I Was Born in a Small Town…

You don’t have to be from a small town to know what one is like. Your stereotype is right: Old-timers gossip over morning coffee, and every person at the cafe knows you, and your dog too. Streets are nearly empty most nights, with only a few teen-agers driving in circles until they finally accumulate enough velocity to spin out of town.

I was one of those teen-agers. And my parents supported me. They thought staying would waste their hard work, my talent.

For the first time in my adolescence, I agreed with them. I would never get anywhere, I thought, if I stayed in the middle of nowhere.

I decided I would leave to have the freedom to make my own life, to escape the claustrophobia of a small place, to continue my education, so I could get a job.

Last summer, with my parents’ encouragement, I studied writing at an institute in upstate New York. I did my best to hide my small-town past — I tried to change the subject when people asked where I was from.

One writer was not diverted.

“Rural America is dying,” he said, “because creative young people like you leave.”

This was obvious, but I had always thought it applied to someone else. My parents and my town, by believing my decision to leave inevitable, had in effect given me permission and absolved me of responsibility.

The problem is that small towns bank only on potential, and simply pray that we will someday have a change of heart and return.

That won’t be enough to save them. Small towns can’t afford to wait. If small towns want to survive, they must both retain and attract young adults.

More parents must teach their children that there’s no shame in the stereotype we rightfully perpetuate about small towns. In fact, the stereotype reveals the best things about small towns. Economically shaky or not, they’re built on the bedrock of human nature.

Yes, small-town life can be riddled with painful gossip. But shared stories can also weave people and their lives together.

In small towns, people can seem nosy invaders of privacy. But sometimes this is simply unabashed concern. It’s for better, not worse, that nothing and no one are forgotten.

There may be cracks in small-town sidewalks, but small-town students don’t fall through them. Small class sizes allow teachers to give the personal attention that can truly keep a student from being left behind.

Some small towns are in the middle of nowhere. But that’s really somewhere: “now” and “here.” Small towns offer an experience of the present that is wholly unmediated, face to face. With nowhere to hide, we can stop trying to. And thanks to technology, these places are no longer isolated from the world outside.

I wanted to leave my small town to be independent. But I’ve realized that needing other people isn’t dependency, it’s community. Being part of a community is realistic, useful and good. Unlike people in larger places, small-town residents know that when “somebody has to pay,” that somebody is likely themselves.

This isn’t naive idealism. I’ve never experienced the “good old days” of small-town life. I don’t know anyone who has, or who’s expecting to.

But neither is the stereotype as bleak as we make it sound. By “we,” I mean all of us — those who live in small towns, those who have left, those who have never been. All of us know those empty streets, whether we’ve walked them or not.

I thought I wanted to leave to find something new. Now I realize what I’ve been looking for is something so familiar that I used to overlook it: a sense of caring, of community, of connection with humanity — something so apparent in small towns.

AUBREY STREIT grew up in Tipton, Kan., population 235, and wrote this for the Prairie Writers Circle while she was an intern at the Land Institute. She is a student at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan.