Editor's note: The Ozarks Teacher Corps and its commitment to strengthening the bonds between school and community are the basis of our Rural Teacher Corps initiative. Recently, Ozarks Teacher Corps members were asked to read Teaching the Commons by Paul Theobald, noted rural historian and Rural Schools Collaborative advocate. Whitney Randolph was so moved by this book that she composed a written response and submitted it to us. We are pleased to feature Whitney's essay, and we do so in the hope that it will encourage others to think more deeply about their rural identity and sense of place.
Learn more about Whitney in this article's postscript.
Our Saving Grace, by Whitney Randolph
There is a vague, wonderful, and sometimes frightening idea we are all working toward: The future. Nearly everything I have done in my twenty-one years of life has been in the interest of it. I attended Eminence R-1 for 13 years to prepare myself for my journey in college. After graduation, I started attending Missouri State University so that I could prepare myself for a career in teaching. After that, I am sure I will start working toward other great, future things like a family, my first home, and eventually a comfortable life after retirement. I’m not the only one whose life has been a series of steps on a seemingly endless ladder to an undetermined future; the entire nation has become obsessed with the climb. It was not until I read Teaching the Commons by Paul Theobald that I became aware of the immense problem the obsession with our future has caused.
The Present. Rewind our thinking from the future to the “right now.” What is going on in our country? The economy is recovering somewhat, big business is booming, and war is on the possible horizon. Our education system is suffering and our rural communities are falling by the wayside. Violence and hate thrive in cities that are growing by the day. Right now, our country is obsessed with I and me. “That offends me.” “I am going to worry about myself only.” Sometimes you can even hear the phrase, “I’ll do me, and you do you.” We are so focused on our personal paths that we are losing sight of our relationships with other people. When reading about the sense of community in Teaching the Commons, I started to question the relevance of our cities and small towns. Why do we even have an Eminence, Missouri? Or a Springfield, Missouri? What’s the point? Sure we need names of towns for traveling reasons, postal deliveries, and census counts…but is there more to it than that? After much deliberation, I decided that in rural America, our hometown is part of our identity. It’s our place. It is who we are.
“Once a Redwing, always a Redwing” is something I have heard many of my fellow Eminence folk say. Our former alumni always make it in from all over the nation for big hometown events like homecoming or the Arts and Crafts festival. Traditions run deep here in the heart of Shannon County, and so do the relationships (good or bad). Theobald claimed in his book our sense of community and intrapersonal living is dying, if not dead. When I first read this, I was shocked and very skeptical. How could the little ol’ town of Eminence not be a community? We are a family here. But with closer review, the idea of community was not what I thought it was. According to Theobald, a community is “a place marked by intradependence” (12). Basically, intradependence exists in a place when its success depends on relationships between its people, land, and resources. A community is also geared toward the preservation and betterment of the community first and foremost, rather than individual desires or interests. Even in our close-knit town, we do not really depend on one another except in times of tragedy. Milk and food come from the store, supplies come from Dollar General or Wal-Mart, and the family businesses are empty during the off-season months. One has to wonder what happened to make us this way? Why have we not realized this issue until now? To respond to those questions, Theobald suggests we embrace the past and search through history for the answers.
The Past. If you talk about the past, you are often perceived as dwelling on the old days and seen as a nostalgic loner. Motivational pictures on the Internet say the past is simple: “forget it and move on.” Most everyone I know from my generation despises the study of history, as they see no point in it. While it may seem that ignoring history is harmless, this lack of attention to history has helped pave the way to our future-oriented, self-obsessed way of life today. According to Paul Theobald’s first two parts of his book, things were not always this way. However, one has to look far back in history, even to the Greeks, to see real examples of the intrapersonal style of living. In this system, people went to school not because they had to or because they needed a job, but because they wanted to better themselves as citizens for their community. The individual’s role in life was to provide for his community and his people. In this approach, risk-taking was not seen in such a positive light, and time was not seen as money. Today it is easy to assume a community-oriented lifestyle is impossible because our capitalist ways are so deeply wired into our being. In our world, success is defined by one’s job, college degrees, possessions, and even their location. In an intrapersonal society, one was truly successful if they gave everything they could for the good of the community.
