Monday, November 24, 2014

Be Small Town: Come Together As A Community

When you hear the word "community", what is your first thought? Probably geography. Where you live, your neighborhood, your closest proximity to a group of people who generally have the same physical location you do.

However, communities can also be defined in broader terms, looking past geography and more into cultural heritage, language, beliefs, and interests.

What brings a community together? Peace, listening to others, common goals, a passion for growth, and healthy values.

What rips a community apart? Disagreement, violence, decreased support for education, voicing opinions and turning your back to opposing views.

We live in a society where it’s not enough to just be a community. There needs to be community development. When negativity comes into our communal systems, we must find ways to plan, empower and grow. We can't stop believing.

When I hear the word community, I still think of my high school in the small town of Rolla, MO, "the middle of everywhere." I moved there at the end of my 8th grade year. Talk about ruining one's life.  I really thought my parents had charged me with the death sentence: forcing me to a rural town eight hours away from my whole beloved family, an only child with no siblings to protect me. Little did I know, it would be one of the biggest gifts they ever gave me. My experiences at Rolla High School continue to have an impact on the communities I serve through my professional and personal life. This is why:

One Space Can Fit All:  
There was only one high school in Rolla. It did not matter what street you lived on, your IQ, if you had special needs, who your parents were, what your religious beliefs were, or even if you wanted to go there or not. If you lived in the city boundaries of Rolla High School, you were a Bulldog! We came from opposite sides of town,  from trailers, apartments, and houses. Some lived with their parents, others with friends, family members or some by themselves. There were kids with money, others with none. There were also a long list of programs which reached out to the different interests of students: 4-H, Foreign Language Clubs,Choir, National Honor Society, a variety of sports teams, Band, Future Farmers of America, Pom Pon Posse, Yearbook and Vocational Tech classes, just to name a few. Multiple communities of students were formed throughout our one high school community.

Everyone Had A Teacher They Loved
I have asked my friends over the years to name which teachers they remember the most at RHS. Everyone has someone they connected with on some level, a teacher who believed in them. For me it was Mrs. Wolford, my creative writing teacher. I never really enjoyed writing until I was in her class my junior year. You know how she inspired me to write?  By getting to know me and one day sending home this thoughtful note to my parents. She had high expectations and we all worked hard for her because she made a point for each student to feel special. Then there was Mrs. Zink, my home economics teacher who showed us just how interesting cooking and nutrition could be, but she still kept a tight kitchen. When you heard her say "Whoop Whoop" you knew you were on the right track. She cared about EVERYONE. Who could forget Mr. Lucian? He let us blow up whatever we wanted to (within reason) during chemistry. He was never boring and I always looked forward to his class. Yes, there were teachers I didn't connect with, but the ones I did, boy did they shape my interest in being a teacher and still encourage me to make learning lively!

Low Water Bridges and Back Roads Inspired Friendships:
My high school years came before social media (thank goodness). Our friendships were not defined by how many “likes” we had, how many times we received text messages, pictures or phone calls from someone. Our friendships were made and grew in different ways which were supported by real conversations, not virtual or digital ones.  There wasn't a whole lot to really do in Rolla (outside of the normal school activities and work), which encouraged us to create our own fun. After school or on the weekends, we would pile in someone’s car and go hang out in nature, talking about school, our families, or just singing songs and enjoying the fresh air. Sometimes the day would take us all out to a field, a low water bridge, or just to some one's house down a gravel road.  I still feel it’s important to not have a care in the world, every once in a while, and be able to take the day as it comes. Deep conversations, belting out a song, or laughing uncontrollably with your buddies outside the four walls of a classroom is just another way we learn. Everyone needs a back road (whatever that means to you) to take a break from life and refuel.

But, We Were Not All Friends:  
Like I said, we all came together to one school, many from complete opposite worlds. Not everyone liked each other, there were fights, and kids were very cruel. I'm certain my big perm and braces didn't help. What I learned from going to a small town high school is that at SOME point, on SOME level, there is connection with everyone in your class. Their family member may have lived down the road from you, you probably had a class with them at some point, or end up in the same school club,  or play on the same team, maybe even have mutual friends or family. Down the road, your paths may cross when you least expect it.  With about only 140 students in my class, you got to know each other whether you wanted to or not. Over the years, I  found this to be a blessing.  I cannot tell you the number of times, having a Rolla connection has opened a door when one has closed. When I think about where all my classmates have landed, it reminds me of how unique that place was on Bulldog Run.

Encouraged To Find Our Own Place:   
Small town living exposes you to people outside of your group of friends, requires you to work with others you may not want to be around and introduces you to someone you may not have ever met if you lived in a big city. Throughout it all, we had an equal opportunity to attend what is now a nationally recognized school, an accredited Technical Institute/Center live in a town with the Missouri University of Science and Technology. We were given opportunities to learn in class, develop our skills, and decide ultimately where we wanted to land. There was an emphasis on graduating, but an appreciation that not everyone needed to go to college. Many of us left, some stayed, and a few returned. We gained unforgettable experiences, special memories, and lessons learned that will forever have a positive impact on our lives.  My former classmates today work in their own communities as police officers, nurses, doctors, farmers, insurance agents, teachers, homemakers, engineers, principals, city workers, firemen, builders, manufacturers, and local business owners. We are fortunate to have those who also serve our country, and others who are in all types of successful careers with or without a college education.

Community is developed through collaboration of people for change. Community shouldn't be defined by just geography, but by circumstances which open your eyes to others who who may not live a life like yours. It takes people believing in each other. You may not always agree, but you learn to listen because that's how you end up in one place, together. As I seek out ways to develop the STEAM Studio in Westport, I feel thankful once again to be part of a diverse community. One place where all kinds of kids can come together and learn in unique ways.

Thanks mom and dad for not listening to me in 8th grade when I said you were ruining my life. I still love coming back to Rolla and always look forward to that back road which leads me home.

I encourage you to get to your back road as soon as you can..Sing it Rodney!

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