Helga recently reminded me of the day when I officially removed my token from the Community Gossip board game. One of our monthly PTA leadership meetings had just adjourned, and the two of us were exiting the conference room to head toward the front office. We needed to log in our volunteer hours. Helga and I walked side-by-side as we snaked our way around multiple single-file rivers of children. Parading streams of students were being led through the school’s main corridor by a teacher holding a clip board. It was lunch hour, and the shuffle of classes moving to and from the cafeteria was in full swing. A sporadic symphony of small voices sprang forth from the tributaries of children that were flowing past us.
“Good morning, Mrs. Bean. Good morning, Mrs. Dodge.”
Southern-bred offspring are well versed in their traditional greeting etiquette. Most of these kids knew us in our homes as “Miss Jill” and “Miss Helga,” but it appeared that there was an amendment to this constitution that required children to use a formal address of “Mrs. Last Name” when aforementioned adult is met within an official educational environment.
As a former Yankee who had spent the majority of my life in and around a large metropolitan area, most of these traditional regulations were baffling to me. One aspect of this new environment was familiar. The procedure by which these rules were presented was much like the method used by the family dynasty in which I was raised. Unspoken and expected to be understood, it is commonly known as the This-Is-The-Way-We-Do-Things Policy. It reads something like this:
“If you want to be a part of our group, then you have to do things our way. If you refuse to comply, or if you are a slow-learner, there will be no forgiveness, and your membership will be revoked. In this event, you will be required to relinquish any welcoming gifts that we may have initially bestowed upon you, as we do not tolerate any instances in which you may be mistakenly identified as one of us. In addition, we reserve the right to talk about you, and whisper criticisms amongst ourselves in your presence, once you have been deemed unworthy to join our group.” I knew the drill.
In the few years since Durwood and I had become active participants in our interrelated PTA and Little League communities, I was getting the hang of most of the expected Southern Manners and Hospitality rules. It was regarding the Small Town Personal Information Disclosure and Privilege Game in which I appeared to be in the slow-learner category.
Who knew what about who, that was not supposed to know what they knew about another, are supposed to tell you what they think about it, but only if you did not hear it from them, so that you will keep that in mind if you talk to another, or someone who already knows about it, but is not supposed to know. It was mind-boggling.
I was the newly elected PTA vice-president, serving on a board full of life-long residents whose families have resided here for over a hundred years. They had been playing a sanctioned game that I did not understand. I was thirty-some years old, but I felt like the new kid in their high school.
Thankfully, I do not remember the specific details involved with the infraction I had committed during this particular PTA meeting. Whatever I had said, not said, did, or did not do, had ruffled enough feathers to effectively rescind my invitation to become a member of this exclusive club.
Helga may have been a life-long resident in the community, but she was also my friend. When the two of us finally arrived at the entrance to the school’s office, she placed her hand upon my shoulder to prevent me from continuing through the door. With a most sincere expression, Helga confirmed my assessment of the current situation.
“I’m really sorry,” she said. She lowered her voice, leaned her head toward mine, and spoke to me through her eyebrows. “It would appear that some of us believe that we are still in high school.”
“Or kindergarten,” I thought to myself.
As is typical of my approach to most things, I lack the patience and concern for preparatory instructions. I have always preferred the ‘jumping in’ tactic over the ‘look-before-you-leap’ philosophy. Any time that the Bean family has acquired a new board or card game, I limit my procedural review to the fundamentals of “getting started.” My interest lies only in initial directives. These may include how many cards to distribute, how to set up the game board and pieces, choosing a token, where to place it, or how to determine who rolls the dice first. I will then hand the directions to someone else (usually Natalie), and start playing until I need to ask, “Now what?” (in which case, Natalie will have read the pertinent information by then).
Durwood, on the other hand, will insist on reading all of the directions before any participating family member is allowed to touch tokens, cards, or any other accompanying provisions that are included in a newly acquired game. Once the appropriate set-up has been completed (according to the instructions that Durwood has read first to himself, and then out loud for the rest of us at least a dozen times), he will not validate any attempts at score-keeping until we have played at least one or two practice rounds. Official play will be allowed to commence after we have exhibited some level of competence and understanding of the game that we are playing.
Had I followed Durwood’s procedure before officially placing my token on the Small Town PTA board game, I may have avoided many of the uncomfortable and confusing situations that I found myself to be in during those first few years of attempting to become an active member in our new community.
Helga, who remains a genuine friend of mine to this day, recalls this one particular PTA meeting as the dawning of her acute awareness of the ongoing game being played among the life-long members of our small town. Her position on the game board has fluctuated over the years, as she has managed to control the nature of her contributed moves. She is still looking for a way to get off the board completely, but short of moving out of town, this option remains unavailable to her.
Unlike Helga, I have had the option to remove my token from the Small Town Gossip game board and still remain a productive resident of my community. My experience has provided me with a comprehensive and insightful education on how to enjoy my environment, enhance the lives of my children (who technically, are considered life-long residents!), and remain active WITHOUT having to participate in any silly games.
This particular region of the United States has experienced incredible growth since Durwood and I first moved here over twenty years ago. Although we have moved in and out of several residences throughout those twenty years, we have remained in and around the Small Town that we call home. Resistance to change and ‘newcomers’ appears to have relaxed considerably, but some traditional Small Town behavior remains intact.
“Looking out for your neighbor” is a valuable asset to living in any community. Life-long residents of Small Town practice this time-honored tradition through various forms of communication. When someone asks you “how things are going?” it is always advisable to consider the nature of the inquirer. After twenty years of trial and error, it becomes easier to ascertain the difference between one who has genuine interest in your situation, or one who requires useful information to hold in trust (should the occasion arise when they will need to re-establish their ranking among the social network by disclosing your information to someone else).
When information extraction techniques are unavailable through direct communication, there is the time-honored practice of driving through town until you ‘see’ useful information to gather. Since Durwood and I have lived in what is considered the ‘outskirts’ of town for the past 4 years, I witness the execution of this particular method on a daily basis. Every time that I end up traveling behind a camouflage adorned pick-up truck being driven by a baseball-capped driver, I can expect to drive at least five to ten miles under the speed limit. This seems to be the appropriate speed necessary in order to give the driver enough time to turn their head and assess the current status of every residential property that we pass. In the event that some poorly placed trees, bushes, or front gates might obstruct the comprehensive inventory of said property, I can expect to slow down another ten miles or so (if not come to a complete stop) in order for the driver in front of me to obtain a clearer view. It is a tedious job, but thank the gods that someone is still doing it.
I love where I live. I love our house and I love our property. The schools are outstanding and the opportunities are plentiful. There are good people here ( like Helga!) and our children enjoy a bounty of friends and experiences. Now that my little sister Evie lives here with her family, life in Small Town is even more rewarding and fun. Since Helga reminded me of the way things were when Durwood and I first arrived here, I realize that there are many things that will never change. What a comfort to know that we can.