Due to factors such as legislation, major events, literature, leaders, and science/innovation, this community-oriented way of living deteriorated and was replaced by the system we know today. This transition had huge implications on American society and served to stereotype those who live in the rural areas. It is thought if one is smart, they flee the countryside in hopes of a great, successful life in the city, leaving the average-Joes behind. It is obvious from movies, cartoons, and jokes what the media thinks of residents of small-towns. We are seen as backwards, uneducated rednecks who are stuck in the past. This prejudice is also seen through lack of funding and attention to rural schools, along with the idea that urban schools are more important than small-town schools. Rural students know this and they feel it as well. Students are led to believe the best and brightest move on and those who stay behind are worthless. This is a huge problem in our nation and is a direct result of our individual-oriented culture, where success is defined by one path. While the first two sections of the book were eye opening, it was also depressing to see the dark side the history books do not tell. When I reached part three, I was officially inspired. A shift to the former style of community-oriented living could potentially heal our hurting nation. We are not too far-gone; the rural schools may be our saving grace.
The Future. “The past is where you learned the lesson, the future is where you apply the lesson. -Anonymous”. I feel that Paul Theobald would appreciate this quote, because it shows that in order to build a future, one needs to consider the past. In order to fix our future, we need to look at human history to examine where we went wrong, what worked, what didn’t, and what our next moves should be. When I first decided to become a teacher, I knew immediately I would never teach in an urban school district. Rural schools are home to me and always will be. I had seen many quotes on mugs, t-shirts, and caps exclaiming, “Teacher’s change the world.” Even though I acknowledged and respected the idea, I never expected myself to be able to do something so big. My biggest goal was to change the world of Eminence, MO, or the world of 23 students a year. While changing the whole world was a noble concept, is just didn’t seem realistic to me. When I read the third section of Teaching the Commons, I realized just how wrong I was.
Theobald claims if we want to change our society and its governance to the way it should be, change must take place in our educational system, first. He also states if this is to happen, it will have to take place in the rural environment (104). His supporting reason for this is due to the small size of the schools and communities, the presence of farms and small businesses, and the close-knit relationships of citizens. These elements are less prevalent in urban areas, and we are already that much closer to becoming more intradependent in our rural regions. Before this text, it was the size of rural schools that convinced me that I would not (and could not) change the world. But after reading Teaching the Commons, I agree that if any change should happen, it will start with the countryside. While it may be a small movement and take many years, it could have the potential set in motion real change in American society. Rural communities will not die; they will thrive with the help of our schools.
Our Time. Throughout the book, Theobald encourages the study of the past and urges people to look to it rather than focus solely on the future. Today’s society urges everyone to “set their sights” on the future through preparation and hard work. However, in the former way of community-oriented living, like the Greeks and peasant farmers, living was all about the present. Each of these has a different view; so what should we do? Living day-to-day in the present is wonderful—knowing the past is guiding and helpful, and preparing for the future is a necessity. Is it possible that with a combination of all three we can achieve our goal of healing our rural communities, and therefore, healing our nation? We can use the past to determine our next step, and remember what not to do, for history has a way of repeating itself. We can use the future as our motivation; our glimmering light and promise for better days to come. We can also use the present to set in motion the actions that need to be done to achieve that better tomorrow. Perhaps, it isn’t one view that needs to be used. Perhaps it is a little more than that. Maybe all the concepts of time need to be utilized and recognized in order to achieve our goals. A verse from Ecclesiastes 4:12 of the Bible states: “And if someone overpowers one person, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.” Only viewing one element of time while ignoring the others can be detrimental. Only viewing two can also be harmful to the end goal. But, with the acknowledgement and understanding of all three, we may be able to accomplish the unimaginable.
Postscript: Whitney Randolph is a full-time student at Missouri State University, substitute teacher at Eminence R-1 School district, and head coach for a local Junior Olympic Volleyball team. She is currently a Junior pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education. Whitney grew up in Eminence, Missouri; a small tourist town nestled in the heart of Shannon County. She graduated from Eminence High School in 2013 and continued to MSU-West Plains where she graduated Summa Cum Laude with her Associates of Arts in Teaching in 2015. Whitney is the recipient of many honors, such as being on the Chancellor’s List, Deans List, and recently being selected as a member of Ozarks Teaching Corps. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree, Whitney plans to return to her hometown to give back to the community through her passion--education.
February 22, 2021
Thank you to the National Rural Education Association for co-sponsoring the 4th Annual National Signature Project grant.
February 2, 2021
The University of Indianapolis' Center for Excellence in Leadership of Learning will serve as the Hub Anchor.