Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Loss of Henry Hill, and the Gain for the Rest of Us

We, the school board, made the decision to “close” Henry Hill, one of our four elementary schools.  The facts are pretty harsh: the education budget shrinks while the mandated services rise.  Three schools are sufficient to facilitate the population.  The economy has been poor, and there is no light at the end of the narrow tunnel for education funding.  There is also no evidence that lawmakers at both state and federal levels will ever understand that no organization – educational or otherwise – can operate effectively given the spiderweb of constraints that have been institutionalized.

The suggestion was initially bold and bright, and at the same time heretical.  This is not the kind of conversation we were accustomed to having, but the priorities make sense.  Classroom funds up, administration expenses down.  However, I grossly underestimated the resistance to the idea that would be felt in the community.  To me, school A vs. school B makes little difference.  They have the same stripe, and I would have generally trusted any administration of any district I might live in to determine how many schools are needed.

But that is not at all how the families feel who attend that school that is targeted for closure.  They seem to take that building and its educational environment as an integral part of their neighborhood and community.  I am beginning to see that my absence of feeling for that aspect of the asset is a personal defect in my character and in my understanding of what community means.  Even so, I guess that more people feel the way I do than the number who feel attached to a particular place for their children to get their education.

That means there is something special and different about the Henry Hill neighborhood, and I believe it is tied intimately with the fact that it is somewhat an immigrant neighborhood.  One of the well-spoken representatives of the parents’ community from that school admitted that for him, as a Caucasian native Oregonian, which school his kids attend was not as big an issue.  But he passionately explained the vital function the school performs for the immigrant community.

There's much I don't know about here.

Perhaps the high density of immigrants in this school  – matching their neighborhoods – offers them the security of likeness or sameness.  Perhaps the safety and social well-being they feel at this school comes from a certain amount of isolation from the larger culture of Monmouth and Independence.  That special sense of community emanating from the school building is special, good and admirable.  But at the same time it may be a sign that this little community may be isolating its children from some of the influences that will better prepare them for life.  

I don’t know well enough to judge.

But I believe if likeness and sameness have been part of the ingredients to the feeling of community surrounding that school, it is no less a value, and no less a miracle.

I remember a special community I was a part of for three years.  It was called Wyview, and it was a trailer park – married student housing at BYU.  It was filled with several hundred families with a thousand things in common: we were Mormons; we were young, married, college students, most with children, but none with teenagers; all poor, or humble enough to live in 40-year old drafty, leaky trailers – not manufactured homes, mind you – but with tin siding and actual wheels.

This was a special neighborhood, and a special time of life for me.  I felt security and friendship in that neighborhood; entertainment was plentiful, safe, and cheap, with walks, playgrounds, potlucks and outdoor games.  We worshipped together; studied together; played together, and served each other – like when a blizzard dumped two feet in one night, or the power went out for a day, or when anyone was sick, or busy, or sad.  The women especially were in tune with all the other families.

There is no direct comparison to the neighborhoods in Independence around the Henry Hill School, because the Wyview neighborhood was, by definition, temporary.  None of us would be living there if we graduated, took an absence from school, or allowed one of our children to advance past the age of 11.  Those where the rules.  We would be leaving it behind after only a few years and we all knew it.  But this much I can learn from my experience there that compares to the grief our district is experiencing today: I LOVED that neighborhood, and I miss it.  It was incredibly easy to get to know and love any of my neighbors, however briefly we might share a stretch of grass, a driveway and a laundry.   It was easy because of our similarities, and the many friendships planted there sprouted up quickly and have endured for years.

In South Independence, I suppose that children walk together with their friends to the Henry Hill school, and perhaps with their parents also, chatting and supporting each other in life and parenthood, and in their unique position in our local American culture.  I suppose that when families gather to watch their children in school events there is a broad sense of family that is greater than the sum of the homes.  I suppose that friendly teachers encourage trust and feelings of security in children and their parents.  That is admirable and desirable, and we should each as individuals be seeking that kind of community in any school we attend or work in, any church we participate in, and in the sporting and other clubs we support after work and after school. 

Unfortunately – speaking for myself – I have never developed that sense of community anywhere else I have lived since Wyview.  At least not based in a geographical neighborhood.  But I feel a similar sense of belonging with my colleagues at work, my associates on the school board, in my fellow worshipers at Church and in the performing arts booster club at the high school.

The sense of community that I personally feel from each of these associations is borne somewhat out of our sameness, but more so out of our common struggles, joint sacrifices, and shared accomplishments.  I have grown to appreciate and love people with whom I have very little in common except a narrow band of interests in our lives. 

In these associations it is me that has been changed, and it is my sense of connection to the community that has grown.  I have learned to respect gay people; I have learned to understand people whose first language is not English – not only their words, but as much as possible their perspectives; I have learned that small towns and large cities have completely different mechanisms for community, and that Portland is farther away from me than a small town in northern Idaho.

I have learned to trust people I consider "rich" because they have more than I do, and give successful people a chance to like me in my mismatched clothing, with my poor posture and drowsy disposition; I have learned that I don’t have much talent, but I have admired the creative minds of others and I have gained an ability to recognize the talents in the people around me that I need to rely on.  I experienced the joy giving money and food to people who asked, even though at first I felt unsure about how much they would appreciate my gift.

