We have to value those who stay
Those interested in the survival of small towns often cite one solution: We need to get our young people to stay.
However, according to the authors of the book "Hollowing Out the Middle," which examines an actual small town in the Midwest, small-town schools prepare and encourage their best students to leave.
In fact, there is great pressure on high-achieving rural students to get out of town and make something of themselves.
"You go make it big," the small towns seem to say to their academic and sports stars, "and then those of us back here in the small town will bask in the glory of your success on the big stage."
Meanwhile, students who are most likely to stay in the small town aren't treated with as much respect while in high school. Little is done to train them for the jobs, some of them very good jobs, available locally.
By encouraging the achievers to leave to make it big and by ignoring those who are probably going to stay, small towns unnecessarily speed their own decline.
Right now, northwestern Minnesota has jobs going begging. Just to the west in North Dakota, thousands of jobs on the oil fields are vacant.
The skills needed for these jobs tend to be in the field of what is called "applied engineering."
To be hired at a good wage, one doesn't necessarily need a four-year degree. However, a couple of years of training in the field of engineering helps a great deal.
However, seldom do high school kids, particularly those who are likely to stay in the small town anyway for whatever reason, even learn about this possible career path right under their nose.
Instead, the "stayers," as the book calls the group, feel ignored and shunted aside in favor of their high achieving classmates, those who get in the paper for everything from sports to speech to music contests.
The "stayers," those who are going to spend their life in the small town, are made to feel like losers.
And yet the "stayers" are the people we expect to step up and run our towns, run for office, start new businesses and volunteer to do the work.
Now, some organizations are finally reaching out to middle school students to get them to understand career options that will enhance their lives even if they remain in the small town.
Other initiatives help students by allowing them to work with local companies while they are still in high school so they know what is available for them right in our region.
My own experience jibes with the arguments of "Hollowing Out the Middle."
From the very beginning of school, I was expected to achieve. I guess I did, but it wasn't that difficult when everybody was doting on you. All you had to do to get your picture in the paper was roll out of bed.
Meanwhile, a large swath of our class was consigned to the non-college path. They got less attention.
However, just because people weren't on the college path (often because they were born into the wrong small town caste), didn't mean they weren't driven, disciplined and talented.
Several classmates I really admire simply jumped the rails. They fought their classification as "non-college," bettered themselves through education, became nurses and now ably serve their community.
Others always had native intelligence, even if it wasn't applied to schoolwork, and found a way to apply it in the difficult field of modern farming. Their ability to building their own machinery, use the commodity markets to hedge their bets, plan their crops to spread their risk approaches genius.
I admire these people because, although they received some vocational education in high school, they weren't given the attention and approval doled out so liberally to the college-bound crowd.
It is these determined "stayers" who keep our small towns afloat. They are fighters. And, despite the signals they were sent in high school, they are winners.
I am the exception. I jumped the rails in a reverse direction. I was supposed to go out into the big world and make the small town proud.
Instead, I returned because I love the life.
People still wonder what's wrong with me.
If small towns want to grow and thrive, we have to value those who stay, train them, offer them encouragement and approval.
We can't send the message that if you stick around the home town, or return, that you have somehow been defeated.