be honest, there were times I would have loved to tell that man what I thought (a piece of my mind, if you will)! He pushed me and pushed me, and chastised me notoriously…so much that I started to wonder if he ever thought I did anything well. Despite this, I still worked and longed for his approval, and kept pushing to get it.
Every year of varsity, I played in the conference title game. My sophomore and junior year title games resulted in big losses, but my senior year we played Terra Ceia in an inevitable matchup of the conference’s two best teams at a neutral site in a game and on a night I will never forget.
The game went to overtime. We played man defense; I held my man to two points the entire night (I was never a good shooter but you were not going to score on me), and with a last-second shot, my teammate and team star, Rich Edwards, hit a buzzer-beater from the paint to win the game…and the TIC Conference Championship. We would also go on to win the first state playoff game in John’s coaching career.
A celebration ensued, and I’ll never forget the joy of jumping up and down, in a pile, and looking over at John, this incredibly pointed, strong-willed man, grinning ear-to-ear and jumping up like a kid at Christmas.
About three minutes after the official trophy presentation, John walked the conference trophy over to me and said something that as impacted my life more than he likely knows: “Take this home tonight, you deserve it.”
I didn’t necessarily feel like I deserved it, but to hear this man I looked up to offer his stamp of approval, frankly, just did it for me.
John was a motivator, and still is. He hired me in 2012 to work for him as an agent for the insurance company we are contracted with, and he exhibited the same leadership there that he did while coaching me, pushing me to be my best and never letting me settle for anything less.
It’s people like John that made me never give up on my dream of writing a novel. Whether it was pushing me to be my best in a game, or to do one more four-liner when I didn’t feel like I could do it, he taught me that giving up wasn’t an option.
I love my hometown. From Jackson to Northampton County to my school at Northeast, I will always love home. I didn’t write A New Requiem to be commended by my hometown, though. I wrote it because it’s the story I’ve wanted to tell, but I have to admit that the outpouring of support over the last few days from the people back home has proven joyfully overwhelming. In many ways, it has offered me the same feeling I got the night John handed me that trophy and told me to take it home. That night, I felt incredibly appreciated by someone I respected and cared for deeply, and over the last few days, I’ve yet again felt appreciated by someone I respect and love: my home.
Thank you, to those back home, for making me feel appreciated in this truly exciting time.
Judy Collier, the executive director of the Northampton County Chamber of Commerce, reached out to me on Friday and asked if I would come back and do a book signing when the book is published and released. My answer was a resounding “yes”, because I would do anything I could to give back to the place I so fortunately get to call home.
Thank you, Northampton County, for the love and support you’ve shown me my whole life, and in recent days. I won’t forget it.