It happened again the other day, when I started a story, “In my village….”
Apparently this is hysterically funny. Villages, it seems, don’t happen any more in the kind of world where someone like me could possibly live, and in living memory they never have. Over-educated, middle-class, straight, cisgender white Americans of Boomer age cannot have come from villages. Suburbs, yes, small towns, yes, cities—of course! But not villages. Villages are, like, in Africa or South America or someplace where students go on community service trips.
But I come from a village. It had a few hundred people living there when I was a kid in the Eisenhower years; there might even be a thousand now, as some of the people fleeing the nearby city during its dramatic economic collapse in the 1970s bought and built on some of the ridgelines out Center Street or up on Vermont Hill. The village center when I was growing up consisted of a building that contained a one-chair barber shop, the post office, and a Frontier filling station. Across the street was a tavern (euphemized as a “hotel”) that also served food and had a couple of bowling lanes. Catty-corner from it was a Red & White grocery store that sold basics including kerosene and cookies by the unit, as in “May I have two fig newtons, please, Missus Cornell?” The library came to the village every other week in form of the county Bookmobile truck that parked by the old school and managed to smell just like a small-town library—of books and paste and a bit of mildew!
In my village there was a stoplight on the state highway, and the speed limit was 40 for a half mile or so on either side of the stoplight. Up the road there was an Atlantic station where we bought our leaded gasoline. Down the side street that met Route 16 at the stoplight were a row of houses civilized by a few hundred yards of disintegrating concrete sidewalk, a Presbyterian church, and an old two-room schoolhouse that had been converted a town court by 1960. There was the tiny cluster of frame buildings—dormitories, the Main Building, the Lab, and the Shop—that comprised the campus of my grandfather’s and father’s school.
Besides the teachers at the school and the three or four kitchen and building and grounds workers there were plenty of people who worked in the village. No, not at the businesses by the stoplight, which employed maybe half a dozen people in total, but on their own farms, mostly dairy. Villagers did their real shopping, banking, and doctoring in one of the towns, each five miles away, on the state road. The northern town was larger, maybe 5,000 people in the mid Fifties, with two banks and two supermarkets and even some clothing stores; it was only about 25 miles from the city and a couple of newer neighborhoods had even become a bit suburban after World War II. The southern one was smaller; its big businesses were a candle factory, a wholesale florist (with gift shop!), and a Ford dealer who sold both cars and tractors. We did most of our business in the town to the north—which in New York State practice is officially a “village,” too, at least the part that is most densely populated.
I belabor this point because people need way too many reminders in 2015 that there are still millions of Americans who live in villages like mine—call them villages or hamlets or just wide spots in the road with a convenience store and maybe a 40 zone. Poverty lives in these villages, too, not just on the main roads but in the hills and valleys nearby. The internet is available in many of these places only at a high cost, compounding socioeconomic want with cultural isolation.
The people of my village are not funny, and they’re not irrelevant, although our urbanized, tech-ed up, hipster world tends to think of them as characters from some bygone sitcom. The people of my village are Americans who are trying to figure it all out, trying to achieve the dream even as they watch the money all go somewhere else and where all they see on television are cities and suburbs, some suffering and some wealthy, but all reminding them that as country folk they are out of it.
And the people of my village want a good education for their children and wonder why the money and the attention and the cheap internet service all seem to go to cities with epically underperforming schools or to the wealthy suburban districts whose team uniforms always look brand new. Small public schools, rural public schools, still exist and they want to thrive, just as their teachers and students want to thrive in a culture that barely acknowledges their existence.
This blog may be an odd place to make a plea for rural public schools and to be reminding readers that rural poverty in America is just as corrosive and destructive a force as it is in our cities. I admit that I drank the cultural Kool-Aid and melted into the metro Northeastern sprawl long ago, but I think of my village often, and I don’t think of it as a joke line. It’s the Christmas season, and when I go home, I go to my village.