Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Going to war out here
One of the grunts claims the battle over the Presidential election a couple of weeks ago seemed a skirmish next to the war created by a school merger. Communities just down the road from here are still at it, and ain't pretty. Consolidation wars have been going on for years, almost a century. Ye olde atlas shows township school buildings every four miles or so. Back then, smaller farms created more kids in huge families.
Once upon a time the school just up road could enroll thirty kids. Today, it's gone. There are maybe five kids on the whole section. Farms grew, families didn't. Today country kids--far fewer of them--are all bused into town sometimes a half hour or more away. Consolidation comes with the territory out here. Mostly.
My very first teaching job, rural southwest Wisconsin, was in a school that had consolidated just that year--"South Wayne-Gratiot," two towns who together got nowhere near tallying a thousand souls. Both were farm villages even though the region once sported all kinds of iron mines. And miners, the original "Wisconsin Badgers," people liked to say, were iron miners who fought off Black Hawk to become the first white settlers of the region.
Times change. The mines are indistinguishable holes in those gorgeous hills that ripple through the countryside. Like most of rural America, things have been withering for a very long time. So in what must have been a rancorous election back in 1970, the vote for consolidation went through and all the Gratiot kids got bused down the road to hated South Wayne.
I had no idea. I don't remember if I was warned, but even I had been I would have been unprepared to understand the ramifications. I didn't get it, and I wouldn't for most of the years. Cheerleading tryouts meant half my class was mad at the other because four SW kids made it and only three G's.
When you're a first year teacher the only way to understand why some kids sit with others is plain old friendship. Even thought every last kid in that school was Wonderbread white, they ran in gangs branded by hometown. What I said about Hawthorne or Hemingway, what stories I assigned which students to write for the paper, who I chose for the school play--everything was part of a drama I didn't even know was being staged.
And the reason was simple. You lose your school and you lose your kids and the town you love starts looking like an old folks home--or worse, a graveyard.
So today, according to the Register, four towns are looking to team up--Ida Grove (population 2100), Odebolt (1000), Battle Creek (700), and Arthur (200). It may be difficult for city-dwellers to understand the fierce rancor boiling up, but think of it this way: when you don't have much, you fight harder to hold on to what little you got. Gets ugly.
And, according to the story, it has gotten ugly, even though there's already a history of merger, Odebolt-Arthur joining up 60 years ago, Battle Creek-Ida Grove tying the knot in 1994. That school merger is a banner headline this morning doesn't mean it's a new story. If your roots go deep, a retired farmer speaks for you when he says, "You lose a school, you lose part of your town."
I wish 'em all the best. In my experience, a good ball team will change a whole lot. People need something to cheer for.
And some towns just waste away. Some even die, but most of them just waste slowly away.
That's life for lots of folks in the rural upper Midwest. It ain't pretty, but it's what you got, and, as mother-in-law used to say, "It's not what you want, it's what you got."
That's old fashioned rural wisdom. Blessings to Ida Grove/Odebolt/Battle Creek/Arthur. What a handle.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:12 AM