Weekly Column: New chapter for small-town school

In April, I started a weekly online column with Agweek. Earlier this month, the column started being printed weekly in Agweek and remains published online each Saturday morning.

Weekly column writing is different from blogging but still definitely is my voice. I have wanted new opportunities to expand my speaking and writing. Last year Midwest Living gave me an opportunity. This year, I spoke 18 times before mid-June, wearing me out but giving me new platforms and opportunities. I learned I do not want to be a speaker on the road too much in this season of family life and now am speaking less in my son’s senior year of high school. Weekly column writing was initially a six month experiment that has evolved into a more long-term commitment. I am grateful and love to work on improving my writing, sharing stories, perspectives and connect with local and regional audiences in my own backyard. 

Since it’s a regional following mostly for the Agweek publication, I am going to share the weekly column on this blog, a few days after it is published and dig into the “archives” to share some past columns. I’ll include a photo (or two or five, depending on the day) with them too. Now that the column is printed, my mom told me this week , “I actually read your column.” And my grandma said now that is arriving at weekly in her mail, “it’s good I’m not one of those who writes in to columnists.” Thank you, Grandma Nola. She remains my favorite reader and filter. 

I hope you enjoy this week’s small-town school column. Churchgirls

New chapter for small-town school

Our daughter, Anika, is one of 27 kindergarteners who is starting school in our small town of Wishek next week. Since Anika is our youngest, I know what to expect this year. I’m also aware of all the “lasts” this year holds for our family with a kindergartener and a senior in high school.

In the weeks leading up to school, I’ve been giving myself pep talks. I will not shed a tear. I will turn the page to a new chapter in life with excitement and enjoy the one year all three of our kids are in the same school. Anika is ready for school. She organized her school supplies in her backpack and then unpacked them with great detail at kindergarten registration.

As I looked around the lunch room at the 27 families gathered for kindergarten registration, I felt my throat tighten and I fought back tears. With the exception of the new kindergarten teacher and elementary principal, I knew everyone in the room. The emotion welling up in me didn’t really have anything to do with Anika; I was overcome with pride for our small town, school and all of rural America.

For the first time in decades, Wishek Public School has two classes for one grade. This is a sign of rural vitality. When we moved to Wishek, my husband’s hometown, eight years ago, I was told Wishek was dying. McIntosh County was the most elderly county per capita in the United States. With 27 kindergarteners, split into two classrooms, I guessing we aren’t anymore, but I’m not going to check the statistics.

Wishek isn’t near booming energy areas. A large employer closed earlier this year, sending jobs and several families elsewhere. A handful of teachers resigned, which is a blow to rural education. My mindset hasn’t been overly positive lately. Thankfully, my outlook changed when I looked around at kindergarten registration. I was encouraged by the younger families who are choosing to make Wishek their home. I was excited to meet the new teachers and elementary principal who chose our school. Turning a page to a new chapter is worth trying.

Of course, small-town life and schools are not for everyone. However, rural America is for more of us than we realize. The new kindergarten teacher has moved to a neighboring town after more than a decade in Las Vegas. She wants to raise her family in rural America. She proudly shared about her small-town South Dakota roots and how good it feels to be back in a small-town environment. The new principal has lived in Texas for the past 10 years and is thrilled for her and her husband (who attended high school with me) to be back in North Dakota.

I’m passionate about rural life and small-town living. Hearing the enthusiasm in the new teacher and principal’s voices fueled more emotion in me than I was anticipating. The class of 2028 is so excited about school and their future I can’t be sad.  The delight in the eyes of the new and longtime educators who are eager to nurture our children’s desires to learn is encouraging.

People change small towns for the positive or negative. One student, one teacher, one administrator, one coach or one school board member will not hinder the success of a school. Education takes collaboration in a community. The camaraderie in small towns reinforces my faith in rural America and reassures me that we’re raising the next generation as best as we can. In our small town and school, with new and experienced faces, we’re better together.

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