The Past, the Present, the Future and what I learned in rural America


I unlocked the mail box and eagerly removed the contents. Shuffling through I found the envelope addressed from Central Carolina Community College. My first paycheck had finally arrived. Although the semester began almost two months ago, paychecks didn’t go out til the end of the month AFTER contracts were signed.

“God, finally. But why can’t they just directly deposit this. By the time it is mailed out, it is already the next month. I have bills to pay. I have gas to buy. I need food. What the hell. This is archaic. Even criminal.” My mind was racing around all the reasons why this needed to change. Had I been teaching for free? While I didn’t mind the ideal of this, I needed SOME money if I was going to be able to drive to the school to even teach.

Now I just had to drive to my bank, thirty minutes away to the nearest branch, to deposit this check so that my balance could instantly drop. Auto bill pay worked too well sometimes.

“Oh shit! Gas…. How much gas am I gonna need to get up there?” I remembered I had been keeping change in a jar in the living room. I grabbed the jar and coasted fumes to the store where luckily there was Coinstar. “Seven dollars and 38 cents; should be enough gas money to get up there. Once I cash the check, I can fill up the rest of the way.” As I drove up the road past the tobacco fields and the signs where the Supersaver pharmacy and Mcdonald’s billboards were ironically juxtaposed, I couldn’t help but consider the absurdity of my situation.

Lillington, North Carolina. On a map, you probably won’t see it. On google maps, you have to zoom in a couple times to the blank center of North Carolina before it registers. As one local informed me, “Lillington is known around the country as the meth and pot capital. Of course, whenever they catch someone around here and it goes on the news, they seem to find the most ‘redneck’ types to interview on camera. It’s not all druggies and losers, you know.”

And it wasn’t. Driving down the highway with the windows open, you could smell fresh cut hay and in spring, the smell of flowering honeysuckle.  Purple blooms of wysteria draped over the forest canopy. Early spring brought the white dogwood blossoms to liven up the quiet and grey forest. And people waved to you while driving by. Stranded motorists need not wait long for help from a passerby. Neighbors talked and shared stories. Shared vegetables from the garden. Shared tools. Shared grief at the loss of loved ones.

My girlfriend and I had moved here after she was accepted into graduate school. A medical professional program, her skills would benefit the local under-served community. One serendipitous phone call to the local community college and I was assigned several science courses to teach.

As I struggled to keep enough gas in my car to drive the thirty miles between the two campuses I was teaching, I battled with myself, with my thoughts. I was enjoying teaching, I found I was pretty good at it even. But, I felt like I was living in the 1950’s. “Mailed paychecks, two months to get payed, paper rosters with little tiny boxes to keep track of attendance,” I would debate out loud with myself while driving down the littered highway, past dead dogs on the side of the road, past the abandoned farmhouses, past the tobacco fields where mostly undocumented workers toiled. Past the many church buildings and trailer home parks. Then, into the room; “Hi class, how ya doing? ” With a smile and feeling like some kind of impostor I wondered if my students knew. Maybe I was good at faking, or maybe, everyone fights their demons with a smile on their face.

Biology, Environmental Science, Anatomy. Each course had its joys and unique challenges.

Anatomy lab was dominated by young mothers; looking to acquire the coveted Nursing degree the college offered that would gain them access to the halls of the local clinics.  But really, it was about achieving security for their young families. Something we are all told here in America, “we can work for and achieve.”  This was their chance to take that piece of the pie. I decided I would do my part in helping them. And in doing so, I learned more from them than they probably learned during my rambling lectures.

One week, just before Halloween, nearly half of my lab informed me they would not be able to make it to class the next week. They had to take their kids trick-or-treating.”Seriously,” I thought. These are 20 year olds; some of them even younger still. Some of them have multiple children. Some of them have been through marriages and divorces already. Suddenly at the age of 28 I felt like a teenager surrounded by adults.

Many students relied on the area rural transit bus to get to the school. Some weeks, if their spouses didn’t get payed, they did not have money to afford the bus and missed class. Indeed,  I received an email one morning while enjoying a cup of coffee:

“Mr. Nielsen. Please forgive my absence today, I really did not want to miss class but my husband’s paycheck wasn’t that big this week because of the rain. I didn’t have money to pay for the bus into town and I had no other way of getting to school. Please understand and if you have to mark this absence, I understand. Thank You”.

I felt like I was jury and judge deciding the future for these students that had so little, but tried so hard to succeed. How could I be strict on attendance when students were dealing with these kinds of trials? Sure, some would take advantage of my leniency, but for those honestly trying I had to give the benefit of the doubt.  Besides, I did allow each student one absent before penalties.

The truth was that many of my students were parents – good parents – trying their damnedest to be able to provide for their kids. Some of them never had the chance to finish high school before having children of their own. One student in her mid forties had to drop out of school ninth grade due to family needs. After 20 or more years, she was able to take community college classes. Growing up fast seemed to be all too common here.

“Why is this happening here?” I thought. In Raleigh, about an hour north, kids were at universities sitting around at coffee shops reading on their I-phones and nursing hangovers. Here in Lillington, grown adults attempting to get an education couldn’t afford to get to school when it rained.

It is as if the rest of the country just up and left. Took the money, the jobs, the technology, the economy, and headed for the city.  It seemed as though I were in a time warp where pieces of contemporary living and early 20th century were blended together in a mosaic of American history.

