Saturday, May 20, 2017

What’s the Deal With Small Towns, Kids, and Cars?

I’m a small town kid, having spent the majority of my formative years between birth and age 18 living in Oakland, Iowa, population somewhere in the ball park of 2000, located just east of the Loess Hills region of southwest Iowa.  We did not have a stoplight, not even a yellow flasher — still isn’t one.  When I lived there I could list the names of every family living on both sides of the street, and I lived on a long street!  We had two small family owned grocery stores, three service stations, four cafes, two barbershops, a pharmacy, two hardware stores, two lumberyards, and a variety of other small retail establishments.  If you lived in Oakland you attended either the Lutheran church on the hill, went to the Christian church near the school, or went downtown to either the Congregational or Methodist church.  The few Catholics we had in town traveled fifteen miles up the road to Avoca.  Yes, in those first 18 years of my life I spent a year and a half living in Ames, Iowa, and another five as a resident of Council Bluffs, both of them cities by Iowa standards.  But even with those experiences, I was still a small town kid, proudly so!

In my adult life I have lived in a number of places, and through my professional life have met all kinds of people who live in communities vastly different from small town Iowa.  I am fascinated by the differences in living in major cities, as well as in different regions of the country.  I often think of how neat it would be to live in other places, recognizing some of the differences from what I am used to.  I have shared with others the value of living in a small town in the middle of this great country, pointing out cons as well, such as vicious gossip that spreads like the plague.  I can defend and rationalize a lot of the quirks of small town life, except for one — teenagers and their absolute need for  a car.  That is something I don’t understand, never have understood, and most likely will never be able to agree with.

Why the obsession with getting a car?  Why do kids as young as fifteen think they need a car?  Better yet, why do parents think they need to get their child a car?  For the sake of clarification, when I say a teenager having a car, I refer to possession across the spectrum of actually owning a car to having almost exclusive use of a specific vehicle regardless of who owns it on paper.  I will give you that living in a rural area and a number of our students living on a farm, or living in one of the towns other than West Union, it makes sense for  those who are involved in after school activities to have a vehicle to drive.  What gets me is that rather than driving the old family clunker generally they get a nicer one that they can call their own.  And, what’s up with each kid in the family getting one?  I can’t believe that there are families who live 15 miles from school having two or three kids driving back and forth each day, burning up fuel.  How about sharing a ride in the family clunker!  

Okay, let’s give farm kids, and those living quite a ways away from West Union a little bit of a pass in terms of needing to drive, but to have a vehicle of their own, I don’t quite buy it.  That said, no way can I understand the reason kids living within the city limits of our town needing a car.  I love it when our exchange friends from Germany come every other October.  They walk everywhere!  Go to any large city in our country and people walk!  We have a huge issue in our nation with obesity among people of all ages and yet parents allow their child to have a car to drive a few blocks every day to school.  What’s the point of that?  I also hear from a number of our students “Well, I need a car to get to work.”  Why do you need to work?  “To pay for my car/insurance/gas!”  How much sense does that make?

I understand that we live in a car world, but I am amazed at this perceived need.  We have school provided transportation for everyone, except those who live close enough to walk.  I guess it isn’t cool to ride the bus, but kids in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Chicago don’t seem to suffer by doing that.  What truly bothers me is that we have high school students who should be focused on learning, and learning as much as they can, who love to drive around in their cars or insist on getting that aforementioned job to be able to have a car.   And, some of the cars that are driven to school are a lot fancier than those parked in the teacher’s lot!  The car becomes a focal point, and kids often make choices that impact their life just to have that car. 

There reality is that a car is not a necessity for a high school student.  More high school kids in our country don’t have a car than those that do!  And while there is an argument for those living a distance away, there are alternative ways for a young person to get to school.  A car is huge expense, not to mention the insurance and fuel costs.  Yes, there is a lot that can be learned in terms of responsibility, but those lessons can be learned in terms of completing homework to the best of one’s ability or spending quality time with family.  I guess this is one of those small town things that I never understood.  Like a lot of things in life, after high school there’s plenty of time to have a car!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Teenage Drinking: How To Make A Difference

One of my simple joys is listening to the radio when I am driving.  Sometimes I just look forward to taking a drive anywhere so that I can listen.  My two favorite things to listen to are sports talk and classic rock.  Occasionally I will mix in a country station, and if someone else is with me in the car I will acquiesce and listen to a little current popular music.  However, this article isn’t about some story I heard on a sports station or reminiscing about a song that took me back to my formative years.  What occurred to me is the number of times I have heard stories or commercials about the influence parents have on whether or not their child drinks.  Over the course of about a week, I heard a couple of news reports, and then a couple of commercials about how parents play the major role in their child’s decision to drink or not drink.

I first heard it when news reports came out about a significant drop in the drinking rate of  young people age 12 to 20.  According to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2014 underage drinking dropped 21% and underage binge drinking saw a 26.4% decline.  While this is a significant decrease, researchers are very quick to caution that underage drinking is still a major problem.  Recognizing this, I still take this as a good sign, and one that shows that there is a shift in the trend of underage drinking.

There is additional good news in these most current studies, specifically in regard to drinking and driving.  It appears that young people are making better choices when it comes to getting behind the wheel of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.  The most recent report showed a 54% drop in the incidence of underage youth drinking and driving.  College binge drinking has dropped 13% in the past decade, but as stated above, while a very positive statistic, binge drinking on college campuses is still prevalent.  Again, one needs to use a little caution, but overall these are good numbers.

However, there are a few very negative statistics related to college level students. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries and 20% of college students struggle with an alcohol use disorder each year.  Alcohol is often associated with violent behavior among college students with more than 690,000 students being assaulted by another student who has been drinking, and more than 97,000 students being victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or rape.  And, about 25% of college students report diminished academic performance as a result of their drinking, including missing classes, falling behind, poor performance on exams or papers and receiving lower grades.

