It’s a small community perched on the top of one the countless ridges that fold one into another here in Western Pennsylvania. There’s a stoplight; a sandwich shop; a convenience store; a bank; a gas station; a handful of churches; and a K-12 school. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else and their lineage; a place where the older generation keeps farms and old houses and the younger leaves because there are so few jobs.
In the distance, smoke belches from the power plant, white against a blue sky, dark and threatening in the setting sun.
And this peaceful, quiet little hamlet has torn the school district apart, as factions fight and snipe and insult and berate and scold one another and monthly meetings drag long toward midnight and even board members are going hoarse as they each load ammunition of numbers and experts to unleash on the other. It’s the high school, closed once, now open again and slated for major renovations, that they’re fighting about, fighting for.
Monday night’s meeting was still young but the arguments so over-hashed that the half hour felt long and I wondered if this was the night I’d lose it, walk out in the middle of the constant voices. A girl just recently graduated was speaking, tumbling over her words in her urgent haste to somehow make them understand. She graduated from that high school; felt it left her lacking; wished they’d have kept it closed.
She sat down in front of me on a high of adrenaline, whispering and nudging a brother on one side and mother on the other. She’s one of the younger ones, the ones who won’t stay because there are not jobs for them all, the ones seeking fortunes rural life cannot provide them.
When the older woman stood, I knew she was from the other generation, the ones who built the community into what it was and who love it and who have always been there and will never leave; the ones who fought for their school and are fighting still.
It’s a good school; her daughter graduated there, and is successful; her grandkids are doing fine. If that young lady didn’t get an education, it’s because she didn’t want it, or she didn’t try.
The girl’s mouth is open, she can’t believe she’s been insulted. Her father is diving for the microphone as the older woman crosses in front of the family. There’s a moment of chaos, then I hear the older woman’s shocked voice as she turns to the girl’s mother.
“Don’t kick me,” she said. She looked surprised and angry.
“Then don’t insult my daughter,” the mother snapped back.
And I wondered how we’d reached this point, where older women insult the younger ones; where middle-aged women kick the older ones; where board members and citizens alike are embroiled in bitter fights, to the point that no one can hear anything except the noise they themselves are making.
And I wondered how we’ve reached this point across the nation; why, faced with such big questions of import for generations to come, we each are so busy shouting that the other is wrong that we can’t hear reason.
Driving home around 11 p.m., the fog hung heavy in the valleys and I peered close to the windshield, trying to see. A moon shone dimly from behind clouds; headlights from coal trucks made eerie spotlights in the night. The little community was sleeping as I passed through it; peaceful and quiet, and so unlike the chaos of the evening.
I’m still wondering how it happened.