When I was eleven years old, my family moved from St. Louis to a small town in central Kansas. Adjusting to small town life was hard at first, because it was very different from what I was used to, and I wasn’t particularly happy about moving so far away from my friends and family. But being eleven, I had only two choices: be miserable for the next few years or adapt to my new life. And so I got used to it, and soon came to appreciate the gifts that come from living in a small town.
One of the first things I noticed about life in a small town was that everyone knew almost everyone else, if not by name, then at least by sight. Which meant that when you passed someone on the sidewalk, you acknowledged them in some way. A simple nod or “hello” would do if you didn’t have time to stop and chat, but hurrying on by as if you didn’t notice the person was considered rude. The same thing was true if you were driving a car. People waved at each other as they drove past, even if it was nothing more than simply lifting the index finger off the steering wheel. No one was anonymous, and everyone deserved recognition.
Living in a small town also taught me a thing or two about trust. I was amazed to discover that I could walk into almost any store along Main Street and make a purchase simply by signing my name. It was common practice for stores to accept credit on an honor system, which meant that the clerk would make note of the amount owed, and the next time one of my parents came in, they paid up. I used credit for an after-school snack, or to pick up something my Mom needed to make dinner, but I knew some of the poorer families in town depended on that credit for the times they truly couldn’t afford to pay. Small towns tend to take care of their own.
My small town didn’t have different neighborhoods for the rich, middle class and poor, and so we all intermingled at the stores, schools and churches. I learned to get along with all different kinds of people, because you think twice about making an enemy of someone when you know you are going to be seeing that person on a regular basis as you go about your daily life. Of course not everyone was good friends with everyone else, but when disaster struck, the community came together very quickly. I still remember the funeral of a high school friend being held in the school’s gymnasium because none of the seven churches in town had a sanctuary big enough to hold everybody.
I am fifty-eight years old, and I only spent seven of those years living in a small town. I’m not sure exactly what percent of my life that works out to be, but I am sure it’s a small one. Yet those years had a profound effect on my life, and I credit them with many of the things I have learned along the way about trust, diversity, tolerance and most of all, community. I guess that old saying is right, and that it really does take a whole village to raise a child.