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OPINION: Being a superintendent in a small town

Though I was born in Sioux Falls, not a megalopolis by any means but still far and away the largest city in South Dakota, I have spent some fairly large chunks of my life in small towns.

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Though I was born in Sioux Falls, not a megalopolis by any means but still far and away the largest city in South Dakota, I have spent some fairly large chunks of my life in small towns.

During my entire childhood - 0-18 - I spent long stretches each year visiting my maternal grandparents in Ashton, Iowa, a tiny ethnic-German hamlet in northwest Iowa. Many of my happiest and even most exciting memories originate from that idyllic village. Yet Ashton pales in comparison to the year I spent as the superintendent of South Clay, living in Gillett Grove, Iowa, a town so small you could count all the houses just by looking out the second floor windows of the school.

Gillett Grove had two businesses, the filling station (which closed about the time I arrived) and you, guessed it, the bar. In my traditional outlook at the superintendency - I idolized a long-retired superintendent of Ocheyden, Iowa, who mowed his lawn in suit and tie - appearances mattered, and one of the unwritten rules for the vocation was that you didn't go to the bar. Well, in Gillett Grove, you either went to the bar or you never ate out. (They served a hamburger there that was simultaneously a gourmand's delight and a cardiologist's meal ticket.)

And though I didn't expect it, the truth is I enjoyed small town living. The pace is relaxed. The neighbors friendly. Like "Cheers," when you're in a small town, everybody knows your name. People get along both because they want to and because they have to.

In many ways, Mitchell is a small town. A pretty large one, no doubt, but still with many features that make small town living wonderful. When the snow falls, whoever is shoveling their sidewalk first always scoops well over the property lines to help his neighbor get a head start. When a beloved basketball coach passes away, the newspapers and radio stations essentially halt everything else they are doing - other news, programming, etc. - and come to the catafalque of grief and recollection with the rest of us. A Corn Palace fills for the funeral.

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On my visits to grocery and department stores, shops and other public events, small children who recognize me from my building visits will call out, "I've seen you at my school," or, smilingly wordlessly, embrace me about the knees. And these latter situations have yet to lead to a concerned parent punching me in the nose because, thankfully, they know me as well. My own children have grown used to this scenario over the years, though one day it repeated itself a bit too often and a teenaged one of them lamented, "It's like walking around with Santa Claus except nobody's asking for toys."

Ok, I do have to admit that the opposite also happens on occasion. Usually an adolescent or young adult, for whom embracing someone from school is no longer socially appropriate and whose experience with the superintendent was, on balance, a negative one, will glare or even scowl at me, never realizing that though I recognized them, I typically have no recollection for the circumstances that left them angry with me.

God has blessed me with a memory that finds it hard to hold a grudge. I wish I could say that I find grudges to be worthless expenditures of emotional energy better spent elsewhere, that I am following the teachings of Christ to lay any differences I have with my brother before the altar, but in truth, I just don't remember most situations that lead to grudges.

But I do remember people. I remember students and their siblings and their parents. Children in kindergarten when I first came to Mitchell are now finishing up college and many of the children in other grades have married, had children of their own, and enrolled them in the Mitchell schools. When I see a student, the child of a past student, in the hallways and make that connection, it is an experience that borders on the profound, even the sacred. To be part, even a small part of someone's life, their family, their travels from childhood to parenthood to perhaps even some day grandparenthood, is meaningful beyond measure, beyond the effable.

All of this is possible because Mitchell is still a sufficiently small town that a kindergartner can recognize his superintendent on sight, perhaps not that he is the superintendent or what that might mean, but that he is someone within the orbit of people they see at their school. And someone who hopefully took note of them ... and, even more hopefully, smiled.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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