Guest Editorial

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Small Town Life

You don't have to be from a small town to know what one is like. Your stereotype is right: Old-timers gossip over morning coffee and every person at the cafe knows you, and your dog or cat, too.

Streets are nearly empty most nights, with only a few teenagers driving in circles until they finally accumulate enough velocity to spin out of town.

After college I decided to leave small town life and moved to a larger city. Later, I moved across country to experience a faster pace that could be found in California. Like many, I thought staying in a small town meant I would never get anywhere since small towns often appear to be in the middle of nowhere.

I decided I would leave to have the freedom to make my own life, to escape the claustrophobia of a small place, to get a job and with more career opportunity.

I remember being told: "Rural America is dying, because creative young people like you leave."

The problem is that small towns bank only on potential, and simply pray that we will someday have a change of heart and return.

That won't be enough to save them. Small towns can't afford to wait. If small towns want to survive, they must both retain and attract young adults.

More parents must teach their children that there's no shame in the stereotype we rightfully perpetuate about small towns. In fact, the stereotype reveals the best things about small towns.

Economically shaky or not, they're built on the bedrock of human nature.

Yes, small-town life can be riddled with painful gossip. But shared stories can also weave people and their lives together.

In small towns, people can seem nosy invaders of privacy. But sometimes this is simply unabashed concern. It's for better, not worse, that nothing and no one is forgotten.

There may be cracks in small-town sidewalks, but small-town students don't fall through them. Small class sizes allow teachers to give the personal attention that can truly keep a student from being left behind.

Some small towns are in the middle of nowhere. But that's really somewhere: "now" and "here."

Small towns offer an experience of the present that is wholly unmediated, face to face. With nowhere to hide, we can stop trying to. And thanks to technology, these places are no longer isolated from the world outside.

I wanted to leave my small town to be independent. But I've realized that small town living isn't dependency, its community. This isn't naive idealism. I've never experienced the "good old days" of small-town life. I don't know anyone who has, or who's expecting to.

But neither is the stereotype as bleak as we make it sound. By "we," I mean all of us - those who live in small towns, those who have left, those who have never been. All of us know those empty streets, whether we've walked them or not.

I thought I wanted to leave to find something new. Now I realize what I've been looking for is something so familiar that I used to overlook it: a sense of caring, of community, of connection with humanity - something so apparent in small towns.

* Jeannie Claire, Albert City, has been a journalist for more than 18 years and is the author of two books.