It’s not every day that the Mitchell community or the Mitchell School District warrants a major story in a national newspaper like the Washington Post (WaPo to her friends). Then again, she is 143 years old and so I suppose it had to be our turn, good or bad, at some point.
When the WaPo reporter called me, I’ll admit I cringed a bit, assuming that the interest of the media at either coast was unlikely to go well for us. In my defense, most school superintendents feel about unsolicited newspaper attention the way most vampires feel about crucifixes. But there are other ways to look at it. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is a notion often attributed to P.T. Barnum, but it certainly offers a sentiment close to the heart of the millions of moderns glued to their social media accounts. Yet these hardly seem to be examples of humanity at its finest.
Plus, my cynicism was understandable. After an incident at a meeting in September went viral, the phone calls poured in. The media inquiries were largely fair, but my appreciation for those quickly drowned in an ocean of non-media, transcontinental contacts that ranged from yelling/cursing to mother-mentioning. I took something like 250 such calls and each demanded its due, if only because my unwillingness to respond would mean that some poor receptionist would have to. Thirty years in the superintendency have left me with callouses specifically grown to shield against such barrages.
The questions posed by the WaPo writer, though, were reasonable, even insightful at times. Later, she called back to clarify a few points. She did her due diligence. She sought to understand and she didn’t seem to be operating from any particular bias.
After the second conversation, when I didn’t hear anything about an actual story in our national capital’s newspaper, I pretty much forgot about it. There probably wouldn’t be a story and, even if there was one, it would likely be fair.
Then the story came out. Within a few hours of its release, readers gave me a heads-up. They had read the article and were not impressed. This was unsurprising as presumably the article gave a sense of its support for or opposition to the mask mandate and other measures. If the reader’s view of masks did not agree with that implied in the story, of course they wouldn’t like it. But soon I was hearing from readers on both sides of the mandate. Most of them hated the article.
They hated it because they felt the story portrayed us as a bunch of backward rubes, denizens of fly-over country who very much justified flying over and never, ever stopping. I don’t know that this characterization is fair, only that it was expressed by an awful lot of readers and on both sides of the issue. Which means that either the article was, indeed, unfair or that our instinct to band together against a common foe was stronger than our animosity toward one another.
Whichever is the case, our Midwestern response to the pandemic has been reasonable, even clear-headed. Our governor, throughout, left much of the decision-making in the face of the crisis at the local level.
Normally, we would applaud such. To the extent we don’t, it is probably borne of the unhappiness that comes with having to make tough decisions in the face of controversy and an ambiguous, but important, reality. That same governor provided schools and other local forms of government with the resources we needed and the flexibility (see the many regulations relaxed of late) we required.
South Dakota’s economy sustained itself quite well while other states and regions frankly languished. Local levels of government stepped up and made the necessary difficult decisions and members of the public exercised their freedom of expression, that hallmark of American liberties, repeatedly and mostly fittingly. Schools remained open, this year anyway, and student activities thrived, with some limitations.
South Dakotans, in other words, endured quite well. We have little of which to be ashamed and much of which to be proud.
And, in a crisis, it’s not every day you can say that either.