This weekend I will be attending a reunion, not just for my high school class, but for the entire school. Despite the threat of bad weather, this event promises to be big because, in case you didn’t know, small towns are tops for knowing how to celebrate their communities.
This summer marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the first graduating class of Minneola High School. Minneola is a small town on the Kansas prairie where wind is in abundance and rain is in short supply (except, apparently, this weekend). Still, over the years (the town was founded in 1887), people of grit and patience and neighborly spirit have pooled their talents to maintain a vibrant community worth celebrating.
I can hardly wait to see what the weekend holds! There will be the ever-present parade, the one I remember being in every year until I graduated. My first trip down main street was ruined, however, when the lamb I was planning to lead (yes; I was going as Little Bo Peep) was unfortunately kicked by my dad’s horse while they were in the trailer on the way to town and it did not end well. Other years I opted for the safer alternative of pedaling my bicycle draped in crepe paper or riding along-side my sisters on our horses, each with our matching patriotic vests crocheted by my grandmother. In later years, there were floats to decorate and populate—representing the United Methodist Church (one of four churches in our town) or our high school class. And, sometimes it was necessary to do double-duty: ride the float through and then run back to join up with the high school band in order to play our fight song and the Star-Spangled Banner while stopped in front of the announcer who usually was posted outside of Schmidt’s Radio and TV.
My sister who still lives near Minneola recruited me one time a few years back to join her as a co-announcer of the parade. She’s good at that sort of thing and is still used to the small-town necessity of everyone being involved and in the spotlight. As an introvert who had been away from such community-centered activities, my stomach remained in knots for weeks after—a feeling I’ve started to have again as this reunion occupies more of my mind now that the academic year has ended.
There are so many things, I think, we contemplate upon returning to the place and people who shaped our young lives and it can be difficult to take it all in at once. I wonder, too, if coming from a small town adds something to the experience, both of living there once and returning to it later. There is really no other experience I can identify that carries with it the sense of transparency—everyone really does know everyone—and community (there is no way to survive without everyone pitching in) and the corresponding challenge of how to fit in, especially if you don’t.
As a young teen growing up in Minneola, I relished my home town, believing there was no place on earth that could compare. Maybe this is what everyone thinks of their environment, but I doubt it. From the basketball court where Mr. Hamilton coached us into a pretty darn good team to the choir and band rooms where Mr. Pfieffer and Ms. Harvey taught us to play and to sing just as well as the bigger schools down the road to the classrooms where Ms. Blanchard and Ms. Zipfeld taught us science and English, school was an expression of the town’s commitment to its youth. Friday nights the football stadium or basketball courts were packed; filled not just with parents but with friends and relatives. Churches took turns feeding us, not checking to see whether or not we belonged to them or to another church. The town paper even kept up with what we did on weekends, recording it for all to see the “Town Trifles” section of The Minneola Record.
But just as much as growing up in Minneola shaped me and my sense of place, living in other places since then has also formed me, changing me in fundamental ways. Since leaving the Kansas prairie I have seldom felt like I “fit” in the same kind of way. I’ve been more outsider than insider: a young woman studying religion, a field populated by men; a woman who chose not to have children despite the strong cultural assumptions promoting motherhood as the most legitimate path of life; a feminist among colleagues and students who are more comfortable living with sexism than questioning it.
Because of these changes, I imagine there will be several times throughout this reunion weekend when I will feel like an outsider, no longer at home in my hometown. At the same time, I imagine others will feel similarly: those who have moved away; those who live in Minneola now as adults but did not grow up in there; those whose experiences of life and loss have radically changed them.
At first glance it is easy to assume everything and everyone will be the same but once that fleeting idea is passed, we know that nothing stays the same. Indeed, it would be sad it that happened. We are meant to grow and to be stretched; to be challenged and to see the world from the perspectives of others. This is the beauty of being human: we have imaginations that enable us to envision reality in multiple hues reflecting the variety of light as it illumines all of us.
Despite what this reunion weekend holds for all of us, one thing is sure: Minneola is a place of hospitality. People will open their arms to all of us—those who have stayed and those who have scattered. The welcome signs will be on full display and the feeling of belonging to a small community will be palpable. We will celebrate not only our little town but also the bonds that, in the end, do not require uniformity but rather understanding.
I’ve come to realize, it isn’t that we are all the same; that living in Minneola means we are cut from the same cloth. No. We are different; remarkable diverse, especially in our collective experiences that range from staying in Kansas to living all over the world. What binds us—what binds all of us as humans—is not our sameness, but our desire for meaningful relationships.
When we are able to do this—to start with what connects us—then we can move forward, step-by-step to learn from our differences, seeking to understand the other more than to be understood. Desmond Tutu once said that the reason God created us in such infinite variety was so that we could learn to love each other. What better time to practice such connection than with the 100th graduating class of Minneola High School?
I can’t wait to see those of you who also plan to gather on the Western Kansas plains and to celebrate the Wildcats of Minneola!