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Commencement is
a beginning not an end

Bigger-than-life pictures of them don’t decorate fences at ballparks. Yard signs don’t proclaim their names. Yet they are our community’s biggest stars, the people we should be proudest of — our top-performing high school graduates.

Some of them may run fast, jump high, toss or catch balls, or otherwise demonstrate their brawn. But what we celebrate most are their brains.

We taxpayers foot the bill for education not to provide sports and entertainment, however diverting they may be, but to teach children to become informed, enlightened, and productive members of society for years to come.

Athletic achievements give us a rich past, but our children’s achievements as workers and citizens are quite literally our future.

To honor Marion County graduates, we this week offer interviews with a collection of stars — the top graduates of county high schools — and a random assortment of others, interviewed during a community service event that those of us who graduated years ago might well want to emulate.

Read what they have to say. And don’t think as you do that we forgot Centre. Its graduation is next week. We’ll bring you more about Centre then.

Meanwhile, read this week’s interviews and you’ll at times hear echoes of the siren calls of bright lights and big cities, but you’ll also hear a resounding cadence of support for the intimacy of growing up in a small town.

You’ll even catch a few hints that some of them are choosing to pursue careers that would allow them to remain in the heartland, serving needs here or telecommuting to high-tech jobs that allow workers to live where they want.

To survive, our small communities need to emphasize what some of our best and brightest young people already seem to know: Opportunity can exist anywhere, even in a small town, if you work at it a bit.

For most of the past half-century or so, a huge percentage of the best and brightest have left rural areas to pursue urban dreams.

As someone who spent most of April visiting big cities to receive awards or speak at events, I can tell you — as some of our students already know — that what seem to be alluring lights can at times be glaring and blinding.

There is, as our most famous fictional Kansan would say, no place like home. Alas, putting on ruby slippers and chanting the phrase three times does not automatically return us to our home on the range.

What will get us and others to stay in rural America is opportunity.

That means more people willing to forgo high returns offered on stock exchanges and investing instead in fledgling businesses at home.

It means more people willing to train and help finance local successors to run their businesses instead of selling out for top dollar to heartless chains that will gut everything they spent a lifetime trying to accomplish.

It means making sure our transportation — including city streets and county roads — is first rate and our government prioritizes efficiency and innovation to create the lowest tax burden, not the cushiest jobs possible.

It means making sure everyone in the community feels fully engaged — able to speak his or her mind without being criticized as a chronic complainer or not understanding everything about an issue.

Anyone who knows anything about getting along in a small town knows that you must “speak” to everyone you meet — not literally with words, but with a wave of the hand or a nod of the head.

In the big city, you’d probably be accused of being a stalker if you did likewise. But hereabouts, it merely means you care about your community and your neighbors within it.

We need to expand our sense of what caring means and provide more encouragement for young people to remain in towns they already seem to value highly.

Like the young folks in Peabody who, before graduation, helped maintain City Park there, perhaps we could volunteer to work in beautification or cleanup projects or take on some of the tasks we have to pay government workers to do.

Instead of waiting for “somebody” to do something like organize summer concerts or community theater productions or campaigns to help older and less affluent people do such things as repaint their homes or tend their yards, each of us can be one of the thousand points of light that make our community even more alluring.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather invite a family to dinner or spread the wealth of a garden than I would rely solely on some institutional solution to feeding the hungry.

I’d rather hire a person to help me with everyday tasks than I would pay for some institutional office that hands out free debit cards for those people to buy things.

We obviously can’t get rid of all institutional aid. Too many would fall through the cracks. But we need to start accepting it as our personal responsibility — not just government’s — to provide such things as public assistance, even day-care services.

If you at times feel as if government has taken over, consider that we may have invited that by failing to provide private support and failing to create private opportunities for fledgling businesses to succeed.

Maybe an understanding of that is what our young people will bring back to our community — if we encourage them to return to their roots.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified May 8, 2024

 

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