I have learned to forgive people in authority whose judgment I disagreed with, and more importantly, perhaps, I learned to trust myself enough to speak out and tell them that I disagree.   I have been offended and have had to cool down, and I have been humbled by the forgiveness of near strangers whom I offended in my fear and haste.  I have been touched by people’s concern for me, and I have tried to stretch my heart and reach out to others outside the comfort zone of people who are just like me.  

In attempting to associate with people different from me I have learned that fear is the unnecessary anticipation of imaginary pains.  I have learned that others also struggle with fear, and that I have not yet grown to the level of understanding they deserve.  

I’m going on and on in my private musings without being interesting to anyone not inside my head – so I’ll get to this point: community does not originate with a school or a neighborhood, it originates with people. 

And it will not die with the changes to a neighborhood or changes in the patterns of our lives.  But we CAN kill the sense of community with or without a school or a park or a church or path.  We have that capability.  All it takes is for us, the humans in this thing called community, to determine we will cease to reach out, that we will stop participating, that we will act in anger and vengeance, that we will stick with our own kind, that we will fear the future and cling to the past.

Years after leaving that treasured home at BYU, I returned, and found the trailers gone.  In the place of the rusty boxes with grass around each home, there were three-story apartment buildings – twelve units per building.  There was new blacktop on roads that didn’t even follow the same paths the old roads had; There were far more families, and fewer playgrounds.  My brother and his wife were living just a hundred yards over and 30 feet up from where Wendy and I had lived with our two little girls.  He didn’t know his neighbors.

Miraculously, a familiar tree – don’t ask me the variety, but I would call it a shade tree, nearly as broad as it was tall – still stood  in the spot that had been a sort of communal front yard, between our home and the Shurtz home.  As I write this I remember our children playing together; us relaxing and chatting together; helping each other move furniture. A couple of times we organized “block party” style community events. 

I miss those days and I miss that neighborhood.  It will never be back.  But the friends I made there will always be in my heart; the beauty I felt there I will always recognize when I see it in a new place; the lessons I learned there have changed me for the better.

If I failed to bring those gifts from that special community to the new communities I have been a part of, then I have failed indeed.

And that’s what I hope from the families of Henry Hill.  Will you please, please, bring that sense of community that you have been so blessed with and impart it to the other schools you will be attending?   You have not been robbed of your community school.  In fact, you have been kidnapped from it.  We have stolen you, that truly special treasure, meaning a group of people who know what a beautiful community is, and we are taking you with us into our other schools.   You are the seeds of a garden of human goodness, and I hope and pray that you will grow and spread your love to your new school communities.  

Yes, it’s corny, but it’s sincere . . .

I know we have a lot of work to do to nourish the transplanted roots; but I trust in the quality of your characters.  You have such great value.  Not only can we not afford to lose any of you, we cannot afford not to learn what you have to teach.


gena mabee said...

John, you DO get it! I was going to say the only thing that I would add is that line about "better prepare them for life" and suggest you add to that, " in these United States." Because we have to mix around and stir our pot of people here and there and immigrants learn to abound in this new home. However, by the time I got to the end of the post, I realized that it does better prepare children for life because CHANGE is constant. Our children will not be well equipped if they aren't coached through this process. Many adults refuse to step out of their comfort zones and that is part of the reason for isolation between genders, classes, ethnicities, religions, etc.

John your humility and willingness to go back, review and have the courage to express your heart IS one of your gifts or talents. It's a sad change for your community, but one of the things we in this country need if we are to recover our economy is the ability to look at certain changes objectively. Sometimes people who have a gift for this are seen as detached. Some of them may actually be emotionally detached, but any super successful businessperson/economist would tell you sometimes this is necessary. A little closer to home, any farmer would tell you this as well.

A farmer can't keep his orchard the same if its not producing. He must prune. He must cut. As flourishing as a yummy fruit tree looks, he must keep certain branches and sacrifice others. Not because he favors certain branches or doesn't like new ones but because to get the best fruit there must be access to enough sun for each branch.

After the pruning what occurs is miraculous, yet natural, the remaining branches give more blossoms the next year and the fruit is more robust and sweet.

As your community has done some painful hope is that those affected will find inspiration from this phenomenon of nature. Perhaps the new blossoms on the remaining branches are simply the repositioning of the blossoms that would've been. Bit now they are positioned to not only receive more nutrients from the trunk, but are better positioned to receive life giving sunlight instead of shade or flickers of light. May your community heal as the prunes tree and thrive thereby.

It would be wonderful to see that place transformed into something that could still add to the coming together of its neighbors. Just like that one tree that remained from your trail or park. I am super sentimental and have had to learn to preserve the memory and feelings and let the exterior change. I know that special memories are in that place for many people, but together something can be preserved that honored and treasured. Put your creative minds together.

Thank you, John for posting your heart. Many need this message in many aspects of their lives in our country today. I am re posting this. It's inspired me today.

Ringleader said...

It's part of our nature to seek out the comfortable. Life knocks us off whatever path we're currently on, and things are difficult. Then we adapt, we change, we grow and eventually we find a sense of comfort again. It's when life pushes sideways again that we push back, but often we have to start over in that cycle with discomfort again for awhile. But then we again adapt, change, grow, and find comfort.

Thank you for being the kind of local leader who actually considers the consequences of actions taken. You do your best to analyze the outcomes ahead of time. Sometimes the best overall decision will include difficulties and discomfort. But what makes it "the best" decision is also the positive (or least negative) changes that will result.