Tuesday, November 07, 2006


(May, 2002) One recurring issue for school systems in small areas such as ours is the matter of whether we want our young people to stay or to go.
Why don’t more of our young people stay here? Wouldn’t it help us revitalize the area if we hung on to our best and our brightest? Maybe the best thing to do, for all of us, is help our young people realize what a treasure they have here.
Who among us doesn’t know a tale of some young person who left the area and was dismayed to discover a world where they can’t just walk to the store after dark or where they are surrounded by a crowd of strangers that never resolves itself into even a handful of familiar friendly faces. Or they discover the world where an apartment the size of their old bedroom rents for more than their parents’ monthly house payments.
And doesn’t Venango County need, deeply and desperately need, a large, steady infusion of fresh young blood. No more of these drive-by trainees from far away places, but folks who call Venango County home.
Why not prepare them to bring something back into our community.
On the other hand, what can we offer our young people. If a young person isn’t going to do something medical, legal or servile, what is that person going to do here. Sure, low cost of living is nice, but only if you have actual income.
Should we not prime our young people to go out into the world and enjoy the vaster, wider range of possibilities that await them there?
Why not prepare them to find more choices than they’ll ever find here.
There’s no doubt that life in a small town world can be a mixed bag. The cost of living is low, but so is the level of job choice. It’s a good place to raise kids, but a hard place to find the partner to raise them with. On the one hand, there are so many people that know you; on the other hand, there are so many people that know you.
Is an education supposed to be a young person’s ticket out of here, or the community’s investment in its own future?
This argument tugs continuously at our local school districts. “Why’re we wasting money on that ?!” complains one set of taxpayers. “We ain’t never needed any fancy calkoolus around here.”
“I’m so outraged,” comes the cry from another quarter. “How can Eustace hope to get into Hahvahd if you won’t offer quantum physics in seventh grade?”
There are so many things that we need here—not just doctors and lawyers but mechanics and welders and accountants—but nothing that a young person couldn’t make more money doing somewhere else. So our school districts stay perched on the fence.
I don’t see an easy answer, but I do think that some of us need to get over our regional inferiority complex. Something in the cries of “Help our young people get out of here” makes me bristle, a suggestion that somehow we’re living on a mound of toxic waste set atop a sinking barge. I don’t buy the notion that there’s anything so awful about this place; I think, in fact, that there are quite a few things good about it. I’m quite certain there’s a world of other opportunities out there, but I don’t buy the notion that the only healthy thing a young adult can do is move far away from home.
Cute little “great city” competitions notwithstanding, and despite our national preoccupation with winners and losers, I don’t think any place is “best.” When you look for a mate, you don’t search for the best person—you search for the best person for you. I think it works the same way with places.
If you want metropolitan hustle and bustle, Venango County is not for you. But not everyone is cut out for small town life. If you hate crowds and commotion, New York City will make you miserable. One size does not fit all people at all stages of their lives.
I prefer that we give our students a background that helps them know and pursue the lives that best suit them. If they want to stay, I think it’s a mistake to talk them into going; if they want to go, there’s no point in trying to make them stay. We should never be ashamed to let them stay close to home, nor too proud to let them leave. And a school system should never be too rigid to prepare for both options.


Anonymous said...

The key to resolving this whole issue is to realize two things which you touched on but didn't stress - 1) everyone enjoys something different for different reasons and 2) we can't want anything for our young people because they are their own people.

Young people need nothing from us but the freedom to be themselves and "experience" whatever and wherever life takes them without pressure and judgement from us. Remember when you were 18, 28? I do. I just wanted to *know* more and *do* more and *see* more. And that ranged from city to country, conservative to liberal, books to bad ideas.

If we are happy here and have found Joy in being here that should be enough. It will be something our kids witness and appreciate if we are right with it. But it doesn't mean they have to also find Joy here and it also doesn't mean they won't now or 10 or 20 years from now.

A town trying to cater to demographics is going to always be lagging behind because people's minds change with {ahem, I'll say} the weather. The town should just be the best at what it is - a home to the people that are there. Somewhere all the residents myriad lives, loves and personalities can just be, well.

