I grew up in a small town. I mean, really small, as in the Main Street is less than a mile long and has 1 stoplight. There are a few local convenient marts, but no grocery store/Walmart/movie theater until you drive 3 or 4 miles down the road, to the next, bigger town.
The high school sits across from farmland; I used to run laps for track practice and watch the cows during breaks when I was sucking in air. Almost every kid who lived in the downtown area walked to school.
A pair of water towers sits on a ridge just above the town proper. Every year the senior class sneaks up and paints their two-digit graduating class on the towers, and every year the owner of the property threatens to run the kids off.
The town itself has a green on which sit three churches and the elementary school, side by side. There is a bandstand in the middle of the green, and during the summer, the Old Timers' Band plays concerts. In the winter, the local firehouse floods the green for a makeshift ice skating rink that lasts all season long.
It is the kind of place where you can walk down the middle of Main Street at midnight and not worry about a car coming from any direction. It is beautiful, historic, safe, and far removed from any kind of city life.
This is where I grew up.
When my friends and I went to college, in bigger towns or cities, sometimes our peers made fun of us. They'd look at a map, or hear stories about what we did for fun, and think we were small-town kids. My husband still likes to tease me about it.
But here's the thing: something about this town produces smart kids. My friends and I, we went on to top schools in the country. Today we live scattered around the globe. And we are professionals with advanced degrees. We are doctors and engineers and teachers and lawyers. We are actors and musicians and corporate heads and professors.
And last week, an 11 year old who goes to this same school won the Discovery Young Scientist Challenge.
How cool is that? Competing with kids from across the US, he came in first. And he did so by creating an experiment in the stream that runs through his backyard.
In a world where I see so many kids attached to their computers, or watching TV while slowly growing obese, or convincing their parents to buy them the latest electronic gadget, there is something both humbling and inspiring about a boy who devises an experiment in his backyard in a small town in the middle of the countryside.
Let's hope there are many other Eriks out there, many other kids still playing outside and learning about the world by getting dirty and putting their hands on things.
Let's hope that maybe those who are parents and those who hope to become parents remember that there is great merit in encouraging independence in their children, in not scheduling their child's every waking hour, and in letting their children get bored sometimes. You know what? Bored kids find a way to amuse themselves. Some of them even go outside, look at a stream, and start to ask questions.