It had been a long day of alphabet learning, number counting, napping, and recess. Dirt stains on the front of my Little Mermaid t-shirt were telltale signs of hide-and-seek in the giant front schoolyard. As I lay on my mat slowly stretching after a nap, my eyes wandered around the room, resting on the touch spot number posters and then gradually following the brightly colored train with letters A to Z that stretched around the room. Mrs. Thomas walked over to turn on the lights and then back across the room to press stop on the cassette tape, which was mid-“Hot Cross Buns.” It was time for dismissal, and I suddenly remembered what Dad had told me as he dropped me off for school.
I quickly folded my mat and blanket and placed them neatly in the cubby labeled “Rachel.” I opened the coat closet to find my neon pink backpack and waited at my table, patiently eating my snack. Finally I heard the awaited intercom click, and Dad was right outside those big double doors at the end of the hallway waiting to walk me home! Flinging on my backpack at dismissal, I was met with a splash of sunshine at the door and Dad’s gentle, worn hand reaching out for mine as we headed down the hill for our walk home. Walking home was my favorite.
I couldn’t tell you much more about the walk home from Alexander Elementary that day. But looking back, I should have known then that my feelings for this city would be strong.
I was born June 6, 1985, right down the street from Alexander at Jackson General Hospital. The same hospital I barely made it to twenty-seven years later when my third daughter was born. I have stories for days of my memories that represent each deep, long root that I have in this city. I could mention my days at Tigrett Middle School. My first job at the Jackson Tennis Club. Proms, fundraisers, friends, and teachers I remember from my JCM days. Church. Family. Back roads. Camping trips. River days. The list goes on and on of roots grown from June 1985 until August 2003.
But somewhere toward the end of those eighteen years, I lost my love for the city of Jackson.
I was ready to begin my own life. There is no denying the fact that I got a wonderful, sweet taste of East Tennessee over the next seven years. Many amazing things happened when I moved to Knoxville and went to a Bible college literally nestled in a little valley haven right outside of Gatlinburg.
I started dating my husband the first week of college. I made my best friends. I received my Master’s degree. I got married and had my first two daughters. We experienced the fullness of Knoxville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg, y’all, and I can’t help but admit that it was great. My husband Chuck and I knew we were home. Smack dab in the middle of his family six hours east and my family six hours west in Jackson. No turning back. No desire to be anywhere but East Tennessee.
It was February 2010, and I had just given birth to our second daughter at the tiny hospital in Sevier County. I was a stay-at-home mom, and Chuck was doing everything possible to provide all that our little family needed. But times were getting tough, and this mama was starting to have some feelings that—now looking back—I know now were a yearning for home.
A couple of months later Chuck received a phone call that changed everything. A group of people from my home church in Jackson had begun planning to plant a new church across town and was praying about the leadership of the church plant. Since Chuck had been doing student ministry in East Tennessee for the last five years, his name came up. We were at a place in life where something needed to change.
Long story short, it was time for me to come home.
Fast forward to the yellow Penske pulling into Familiar-ville. I could not even begin to pinpoint all the feelings I had. We lived with my parents for a while until the perfect house came along. It was two doors down from my granddad’s. Over the next few months as Jackson became home (again), I spent many days cruising around town with my family, falling in love all over. As we did so, I begin to feel growth—the growth of roots that had shriveled up with a lack of nurture.
After my granddad passed in 2015, my parents moved into his house. You could call us your basic Jackson family, living within walking distance of family members. My sister and brother-in-law now live in Jackson as well as my sister-in-law and her new husband. We’re recruiting, I tell you. Maybe there’s a job in store for me in recruiting people to this sweet city.
My kids play in the same places I grew up playing. We eat at some of the same restaurants. We pass the same stores. We shop at the same mall. And there is absolutely no denying the re-growth of my Jackson roots.
So when 3:00 P.M. comes, and my day of teaching is finished, my two oldest girls now come to my classroom. Their eyes give me that questioning look of excitement, and they ask in unison if they can walk home. It only takes a second for me to remember those emotions I felt in kindergarten as my daddy picked me up to walk me home, and now things have come full circle. Since I teach at the Montessori school, right up the street from my house and my neighboring parents, my daddy now comes up to walk his grandbaby girls home. Just like he did with me twenty-seven years ago.
In the little moments of joy and comfort that I call Jackson, I know that I am home—because let’s be honest: as much as you try to fight it, can a person truly lose their love for this city? I mean, I suppose it’s possible. I guess we could arrange for forms to be submitted to the secret Jackson Council for the pardon of your J-town hate.
Sometimes, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.
A Jackson native until college, Rachel Van Hook moved to East Tennessee where she successfully attained her Masters in education, a husband, and two daughters before beginning to feel the tug back to Jackson. She and her husband Chuck helped launch Journey Church, and after staying home with her kiddos, Rachel has recently found her place as an elementary teacher at Community Montessori School. She enjoys the spotlight and takes advantage of any opportunity to share her passions of faith and family whether it be teaching, writing, speaking, or social media.