Although I’ve been working in urban schools for the last 30 years, that wasn’t always the case. For almost eleven years before that, I was deeply involved in rural schools in New Hampshire and Vermont and I have to say that the differences between urban and rural – race issues aside – are not as great as you might imagine. In fact, in those rural communities I think I saw more of certain kinds of dysfunction than I have in my years in Houston and Chicago – alcoholism, physical and sexual abuse in particular.
But I don’t want to talk about pathology here. I have a more hopeful story to tell, one that in retrospect was one of my finest moments of authentic democratic instruction, although I didn’t think of it that way at the time. We lived in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a town of about 5,000 people. It was the market town of the region and contained the regional high school as well as a famous artist colony which brought in its wake an unusual cultural scene for a small town and a substantial middle class population. It also had a town dump which was fast running out of capacity and was soon to be shut down by the state. We’ll return to the dump in a minute.
Every day, I made the ten or twelve minute commute north to Bennington, NH, where I was the teaching principal of a small school of about 85 kids, where I spent 90% of my day teaching grades 5-6 and the other 10% attending to administrative business, a perfect proportion, to my mind. Bennington was a blue collar town dominated by a huge paper mill which employed a large portion of the town’s work force. Like most of the state it was a fiercely Tea Party place, long before the Tea Party had been invented. Live Free or Die, the state motto, was embodied in the town’s uncompromising belief that no laws should be passed that would preclude anybody from doing anything they pleased, short of murder and mayhem. This included total opposition to zoning laws.
It was the dump that bound the two towns together. Sensing an opening, the Peterborough selectmen purchased a piece of land in Bennington and announced that when their dump closed they would begin to haul their garbage to this new location. When this story appeared in the local paper, I shared it with my students and got the hoped for response: “They can’t do that. Why do they need to bring their garbage to us? Do they think they’re better than us?” This was an irresistible opening for me to ask in return “Well, what would you like to do about it?” I can’t remember exactly how the conversation unfolded from there, but I wound up making a suggestion that we do some research to see what the effect of this plan would be on the town. We calculated how many trucks of garbage would rumble through the town each week. We went to the proposed dump site and measured the distance from the river to make the argument that the seepage would be likely to pollute the river. We took pictures of the proposed dump site in its pristine state and imagined what it would look like as a dump.
Best of all, the class decided that they would take all this information and make a presentation to the Bennington selectmen. They did a marvelous job of making charts and posters and mounting photographs for their presentation. I won’t fabricate what I don’t remember, but the upshot of this was that the selectmen responded by actually passing a zoning ordinance, something they almost had to hold their noses to do, that, in effect, prevented Peterborough from dumping their garbage in Bennington. It was a great lesson for the kids in the workings of a democracy and in the power of an informed citizenry to affect the democratic process. I haven’t matched that in any of my subsequent teaching experiences, although I was always on the lookout for a similar opportunity.