The rest will come.

As to what role schools should play? That would be a whole other huge post. Schools are too cookie cutter, do nothing for our children as individuals (except on the rare occassion :). So as parents we really need to be taking the responsibility for that (shouldn't we anyway? or are we too busy?). If I want my child to learn calc earlier, I better learn it and help him. If I want my child to learn to weld, well dang, I can always find someone around who might show him what it is to see if he is interested, can't I?

I think the bigger issue is parents taking on responsibility for what they want for their children and meeting it themselves instead of expecting a community or school to do it (but then could I have a tax rebate?)or better yet letting the kids decide their own path and achieve it. I also think people should truly get over expecting kids to know "all they need to know to succeed in their life" upon h.s. or even college and instead make school about learning to learn and learning to love learning. That was the best thing I got from my h.s. and college teachers. I forgot that for a while but its important, more important than the latin words I forgot from the same teacher, the 4 years of latin "I should have for a good school in the medical field". I'm still learning and enjoying it and what I've learned since graduating college is worth far more than I paid to go to school.

Peter A. Greene said...

Part of the challenge of schools is to serve a variety of constituencies-- students, their parents, employers, the community, the larger community. Serving all of them is one of the tougher tricks of managing a school district.

I agree that we can't teach students all they need to know, but I'm not a big fan of the free-tange wandering school, either. A little pressure is not a bad thing, and since it's pretty much guaranteed in an adult life, I'm all for having them experience plenty of it while they're still in a controlled environment, surrounded by people who are there to help them.

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting column, and I'm glad you wrote it because it's something I talk about a lot with friends who have left the area as well as those who've returned.

I've been out of Franklin for about five years, and when I visit, I love the quiet streets, beautiful scenery (which I totally took for granted while living there) and slower pace.
But, after about a week in town, I inevitably feel those valley walls start to close in, and it has little to do with boredom. Somewhere around that seven-day mark, one person too many offers a one-sided, ill-informed or just downright nasty comment of some kind, whether it's about immigrants, gays, the war in Iraq or just a neighbor. From that point on, the charm and comfort of coming home starts to crumble until I find myself at the Pittsburgh airport, sighing in relief.

It's not that Franklin is full of bad, ignorant people or that young city dwellers have the market cornered on compassion and understanding (I sometimes disgust myself with the casual attitude I've acquired for homeless people). But, the problem in Franklin is that living in a microcosm for so long packs peoples lives together more tightly than a thousand Manhattan skyscrapers ever could, weaving a net of insularity. Living through decades of every person you meet already holding a predisposed opinion of you based on family, school or reputation instills a deep-rooted self-consciousness. You never even notice until the weight is blown away by the winds of some new, anonymous city, where you don't have to stake down your social niche so publicly with half-baked remarks.

For me, after a week back in Franklin, that familiar pressure sets in, and I start to worry that I might offend someone or let a juicy bit of gossip slip, tempting the judgmental weight of the entire county to tip and fall in my direction. Young people may leave for higher-paying jobs, but it's that insular pressure that keeps them from coming home to start businesses of their own or raise their children. And, for those who do return, it's their biggest complaint.

Granted, any small town is going to be pretty cozy, and Franklin is not the worst by any measure. (Hell, just head east for an hour, and you're back in 1950.) But for too many people, even the Pittsburgh suburbs are a once-a-year shopping trip, while the different religions, races and lifestyles filtering into their own communities are seen as "big-city" problems that threaten their way of life, as opposed to larger, human issues that deserve to be met with widening perspective and personal understanding.

I'm not saying Franklin residents need to start an exchange program to see the world and broaden their horizons; the journey could just as easily start with a book or a movie or simply imagining the daily news through someone else's eyes. The outside world has just grown too complicated and too near to be viewed through a narrow lens, and the "way of life" most people are trying to protect is just the personal identity they feel entitled to. Really, we're all just people, regardless of where or how we live, and the only identities we should be proud of are those that reach out to others rather than push them away.

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