Ways of Seeing: A nuanced vision of community

Riddle: Why did the man throw the clock out the window?
Answer: Because he wanted to see time fly!
I can still see the accompanying cartoon in my big sister’s book — a round alarm clock with little wings flying from the window. That may be when I first realized that words can have different meanings in different contexts. As a young child it struck my interest, perhaps because of that fascinating portrayal of a winged clock.
Sometimes, when we speak with each other, our words head in completely different directions. We think, because we use the same vocabulary, that we are talking about the same thing, while our actual meanings are far apart.
Consider the word “community:” central to my work as an elementary school counselor and also central to my life in a small town — a small community. In most elementary schools, one of the first things a teacher tries to achieve in the classroom is a sense of community: This is a place where we care for each other, help each other, and work together to achieve our goals. Instilling this concept in students’ minds is a great starting place for a successful school year. Expanding on this principle, you might also work on a sense of community within the whole grade level or the entire school.
As students learn to engage in these small “communities,” they can develop opportunities to really know each other, know how best to offer help, how to ask for help or accept it. As they mature, students learn they may have such circles of people beyond their families, possibly in neighborhoods or organizations they belong to: close-knit communities of which they are a part.
I think about how my students learned the concept of community when I hear people use the word “community” as if it is something you can simply conjure up, define its boundaries, and give it a name.
We are being asked in this Addison Central School District (and apparently in the other school districts in our county) to stop thinking about ourselves as individual communities, to embrace all the district towns as one community. I get it. I want good education for all the students in the district. In fact, I firmly support a good education for all the children in the world. But that kind of verbal “repurposing” does not ring true if you have ever been a part of a necessarily self-reliant community, the kind of Vermont town that actually embodies “Vermont Strong”.
I got my car stuck in a snow-related Ripton venture this week and eight people stopped to help in less than five minutes. Getting stuck directly resulted from my helping out another community member who was ill. This occurred the day after approximately 50 members of the town sat through a more than two-hour-long Zoom meeting to discuss the fate of our local school.
In our community, we care about each other, help each other, and work together to achieve our goals. It has to be so in this town, this community, because of our small size compounded by our geographic separateness. It’s not because we are better than other places. We are small and remote. We know we have to take responsibility for our town, paying for what is needed and maintaining town buildings. We depend on each other to accomplish this. This is how our children learn what community means — not only in the classroom, but from the caring small-town people who feel responsible for each child, for their family, and for their school. Living here is living in the “family of Ripton.”
I realize not everyone has had the chance to experience community on the level I am describing. The “ACSD community” may mean some metaphorical structure with an implied connectivity based on curriculum or busing or even taxation, and as adults we can understand that concept. But as a collection of disconnected communities, thousands of people spread out over 260 square miles, it is neither personal nor local. And our youngest children need their education to be personal and local.
“Time flies” was a metaphor from a riddle that helped me, as a child, understand abstract thinking. “Community” is an abstract concept, but our children can know intuitively what it means: community is where they live, where the whole town knows them and cares about them, where they feel valued and important because their little town built a school for them to attend. That reality of living and learning in their own small town cannot be realized in the proposed construct of “ACSD community.”
Ultimately, perhaps more than any other goal we might have for our children, we want them to grow up to be caring adults who will be active, involved community members, good citizens. That’s a lesson best learned in that personal, local community where it isn’t an abstraction but the way you actually live together.
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and longtime Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental and just.

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