Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Small town thoughts

what makes a small town and small town? When is it no longer a small town? It seems that in recent years the term "small town values" has begun to show up in our lexicon more and more often, but what are true small town values? Is it a Hollywood thing? Is it something that is mythical, or is it something real?

I happily consider myself a small town guy. I grew up in a small town. The school where i received the brunt of my formal education had a total student population of 2600, give or take. I went to an even smaller school for one year where the total was closer to 1200 students, and now my nephews attend classes in a school that educates about 900 students. The student to Teacher ratio in these schools is such that students get help when they need it, and trouble can be caught and corrected early.

So first, to me, "small town values" are about education. Teachers still care, and the students are engaged and actually learning. I can't say that every student is a good student, but I have seen a correlation between class size and the success rate of the students. In the smaller schools it is much more likely that a higher percentage of pupils will stay in school, and reach graduation. Not only will they graduate, but a higher percentage will continue on to college. Now I know that you're thinking, "Well, Duh! Less students means that there is a better chance that there aren't as many laggards or unmotivated kids." What I mean is that the percentages are per capita. In urban schools the ratio is between 20-50 students out of 100 who go on to higher education after graduation. This is after the attrition rates of dropouts between Kindergarten and Graduation, which is somewhere in the 25 percent range, depending on the source you look at. The dropouts in small town schools are closed to 2-5 percent for the same period. More students stay in school, more reach graduation. But "more" is just a perception, because when 48 students graduate from a small town school and go on to college, the same year 1300 student could graduate from a city high school and 25% of them go on to college, that means that more kids from the city school go on to college. 52 vs 48. So this evens out a little bit. But the truth here is that a small town student is MUCH more likely to stay in school and go on to a higher education. ( What they do with it is immaterial at this point in the discussion!)

Second, a small town allows one to know their neighbors. This signals both safety and accountability, both excellent values. When you go to school in a class of 200 kids it is very likely that by the time you graduate you will know every one of your classmates. Whether you like them or not is a whole different discussion, but you know them all by name and face. Not only that, it is highly likely that you know many of their brothers and sisters, as well as who is related to whom. You know the family lines and most likely the family histories as well. If your family has many generations in a town, then you most likely have family in the class as well. ( I didn't, but many of my friends did) When you grow up in this environment, you know who does what and who is most likely to get into what kind of trouble. You know who the fighters are and who the vandals are, you know the bullies and the bullied. You know who is a hunter and who is a vegan. You know who has a grudge against whom. This means that when something happens in town, you generally have an idea of who is the culprit, or the target. It is unlikely that the guilty party will go unpunished for long. Try as you might there are very few real secrets in a small town. Somebody saw something and sooner or later it will get mentioned to someone who knows what was going on. Once 2 and 2 are put together, justice is swift and final. It's one reason why small towns are seen as "safe" because of the familiarity of the people with each other. This familiarity also breeds accountability. Do you think it is easy to hide your guilt from the nice lady down the street who used to babysit you when you were little, after you have driven through her flower-beds coming home drunk the other night?

I know that many people equate the small town with the religious right as well, but I don't really think this is always true. Yes, there is the element, but I think that it truly depends on the region. Some towns are like this, some are not. The town that I grew up in, is not one of these, even though some have tried to make it so in the past. In fact I know that my town is pretty evenly divided in this respect. It is not the religion that defines the overall morality of a town, it is the integrity of it's neighbors. Nobody needs a church doctrine to teach them to treat their neighbors with respect. Being humane is not necessarily a human trait, but education and civility get it ingrained better than the fear of some mythical omnipotent being. Look at how many people are taught the 10 commandments and yet they treat them like the 10 suggestions.

So when does a small town lose it's small town-ness? I postulate, that it comes when you no longer know your neighbors. When your kids go to a school with so many kids that they don't know them all by name, you can assume that you don't live in a small town. If you elect a mayor because he is fully qualified rather than because you went to school with him or his kids, you are likely to live in a big town, or Fates help you, a City! Yikes!

I like my small town just fine. My values are worth emulating. No reason to think being small town is a bad thing!

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