This weekend high school seniors will be ceremonially collecting their diplomas, finishing 12 years of primary and secondary school and, for the most part, leaving town. For decades this exodus from one’s hometown has been the usual pattern, so that after decades of this, it has become enshrined in our cultural canon. From Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” to “That Girl” small-town young folks have been launching themselves into the wider world, leaving behind where they have grown up.
Many parents seem to expect or even take for granted that their children move on. In fact children that go to college and then return to live in their own bedrooms have even been given a derogatory classification: “boomerang babies.” The boomerang phenomenon is a sort of dysfunctional sequel to the earlier pattern of the child going off to college, getting an education, experiencing some of cosmopolitan life and then returning enriched to take over the family business or start their own.
As the percentage of adults in small towns who actually work in the town where live decreases, there are necessarily fewer local businesses for their children to step into. Instead, parents – whether they have lived in a town for generations or only moved there because of the school system and the quiet – increasingly view their place of residence as a sort of cocoon in which to raise their children. Much of their involvement with the community is through participation in their children’s activities at school, mostly sports and theatre.
It seems extraordinary that the residents of towns are perfectly happy to pay $20 to $23 per $1000 of assessed value on their properties to educate their children in the local public school and then essentially send that investment away to be an asset to some other community. On the other hand, the small towns in this region are not losing population; they are becoming home to the children of other school systems who have moved here to pursue their careers. In a certain sense the panoply of public school systems across the country has become a sort of exchange program for each other’s graduates.
This cross-pollination of towns brings new ideas to small communities, which has its up and down side. On the up side, it keeps a community from getting stale, blinkered and entropic. On the down side, if the newcomers are uninterested in the history of their new community, they may simply try to make it more like the community they came from, thus diluting the fairly delightful regional diversity of folkways on this continent. It’s a balancing act that can only keep its footing if the participants are mindful of the phenomenon.
So when you watch those graduates cross the stage, think of them as future emissaries of your way of life, whether they are bringing their store of received ideas somewhere else or plowing them back into the proverbial soil right here at home.