Sunday Reflections: It’s Hard to Get Out of a Town Like This
On the wall sits a small collection of test prep books. The ACT. The SAT. Nursing exams. Teaching exams. It occurred to me the other day that we should also pull out the financial aid and how to write your college application essay books and just call the section College Prep.
This shelf of books sit across from the Teen MakerSpace. So I turn my head and look through the window and today there is a group of teens working on whatever it is they are working on and I realize how many of my teens aren’t even thinking about college. College is not in the cards for them. So I look at my Assistant Director and I say to her, “it’s hard to get out of a town like this.”
And it is.
My senior year of high school I did not fill out one single college application. Not one. Because I knew that college wasn’t really in the cards for me. Nobody talked to me about college. We didn’t really have the money for it, though we were by no means poor. It’s just that college was truly expensive and unobtainable. I took the ACT once on a day in which I woke up with a fever and none of it mattered anyway because I wasn’t going to college, so I did what I could and turned it in and walked away and never looked back.
I was by not, however, a bad student. In fact, I ended up graduating in the top 10 percent of my class and got a free two years at the local community college. That is the only reason I ever started college. I then moved, moved again to attend college, started working at the local library to help pay for college, and then went to graduate school to be a YA librarian. I will finish paying off my college loans the year that The Teen high school herself. There were a lot of lean years in between a lot of that, and some good friends who helped me out, and a metric ton of college loans.
But even though college seemed out of reach for me, it seems even more so for many of the teens that I serve. There’s a huge difference between my life as a teenager and many of the teens that I currently serve, and those difference make all of the difference in the world.
I wasn’t hungry.
I wasn’t worried about whether or not a parent was going to go back to jail or start using again.
I lived in a big town with plenty of jobs and I worked.
We could afford to buy me a crappy car that I could drive the 20 minutes out of town each day to attend a class at a community college.
We could buy the text books I needed to take the class.
Even though my parents didn’t really talk to me about college, they asked me about my grades and demanded that I do well.
I could go to the doctor or a dentist when I got sick and didn’t have to suffer with a throbbing, rotting tooth or a long term low grade fever that should probably get checked out.
I had a lot of things in my favor that these teens don’t have. They can’t even imagine having.
The irony is that the town in which I work is the home to two private colleges. One of them is, in fact, the undergraduate school that I attended. But their tuition is astronomical and out of reach for most of my teens and most of the members of our community. And transportation is still an issue. And their families are still unstable. And climbing your way out of poverty is near impossible because you need money to do it. There are reasons we talk about the cycles of poverty.
And it’s not just college. It’s hard to move to a new town where jobs are if you don’t have transportation or the money for an apartment or a car to get you out of town. We’re a small, rural town and the closest cities with jobs are 45 minutes in any direction. All it takes is one breakdown in the middle of winter on a country highway to make you lose your job, if you’re lucky enough to get one. It takes money to make money.
Small rural towns aren’t bad, they have a lot of charm. There’s something to be said about running into your favorite aunt in the public library and having known your neighbors for generations. But small dying rural towns have a layer of dust and despair that covers those charms. The paint on the houses is peeling and the porches are crumbling to the ground, but no one can afford to fix that because they can barely afford food. Food insecurity is rampant in towns like mine.
Yesterday I read that the Minnesota house passed a bill that would lower the minimum wage, and I have heard a lot of talk about other places wanting to do the same. But in a town with nothing but medical or service industry jobs – think Walmart and Dollar General – minimum wage is the only thing that is keeping most of these families just barely surviving. We say that you need a college education to get a “good job” and don’t recognize the many barriers there are, really, to attending college. Even in a town with two of them. A minimum wage job won’t help you pay for college, especially if they lower the minimum wage.
So I walk back down to my Teen MakerSpace and talk to my kids. We talk about tv shows and popular culture. We talk about making. We talk about being moved to a different foster home or whether or not they are going to leave tonight to go to the local community dinner. We talk about their families and what it’s like to be poor. But we don’t talk about growing up and moving out of town. It’s hard to get out of a town like this.
Filed under: Sunday Reflections
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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