There’s been a lot of research done about the differences between generations. Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millenials… And experts say a generation’s world view is heavily influenced by their common experiences between the ages of eight and eleven. That’s the stage when events outside of the immediate family really begin to influence a kid’s perspective on things. Interesting research. (Tammy Erickson’s considered one of the experts on the subject. She’s a friend. Read “Plugged In” or “What’s Next Gen X” if you’re interested in this stuff.)
So it’s fun to think about where we were from ages 8-11 and what our little “world view” might have been at that critical age.
Well I, for one, was in Vermillion, South Dakota. So you can imagine what my world view would have been. No, wait. Probably not. So let me paint a general picture.
Small, college town. Home of the USD Coyotes. (Pronounced KY-yotes. Not ky-YO-teez.) Hot, muggy summers. Often harsh, snowy, sub-zero winters. We’re talking Great Plains.
Everybody knew our family, it seemed. Understandable with seven kids…six still at home. My siblings are all smart and got great grades. The youngest kids were always being compared to the oldest. “You must be Audrey’s sister” or “…Don’s sister…” (Or Carolyn’s or Nancy’s or Lori’s…). We were proud of our siblings’ successes, but we also felt some pressure to deliver similar results. Tough acts to follow, all.
We had a milkman. He would come in the kitchen, open the fridge, and see what we needed – milk, cottage cheese, ice cream – and replenish things. My mom used to order groceries from Piggly Wiggly, and they’d deliver them. We had a charge account at each store in town. You put purchases on your account and paid the bill each month. Mom used to send me around to all the stores to deliver the checks. I got to charge a treat at the last stop. Lots of trust. The stores trusted us. We trusted them. I was trusted. And it was considered completely safe to send a little girl around town with a book of checks. Those were the days. That was Vermillion.
I walked to school each day. It was three miles each way. At least it felt like it. Now I realize it was actually about seven blocks. I remember there were houses that had a construction paper hand hanging in the front window. That was supposed to be a sign that it was a “helping hand” house where you could stop if there was some kind of trouble. I walked by one of those houses every day and often tried to imagine what kind of trouble might cause me to go to the door. The only thing I could think of was a boy trying to kiss me. Like John Backus. Yuk. I would die. And I would definitely go to Mrs. Bursell’s door if that ever happened.
We swam in the city pool in the summer. It was over at Prentis Park, across town. We bought Pixie Sticks at the snack bar. There was no running so we would do this mechanical walk-run to get around on the slippery pavement. My most vivid memory from that pool was one day seeing Jason, the only black kid in town, jump off the high dive, and his huge afro suddenly disappeared -flat against his head. Until he jumped out of the pool, shook his head, and the thing exploded back to its original shape. Amazing. What in the heck happened there? I’d never seen anything like it. That was the extent of the racial diversity in Vermillion. Except for Kim Webster, my friend who was Korean. She was adopted. Exotic. Of course there were American Indians, but I didn’t think that “counted”. They were just regular.
I’ll never forget when my friend Collie Driscoll’s parents got a divorce. No one I knew had ever gotten a divorce. In fact, no one in town I didn’t know ever got a divorce. There were some kids whose dad wasn’t around, but I never thought about why. I didn’t know what to say to Collie. It was mysterious and terrible. Scandalous. Thinking back, I can’t imagine how she must have felt with no one to relate to. I certainly didn’t know how to help her, so I didn’t.
Like most small towns, Vermillion was socio-economically diverse. There were two elementary schools in town, one middle school, and one high school. The rich kids and the poor kids all hung out together. It wasn’t a big deal. We lived in a big, beautiful house and there were eight of us living in it. My friends thought we were rich and they told me so. I felt very awkward about that, and tried desperately to convince them we were certainly not rich. The only reason we had a big house was because we had a lot of kids. Problem was, my friends had as many kids in their families, but they lived in small houses. They lived a block away, but their houses seemed more beat up to me. I didn’t like the way it felt when they said I was rich. I knew it wasn’t true, but it was also pretty clear we had more than most other families in town. I was proud of my family, but I didn’t want what we had to make others feel bad.
There were country kids and town kids. One difference seemed to be that country kids had chores, and town kids really didn’t. Except raking, shoveling, and feeding the dog. Another was that country kids took the bus. When it snowed, school was closed because the country kids couldn’t get to town. We used to sit by the radio on my parents’ bed when it was snowing outside and listen for the school closure announcement. Thank God for the country kids.
Sometimes the farms smelled bad. There was a cattle farm outside of town that stunk up our drive to the lake every time. Zimmermans’ farm, I think. Z something. My dad used to say, “That’s the smell of money.” We respected farmers and how hard they worked.
In South Dakota, you have to face it: you’re far away from everything. We had a cabin at a lake in the next town, and that’s where we spent most summers. Sailing, swimming, and rIding horses, mostly. It was a dream. I loved my summers. Because my dad worked at the university, we all had summers off. So as soon as school was out, we moved to the cabin. When my siblings started to leave for college and life beyond it, the family was a more travel-able size and we would take the camper on a trip each summer. Most of my friends hadn’t been anywhere but maybe Nebraska or Minnesota. No exaggeration. I had been to the East Coast, the West Coast, Yellowstone….I was a world traveler by my friends’ standards. I felt lucky about that. But I also felt bad for my friends.
When I was eleven, we learned we were moving to the West Coast. Swimming pools. Movie stars. Disneyland. My friends about died. Surely I would meet Greg and Peter Brady. And perhaps even Keith Partridge. And live on the beach maybe.
But my blossoming in the California sun wouldn’t begin until my twelfth year, and research indicates my world view had already been established by then.
So Vermillion. With all its limitations, it was not a bad place to set up a world view. You were elbow to elbow with people whose access to the world was very different than your own. You hung out in their living rooms and they in yours. There was no homogenization of neighborhoods or economic clustering. Your privacy was limited…but your sense of accountability was high as a result. You appreciated farmers. Mechanics. My sister’s best friend’s dad’s junk yard business. When we had a chance to see the world outside of South Dakota, we appreciated it, because most of our friends didn’t have that chance.
Vermillion, South Dakota is probably never going to make a list of the “Best Places in the US to Develop a Healthy World View”. But for the 8-11 year old bracket, it’s not a bad start.