Thursday, April 23, 2009

You Can Ring My Bell


Three years ago when I rang the 209 year old cast iron school bell to call students in from recess… it broke. I don’t even remember what day it was, but it will always be in my memory as if it happened only a week ago. I pulled the rope, and much to my dismay, it collapsed at my feet. I can’t explain the feeling, except it seemed telling of something that was bigger than my two-room schoolhouse in rural Vermont. It was a sign of things to come.
Since beginning my job at the tiny schoolhouse in 2003, I have always taken pride in the fact that on top of the building is a cast iron bell. I have always found it amazing that it has been ringing to bring children into the school for over 200 years. Every time I rang it, I felt proud to be the teacher in my school. To me it was reminder that things used to be made well, and that quality lasts a long time.
Well… that may be true or it may not. I always looked at the bell symbolically. Every picture we see of a school never shows a big building with long hallways and tiny square windows. It always shows a little red schoolhouse with a bell on the top just like the school I teach in (well, except my building is white). I felt immediately grateful to have my job and talked about that gratitude with anyone who would listen.
First of all, I believe in the tiny corner store and not the mega-Walmart. It stands to reason that my philosophy of education would be the same. My students and I are like a family. We love each other dearly and act like we are related most of the time. I have been called "mom" quite often and I think I reach these kids more effectively than I would with a class of 30 or more. It is intimate and close in the old room with wooden floors.
So, was I aware of the fact that my job was too good to be true? On that fateful day when I pulled the rope and it broke, did I realize that the school would prove to be an uphill battle that I would have to wage every year that I chose to teach there? I didn’t know at that time… but I sure know now.
The story of the closing of the schools in the small towns of Granville (150 years old) and Hancock (209 years old) Vermont is a very complicated story. I could begin at the beginning and try to tell the whole thing, but it would be a novel… not a blog. Here is the cliff-noted version of what I believe is happening: the towns are in the process of dying and everyone is experiencing grief.
I didn’t realize it, but some bright woman named Betty Smith (Vermont Public Radio) pointed it out to me. Thanks Betty. The town (for purposes of simplicity, I will focus of Hancock) and its people are grieving the loss of life in the village. Things aren’t growing, progressing, and improving. There was a time when rural towns in New England were actually thriving. In certain places now, however, the opposite is true. The complicated part is people are experiencing stages of grief at different times and these people are interacting and making decisions about things in the town (like the fate of the school.)
Just for your information, here are the Stages of Grief:
Shock and denial
Pain and Guilt
Anger and Bargaining
Depression, Reflection, Loneliness
The Upward Turn
Reconstruction and Working through
Acceptance and Hope
I don’t live in the town, but I love the town, so I know I am grieving along with everyone else. I tend to see the potential in things and have energy and hope to push things in a direction as much as I can. For example, I don’t see peeling paint on an old building… I see that it could be repainted a lovely color. I don’t see the collapsed foundation of the old building at the corner of route 100 and route 125. I see that it can be lifted up and repaired. I see that someday it can be a pizza place. It’s called "Hope."
Not everyone looks at things that way. It takes all kinds of people to "make the world go around" as they say. There are the "Dreamers" and the "Non-Dreamers", there are the "Get-its" and the "Not Get-its." I don’t know which side of the fence I am on… but I am definitely on some side of the fence. I will say how I feel and I don’t ever hold back. I tried on many occasions to get the bell fixed. Three people said, "Oh. The bell is broken? I can fix it."
But no one ever fixed it. They had intentions… good ones I might add. But intentions aren’t reality.
After the town meeting in March, when I heard that the school was going to close, I felt many things: I felt very "Angry"… "Sad"… "Reflective"… I danced eagerly around the 7 stages of guilt as if on stage at a third grade recital. My dear friend Trina (a school board member) suggested that we contact "The Story" which is a show by Dick Gorton on National Public Radio. See link of program: http://thestory.org/archive/the_story_745_Working_Through_It.mp3/view
She explained that maybe it would be cathartic for me to talk about my feelings. Boy, was she right! I went onto the radio and told "My Story" and it was therapy. I talked about being a teacher in the city vs. being a teacher in the country. I talked about my wonderful little school. I talked about the joys and pitfalls of teaching. It was a half-hour and was broadcasted on April 2nd. I don’t know how many people heard it, but some people actually reacted to it by e-mailing their thoughts. I felt incredible comfort from strangers who noticed the value of my two-room school. For a time, I didn’t have to feel loneliness and helplessness. It was wonderful. One man called me at home and gave me ideas for rescuing the school by bringing broadband and small business development to the town. Thanks Dan of Chicago!
One gentleman in particular reached out to the little community of Hancock, Vermont in the simplest, yet most powerful way. The day after the broadcast, there was a message on the school answering machine from a guy named Ben. He said he had heard the broadcast all the way in Virginia. He said he would be going to Maine in a week and on the way he wanted to come and fix the broken bell.
And he did. Ben came to the town of Hancock, joined us for lunch, rented a room at the local hotel for the night, and made some little children incredibly happy by fixing their antique school bell.
He did this for free. He did this to be nice.
It cost him money.
He also said as he heard the broadcast, he had been driving along and sort of daydreaming when heard Route 100 mentioned. He knows Route 100 because a child, he used to ski in Vermont. He has fond memories of the place, obviously. He also appreciates history and values antiquity.
When it rang for the first time after three years of inactivity, I was moved to tears. You can ring my bell! And in the words of a local woman (who attended the school house as a child) "If the school closes, at least it won’t go down broken!"
People are nice. People do go out of their way to do kind things. This man was a random person! A stranger! As he left, he said "I guarantee my work for five years. If that bell is broken in 4 years and 360 days, I do hope you’ll call me to fix it. It won’t stand. It can’t be broken. It’s just not right. And this school better be open if I have to come back!"
You know what? He is one of the "Get-its"… one of the "Dreamers"… and he’s the best kind of stranger because he knows how to share his gifts.
And as far as where I am in the stages of grief: I am on the "Upward Turn" stage. Some random contractor from another place helped me "Work Through it" because he performed some "Reconstruction" on the bell. I now have "Hope" for the future. Even if the school does not stay open, I think I will be better able to "Accept" it because I didn’t feel alone and the bell didn’t have to remain broken.
Thanks Ben.

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