Sunday, September 12, 2010

Small is Better

Good Morning! I have just about finished my New York Times, but my husband just shared with me Thomas Friedman's column "We're No. 1(1)!" In the article Friedman relates that Newsweek's poll places the United States as number 11 of the best countries in the world. Number one is Finland, and in descending order: Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Luxembourg, Norway, Canada, Netherlands, Japan, Denmark. Do you see a pattern? Categories used to rank these countries are: education, health, quality of life, economic dynamism, and political environment.

Friedman makes the point that until we return to the values of the greatest generation (my mother and father's generation--the ones that won a more compelling war (we were defending ourselves, not being the aggressors) we will continue to not make the top five of that list. I would like to offer my reasons for our lost situation.

Small is better. Smaller communities, smaller schools, smaller religious places, smaller downtowns, smaller industries, smaller transportation, smaller farms, smaller stores, smaller, smaller, smaller. Today we are lost in a vast and wickedly expanding world that will not and does not slow down for anything or anyone. Words like "development" and "SUV" are a genuine part of our mindset.

I am best acquainted with the school situation. I have contended for all of my teaching career that smaller schools were the answer. I began in Memphis in a high school with an enrollment of almost 2000. I moved to a high school in Missouri with a population of over 1500. Finally, I taught in a school in St. Louis with a population of 700 and one of 400. Only in the last two schools did I know all the faces I saw in the passing period. I knew the teachers from the industrial arts area in the back of the building to the math teachers at the upper end of the hall way. I knew the modern language teachers, the science teachers. I even knew teachers in other buildings in the district. Imagine being able to call on a teacher in the third grade for help with a student whose family she had known long before me. Can you imagine that? In every other school I have been part of, I have known only those teachers on my planning period and that was because we all ended up having to go to the bathroom at the same time every day. My principals in those smaller schools also knew me. They knew what went on in my room and whenever there was a problem, they personally came to me and gave me every opportunity to address the issue, and because they knew me well, they defused any situation long before it became an issue. I appreciated that.

Today I teach in another "mega" school. I have been there five years and still cannot recognize teachers and what they teach. I have served on committees, have been at social functions, been to sporting events and visited the planning area, and still I don't know many, if not the majority, of them. Heck, I don't even know all of the people in my department! What does that do for me and my students? What does that do for students and their families?

It is the same in our communities. Do we know the neighbors? Do we have neighborhood block parties? Do we visit one another in times of grief or loss? Do we go to funerals? Do we visit the sick? Do we take dinner to a shut-in neighbor? Who do we know at church besides the people who regularly sit in the pew with us or in front of us? Do we know the people who go to a different service, earlier or later than us? Does our grocer know us? Does our postal carrier know us? Can we name the people at our bank who know us or whom we know? I carry dozens of business cards, but have no recollection of the face that goes with the card. I just know to ask for that person-if that person still works at that branch or for that business.

I know it is nearly impossible to take back the time and reduce our situations. The recession might actually be good for that, but I doubt we will learn. I envy people who live and thrive in small towns. But small towns are drying up. When Wal-Mart moves in or Lowe's, people gravitate toward the big box store leaving the small business owners on main street to die a torturous death. This death reflects the death of many a small system, like the family farm, the family business, the family.

We are quickly losing ground. We think we are better communicators because of the web, but mostly what we communicate to one another is gossip and innuendo. And it spreads like wildfire, worse than small town gossip. At least in a small town you knew who to avoid telling something to unless you wanted everyone to know it. On the web you have no idea where your thoughts are going. We believe whatever a stranger tells us and we never really open up a conversation with anyone we know for fear they will leave us alone and afraid.

So what is the answer? Small is better. Whatever chance we will have of being a great place to live, we have to have a better system of values. Wanting it all and having it all is really not a good way to live. It definitely leaves a lot of people out of the process. And that is the value we live by today. Surely we can find a way to regain ground with values that serve us better. Besides, I really would like to know all the faces I see in the passing period. They are the members of my "small town" and they should know we are together a community.

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