During one particular discussion in Environmental Science, the topic of human population and urbanization really put things in perspective.  Enger and Smith 2013 describe three economic transformations that have occurred since the mid 1700’s: the Industrial Revolution; in which mechanization and factories replaced many manual labor professions; the Technology Revolution; which saw the invent of cars and other advanced forms of automation; and finally the current era of Globalization.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution much of the American population was rural

Shift of U.S. population from rural to urban envrionments.
Shift of U.S. population from rural to urban envrionments.

(Enger and Smith, 2013). People made their livings on farms and cattle ranches and handmade the goods they would use. It was profitable to live on many acres of land. During the mid-1700’s, however, the steam engine along with other inventions vastly changed the landscape. Textile mills replaced spinning and weaving. Blacksmiths were superseded by factories. Essentially, the Industrial Revolution rendered useless the trades that some people now take up for hobby or that provide a spectacle at seasonal medieval fairs. Enger and Smith suggest this resulted in the transformation of rural villages into larger and larger cities filled with factories, steam engines, and yes, pollution. But, the bottom line is the dollar, so no one was too keen on viewing this as anything but progress.

As the 1800’s marched along cities grew larger, the human population grew larger, and rural communities became increasingly pushed to the margins of society. Then, precipitous change occurred. Advances in science and technology provided useful inventions like the automobile, the airplane, and other useful time saving devices. DSC_2666Travel time was drastically reduced and now we could spend more time working, or pursuing enriching hobbies, or wasting time on mindless distraction. With cars becoming increasingly affordable, people no longer needed to live in the polluted and overcrowded cities. But, did we return to our rural setting. No. Wide expanses of land were developed into suburban neighborhoods, replete with grass lawns, ports in which to park a fancy new car. Houses with many rooms for entertaining guests and raising children. No longer did we have to suffer the pollution and confines of the “big city”. All

DSC_2660the while, artifacts of American history, of our own heritage, were left to deteriorate on abandoned farms.

As technological advancements persisted throughout the 20th century human population continued to grow and innovation continued to bring convenience and immediacy. With computers and internet we entered, and are still existing in, the era of globalization. Ideas spread now in seconds across the globe. Our radio transmissions and television broadcasts now expand outward into the depths of the cosmos; somewhere perhaps eventually an advanced alien race will receive these messages and wonder who we are.

Now let’s return to my experiences in a rural American town. How does all this relate? If we look at our human population collectively (let us consider only America), we can imagine our movements from rural to city to suburbia much like a swarm of ants moving from one piece of cheese to the next. Once the attraction of one has been either consumed or rendered unusable, we tend to move to the next. But in our case, we have not all moved.

Rural communities still carry on. And still today, rural areas are home to millions. But, unlike the pre-industrial era, farming, spinning, weaving and other characteristic rural professions are not wholly lucrative. In Lillington, the seat of the very rural Harnett County, the vast majority of farm land is managed by only a handful of farmers with the necessary equipment to grow and harvest cotton, tobacco and various other cash crops. Lucky residents who inherited land from family may lease to these farmers to subsidize their income. But what for the descendants of farm laborers who remained and owned no land? Many people work seasonally to afford their meager lifestyle in tin trailers on the periphery of town. Many are happy and do well with the little they have while others succumb to alcohol, crack, or meth to assuage their poverty.

It is not to say that everyone living in rural America is poor and under educated. Many people still thrive in rural America and even some rural counties across the country are growing. But, according to a news piece by Christopher Doering, rural America, with its current 51 million residents, is becoming less relevant in the political landscape (2013).  Distilled down, Doering suggests that the primary cause for the decline in rural America is opportunity. Fewer opportunities exist in rural areas now compared to cities and people will continue to populate cities as long as this remains the case.

What as been left for those remaining in rural America? While this question is important, I think the more important question is: What remains in all of us from our rural ancestors? I felt an unusual connection to the little rural town of Lillington. I realized that not far back in my family line were many rural farmers and laborers. This is surely the case for most, if not all, Americans. Perhaps fragments of our history are passed down and inherited by each of us, only to provide us with wisdom should we choose to pay attention. I learned a great deal from my experiences in a rural community. I revisted the joys of rambling on with neighbors about subjects ranging from the humidity to how to grow tomatoes.  I relearned how to wave at strangers and smile. Listening to cicadas on the front porch while frogs sang in chorus and birds chimed in from the tree tops. I enjoyed the slow pace of life and the understanding that not all humans are frantically caught in the rat race, unable to enjoy the wonderful and wild world that is our home

I do not know what the future holds for rural America. But collectively we have much to learn and revisit of our past heritage. Like ants moving around on bits of food crumbs, human society moves through time and space occupying new modes of existence to satisfy its needs. Each phase giving the needed strength to move to the next and each leaving an imprint in the generations to follow. I felt the imprinting as I lived and struggled alongside my neighbors, students, and friends. Rural America may not be what is used to be, but neither are we, and our understanding and appreciation of our past will help us shape the present and future of our society.

References:

Doering, C. 2013. “As more move to the city, does rural America still matter?” USA today, online. Accessed 11/3/2014.

Enger, E.D. and B.F. Smith. 2013. Environmental Science: A study of Interrelationships, 13 ed. McGraw-Hill.

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