City Girl, Country Girl

Entering the building for the first time, I tripped, dropping the pencil case I had fashioned from a watercolor paint box. Clearly an inauspicious start to fifth grade, my hopes to be as popular at the new school as I was unpopular at the last were dashed, along with my No. 2 pencils.

The fixer-upper we bought when I was a
kid. It looks like it could stand to be fixed
up again.Courtesy: Google Maps.

My parents chose the school for its status as the cheapest private school in the area. We drove from city, through suburb, to country to get there. We planned to build a house, but when our home sold too quickly, we purchased a fixer-upper in a hurry--a house chosen for its money-making potential rather than its excellent public school system.

Shy in social situations, I found making friends difficult. So I sat on the step at recess, secretly annoyed that they recited the jump-roping chant wrong, yet longing for an invitation to join in.

Manure, just right for pelting your
friend. Courtesy:
Johnna took initiative, and I accepted an invite to her dairy farm. Mortified by her proposal of a manure fight, I declined to participate. Only as an adult, scooping manure to fertilize our garden--and paying fifty cents per bucket for the privilege--did I realize she wasn't referring to fresh manure, but rather, the composted variety--clumped grass bits bound with what looks like dirt.

The following Monday, Johnna reported the social faux pas. My city ways didn't pass muster. Ostracized for refusing to sling cow dung, years later, my dad put it into perspective: While teaching, he heard of a kid, taunted, because his firefighter dad perished in a blaze. I won't repeat the wording, lest it haunt you as it has me. As I recall my first year at the new school, I shed no tears. But I weep inside for a boy, who, in his moment of greatest need, experienced cruelty rather than compassion.

My fifth grade teacher (I could inject "bless his heart" here, but won't) took me out of class one day, a few weeks into the school year. The aide admonished my classmates to include me while the teacher assured me that Lisa would be my recess playmate. She was--for a few days. Walking back into the classroom following the 'be-nice-to-Laura' lecture remains my life's most humiliating moment. That the teachers were trying to help provided little salve for my embarrassment. I chose to homeschool, partially, because of my experience.

Our back yard.
For years, I replayed this in my mind. As an adult, I live just a few blocks from the Raymond Avenue house where I resided while attending the country school. I love my neighborhood, and hope never to leave. We have an extra half lot, cultivating more garden than grass. When people ask, their eyes glaze over before I'm half-done reciting all the herbs, vegetables, and fruit we grow. We pickle, dehydrate, can, freeze, brew vinegar and beer, make wine from our own grapes, cook everything from scratch, compost, forage, and--aside from being poultry-free--run what might be considered an urban homestead. We buy raw milk, farm-fresh eggs and local honey. I keep meaning to learn soap- and cheese-making.

Recently I googled Johnna. She runs an online store, like I do. She's a homesteader. She teaches classes on making cheese and soap, and foraging wild herbs. She homeschools.

Oh, my. She could be my friend.

Here's Johnna. Doggonit, I even owned
the same dress. Courtesy:

Here I am, picking blueberries.
If only I had more initiative, I'd pick up the phone. Maybe it's not too late to have that manure fight.

But I know myself too well. I still bear the social reticence that kept me a fifth grade outsider. So I'll pick up my No. 2 pencil instead, and write how I now realize perhaps Johnna and I are more alike than different. The city girl can befriend the country girl.

Children grow up, and time turns manure into soil.

Next up: An unlikely piece of '80s nostalgia brings back more memories than you can imagine: A Tinful of Memories


  1. Laura ,please contact Johnna. You are no longer fifth graders. You are women who obviously share a great deal in common. Never be afraid to reach out and say Hello to some one from your past. Tomorrow , we want to read what happened when you contacted Johnna. You either learn to make cheese and soap from her and become good friends and share a future with her or ?????

  2. Dear Laura, Yes, this is personal -- and Thank You for sharing. As a parent who watched two children adjust to multiple corporate moves, and who watched one experience the very same kind of situation you describe -- not only being taunted by fellow students but also be a teacher for "NOT being 'from here,' " my heart aches. Yes, still for my child, now for you, and for all the children out there who experience this. Educators - both teachers and administrators - need some serious instruction on how to create an inclusive environment. Perhaps one day people will learn how to say "Welcome!" Sadly, small towns & rural areas -- which I love dearly -- are the most difficult places to be "new." Thank you for sharing. And yes, consider giving Johnna a call... It just might work out in a beautiful way -- but no matter what, it might give you closure.

  3. I've found that people that were cruel to me as a kid are adults that are still snotty. Maybe she's different, but if you contact her, will it hurt if she brushes you off? Are you trying to win the approval she didn't give you as a kid? You might be better off just letting it go.

  4. I'm definitely too shy to contact her. Perhaps if I end up at the Kalamazoo farmers' market I could visit her booth. I'd dare to do that!

  5. Beautiful writing. I love reading your posts. Sometimes I wonder if I would want to go back and change things, but I'm happy with the person I am today. Creative, inquisitive, and yes, still a little shy.

    1. Rachel, sometimes I wonder the same thing. It was not a happy time, but I think it made me more compassionate, and has definitely shaped who I am.

  6. Kids are sometimes cruel, but I imagine that the experience with the teacher's aide admonishing them to be nicer to you was pretty awful. I don't like to remember the bad things I've gone through. I guess I try to live in a little happy bubble as much as possible! Wonderful post.

    1. It really is pretty pathetic, but I guess I've gotten to the point in my life where I have good friends, and I'm okay with a little pathos here and there. I can laugh about it now.

  7. Laura, your sister was totally right to discourage you from publishing this; and I'm so glad you ignored her best advice. Thank you. It's beautifully written and totally relate-able. I suspect that anyone who isn't transported by this piece must fit into the category of people that (Ri)Charmed described... and they should keep hearing the message until they "get it."

    I think the best resolution of this piece would be for Johnna to stumble upon it and contact you. She would apologize for her childish behavior (she was, after all, a child... and probably had a mother that failed at modeling kindness well for her), and gratefully explain that her current lifestyle was inspired, in part, by you. That's the happy ending I'm playing out in my mind. :)

  8. I dunno - If you feel compelled to reach out, I'd do so. I was an unpopular kid in junior high (kid from a small Midwestern farming town transposed to the big, sophisticated city of Knoxville, TN), but upon encountering one of the cruelest girls on the school bus as an adult after many years away, we had a warm conversation and (get this) even shared a hug. I had my own moments of being a cruel little girl that I regret to this day, and Joanna might welcome an opportunity to reconnect and make amends.


I'd love to have your comments and reflections!