COLUMN: Drive youth home, not away

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, June 12, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Drive youth home, not away
By Aaron J. Brown

“If you’re going to write in the paper, put my name in there and say that I want a car.”

That would be Doug, one of my boys about to turn 4 next month. Doug Brown, who wants a car. I wish I could say he was looking for a toy car, but we were at the dealership waiting for an oil change and he was staring right at the real thing. “I can see my face,” he said into the reflection on the shiny new vehicle. This was his first suggestion for my newspaper column.

His twin brother George had offered a more poetic statement a couple days prior: “When I am big and you are little I will push you around Target so we can look at engines.”

Something occurs at age 3 where kids realize that they won’t just become slightly larger children, but rather very big grownups, to the degree there is a difference. George followed a logical path to a conclusion that if little people can become big, then big people can become little. And of course we do, long before we realize it.

Having three young sons keeps youth on my mind. They have it. I am losing mine. But last week two articles about youth and rural places caught my eye.

In a June 7 commentary, the author, college instructor and former journalist Gregg Aamot detailed the virtues of rural places as future havens for youth looking for a sense of place in a homogenized modern world. He was talking about his hometown of Willmar but I thought of the Iron Range as I read it.

“In many ways, the idea of place – in a world of constant change, mobility and striving – is an important element of identity,” writes Aamot. Minnesota youth who grow up in places like Willmar or here on the Range face deep emotions about whether to stay or go, often with no easy answer. In reality, however, the authenticity and meaning of place in regions like ours could be a huge draw for young families in the future. We must not lose sight of this.

But then my reading took a turn. In another story that day the Associated Press reported that the city of Hastings, Minnesota, was considering installing a “screech machine” to drive young people out of a city park plagued by vandalism. The device emits a sound perceptible only to young ears. 

Something about this seems a fitting summary of the challenges of attracting, keeping and developing young communities in generational places like ours. “The kids these days, they love their tiny internet computers and they sure are good at hooking up these new fangled TVs. But darn if there aren’t some who foul up the park. We must deploy an indiscriminant sonic attack to drive them, one and all, from the place we plan to die.”

I grant you this is the sort of “they wouldn’t really, would they?” story I am sure will cause a ruckus at Hastings city hall. I’d be surprised if the city parks department actually adopted a solution that your average vandal could defeat with things they carry with them to commit typical acts of vandalism. Besides, old people have no idea what young people are doing to their ears with those iPods. They’ve been building up their tolerance to this sort of thing like Mithradates and his poison. A Hastings committee is scheduled to vote on this Tuesday.

I live on land that’s been in my wife’s family for a long time, in a place that five generations of my family have called home. I watch another generation push my own into the middle years that invariably age us toward the finish line. All I want is the dim sense that maybe, someday, my life in this place will have mattered. It is my hope that this is realized in a store as my son wheels me around to look at things that provide me comfort, quite likely Thomas the Tank Engine toys (seriously, they are very reassuring).

This will only be possible if this place matters to a new generation. May this be true and our actions support the theory.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and the book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.

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