My graduating class of 22 students was the largest in all of grades K-12. And when I say class, I mean the whole grade because there was only one class. People in town talked about how big it was. I had known the majority of my classmates since I was five years old. Some I went to kindergarten with, some were a grade ahead that stayed back a year — “staying back” used to be allowed, for better or worse.
For at least the last two years of high school I was endlessly annoyed by “small town bullshit” mostly in the way of not being able to get away with anything without someone telling my parents — both of whom worked in the school system. Yet, I was invited and accepted, to speak at my graduation for some strange reason. Not because I was a great student, or because I was the star of any team, perhaps because I was a pretty good writer? The teachers who voted me in should have known better perhaps because my graduation speech was about how I attended a Grateful Dead concert the night before and how grateful I was to be graduating so I could get out of Craftsbury. No one could have been surprised — I swore that I would never live on Craftsbury Common, with its couple dozen white houses, surrounding a central green space with a band stand and a white picket fence (in actuality, yes, all white and a picket fence.) And, that if the world conspired against me and I had to live on Craftsbury Common, in one of the dreadful white houses with matching shutters, I was going to paint my house black.
Growing up, I knew which kids had no electricity, who lived on a farm, who lived in a “nice” house. Actually, you didn’t have to ride the bus to know who lived on a farm because a lot of times they had only one pair of boots and they’d arrive at school after morning chores with their barn boots on. I took the bus which was for kids K-12 and the bus stopped outside of every single house. Some driveways were too long so you couldn’t actually see the house, but sometimes if the weather was really bad and the kid was young, the bus driver might go all the way up the driveway and risk getting stuck.
If there was a kid on the bus who was relentlessly “bad” and yes, we definitely labeled each other back then, they might be dropped off on the side of the road. We could be five miles from any house at all but the bus driver would kick them off the bus. The rest of us on the bus got real quiet and “good” after that. No one cheered when the kid got kicked off, and if there was someone who did, the bus driver would let them know they might be next.
Sometimes, with this one bus driver, I would get to sit next to him in the front seat. Yes, next to him. I got to push the button to put the flashers on to signal traffic to slow when we came close to a bus stop. He may or may not have had an adult beverage wrapped in a brown paper bag next to him. Everyone knew about this.
Winter carnival at my school consisted of competitions in hay bale throwing, chainsaw, tree tap, snowmobile race, nail pound, wood chopping… all of which I deemed as “hick” activities and took no part in. (As if I never walked through manure pits barefoot, slept in hay lofts and got leaches from swimming naked in rivers.) Instead, I hid and smoked cigarettes in the cemetery. On every field trip I was one of the ones to break curfew, sneak out, fake a headache… Some kids in my school drove me nuts with their immaturity — throwing popcorn at the tour guide on our class trip to Paris. I was so “mature” that I made my entire class nearly miss the bus when we were in Assisi so that I could privately, and without permission, tour St Francis’s cathedral. No one was happy with me when I arrived on my own schedule. It’s for reasons like this that I was shocked to be asked to speak at graduation.
There were only a couple main categories in which you could fit into: hick or jock. Hick could be pretty much determined if they had a gun (or two or three) displayed on the rack in their truck when they pulled into school. If they had been hunting that morning and were successful, they’d show up with the dead deer in the back of their truck before heading down to the store to register it in the buck pool. If you were neither hick nor jock, or thought you were neither and liked learning, then you were a nerd. The only other category was misfit/rebel. That’s the one I felt comfortable in much to the chagrin of my father who was the school psychologist. In short, I cringe to say now, but I definitely said then, that I hated my school and I hated this small f*cking town. And, yet, I spoke at graduation.
It took age, distance, and being out in the world to bring home all of the gifts of growing up in an obnoxiously small town. I’m going to share with you the values that course through my blood. I’m not unique in this — there are a lot of us. But, sadly, it is not norm for much of our world.
People speak up about things they don’t like- not on the internet- in person. And, speaking up is okay. And, when I say speak up, they’ll bring it up at town meeting. Town meeting is a day when the entire town is invited in to one space to discuss town issues. People openly debate, sometimes year after year, the same things. I adore town meeting day.
In a small town, you know very well what you’re doing if you “write off” Billy because of a dispute. It means the next time you or any of your family needs your car towed, you might be shit out of luck. Billy is the only tow in town.
The same goes for almost everyone else in town. You’re likely to be pulled over by Jimmy or Jimmy’s cousin in the next town over (our town doesn’t have any police patrolling) or have them working on your teeth or your car or burying your grandfather. You are going to run into them in one of the only two stores in town. Maybe twice or three times in the same day. Your cows might end up in their field and you need their help to gather them all back up again. Your kids who are in the same grade might fall in love. Someone might get pregnant.
Growing up and living in the same small town makes you extremely tolerant of different opinions and grumpy or mouthy behaviors and able to give people second, third, forth chances. You might not have the chance to deny them more chances to right bad behavior because they plow your driveway. Besides, you know how they grew up and that their uncle beat the shit out of them. You know that when the concert in school required a white shirt and they did not have one, the chorus teacher had to lend them one that was five sizes too big. You don’t forget that stuff.
There is no escape in a small town and it makes you be accountable for your actions. It does not mean that you are not an asshole. It means everyone knows if you’ve been an asshole, where and when and how many times. Some folks are lifers. But, it also means that the next time you’re not an asshole, people will talk about that too- maybe not at the same speed — as the phrase “bad news travels fast” heavily applies. Even if what happened was not witnessed by any human. The cows tend to have loose lips too...
I spoke at graduation even though I was the opposite of a “picturesque student” because the way I challenged the school was with my independence — and it was accepted. I defended anyone who I felt was disrespected by teachers — I’d go to detention before biting my tongue. I pushed boundaries where others fell in line. The school did not write me off because of it — in fact, they gave me a microphone. They did not necessarily agree with anything I said, and actually I made some folks upset. But, so did the late frost so…
The world did not conspire against me in any way but I did actually end up living in one of the white houses on Craftsbury Common — by choice. Though, the first thing I did was take down the matching shutters that made my house look nearly identical to everyone else’s. I replaced them with handmade shutters that I ordered from a gentleman in town who was the uncle of one of my best friends growing up. I used to baby sat his little girl and when she grew up, she asked me to coordinate her wedding. Now we have a Black Lives Matter sign on our front lawn and my husband hosts gatherings for people of color. The Common has always needed more color.
Small towns are work, and I could give a hundred examples of what is wrong with them. But, the same reasons that drove me nuts, the small mindedness, the “way things are” and inability to escape from everyone’s business, is the same reason that when change does comes it is deep and lasting. Folks know how to tolerate, maybe even appreciate, each other’s uniqueness in a way that is different than a city because there is no going to a different store around the corner or changing dentists. Worldly changes integrated into small communities — that’s where my independence is centered now. And, I‘ll fall in line when I’m dead. Til then…