While we do not have all of the same data for our students at North Fayette Valley High School that is shared above, our most current data about our students comes from the Iowa Youth Survey in the same year, 2014.  At the time of the survey 10% of NFV 8th graders and 24% of 11th graders said that they currently consumed alcohol on a regular basis, and 28% of 8th graders and 66% of 11th graders self reported that they had consumed alcohol at some point in their life.  All of those are higher than the State of Iowa average.  Even worse news is that all of those data points are higher than the previous survey done in 2013 except current users in 11th grade, which dropped 6%.  One has to be careful with statistics because there are always a variety of interpretations, but one can draw the conclusion that while underage drinking is on the decline nationally, we continue to see a rise in our own communities.  Students in our school are drinking more than they were before, and that bucks the national trend.

In some respects I am not surprised.  There is a strong drinking culture in our communities among adults, and thus a high level of acceptance.  We see a “well, they’re going to do it anyway” or “kids will be kids” attitude among many.  There are also reported incidents of parents who make the decision for other parents to allow kids to drink in their homes.  I have it from a good source that it is not unusual for a few parents in our community to allow their children to host parties with alcohol in their home as long as the kids who attend give them their keys.  My questions for those parents is:  Who gave you permission to allow my child to drink?  What gives you the right to make parenting decisions for me?  As a parent, I would expect a fellow parent to report to me that my child has engaged in illegal activity!  This “kids will be kids” excuse, coupled with an attitude that drinking alcohol is not big deal are the biggest obstacles that exist in terms of a healthy environment for our kids. 

So what can be done about this?  This is where I will go back to the radio ads that I referenced in the first paragraph.  The number one and by far the very best way to convince teenagers not to drink is for the parents to tell them not to drink!  The number one influence in a teen’s life in terms of making a decision whether or not to drink is his/her parents!  When mom and/or dad start having conversations with their child about staying away from alcohol until they are of legal age, there is a significantly better chance that they won’t drink.  According to the National Institute on Health and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, parents should start talking to their child between the ages of 10 and 14, even if they are not drinking.  These can be hard conversations, but most kids are not drinking at this age, and a parents’ disapproval of alcohol use is the primary reason that kids make the choice not to drink!  Parents that develop strong, trusting relationships with their kids establish in their children the confidence to stand against peer pressure and to have confidence in the decisions that they make.  Folks, there is no silver bullet that guarantees a child will not drink before they are of legal age.  But there is one strong deterrent . . . parents are the difference in their child’s decision to drink.

Monday, May 1, 2017

When It’s All Over

During the summer of 2016 I was struck by a very short event that I have witnessed a number of times during my lifetime, but for some reason I paid more attention to it and reflected quite a bit on what I saw and heard.  The event was the last game that three young ladies played in their high school career, specifically the last high school softball game played by Kim Rounds, Madison Monroe, and Megan Gavin.  Kim had a number of “last games” over the course of her senior season as she played volleyball, basketball, and ran track.  At the end of each season she dealt with the “last one.”  Tears and sadness marked each event for her, as well as her senior teammates in each sport.  The players get hugs from teammate, and perhaps a hug or handshake from their coach.  They go home at night and have the support of their parents.  They also deal with that emotions of a loss, because in most sports in Iowa, unless you are a state champion, your last game happens because your team gets beat.  But then a funny thing happens after those games during the school year: they go back to school, hang out with their friends, and for some, start practice for a new season.  You see, for some that really wasn’t the end.  
Softball is a little different.  It takes place in the summer and once it is over, it is over.  One of the unique things about Iowa is that for those kids that play softball and baseball, they get about a two month extension on high school.  At practice, on bus rides, and at games they still interact with classmates and other students, and in a way prolonging that phase of their life.  And then for every senior player except those on four baseball teams and five softball teams, they get beat and their season is over.  For the girls that play softball at NFV, many times those painful losses have taken place on the road, but they had a very cool tradition for those who minutes earlier just finished their career — the hug line.  I have no idea when it started, but when Coach Lape started coaching softball again, after he said a few words to the girls after the loss — made a special point to thank the seniors — the girls on the team formed a line along side the bus and the senior(s) hugged their way down the line.  Yep, tears and laughs and a few words were spoken, as they moved from one teammate to the next.  It seemed to lessen the sting of the loss a bit, and maybe it also cushioned the reality that the senior would not take the field again for NFVHS.  

The other thing about softball and baseball is that for those ending their career on the diamond, there was not school to go to the next Monday.  There was not practice for the next sport as the seasons changed.  Perhaps there was a team supper or something to hand out letters and awards, but those moments truly defined that an athlete’s high school career was over.  One night they are scratching the dirt in the batter’s box with their cleats or sliding head first into second base and the next next day they go on with the rest of their life.  I have to believe that’s tougher than ending things on the wrestling mat or the basketball court.  

In the case of our three ladies on the 2016 TigerHawk softball team, Madison would play more softball  in college as she went off to Ellsworth as a member of their team.  And Megan would continue playing softball at Upper Iowa.  So the game goes on for those two, but they are the exception rather than the rule.  Most high school athletes never compete again once they walk off the playing field for the last time.  I remember a particularly close-knit bunch group of high school football players about a dozen years ago who camped out on their home football field on a Thursday night before the last game they would ever play on that field again.  Most of them played another sport later in their senior year, but they had formed such close bonds as players on that team that they wanted to savor that last time.  

I am biased as baseball and softball are very important to me and my family.  In my case I played my last high school baseball game and watched movers pack a truck the next day as my mom, brother, and I filled up our pickup with suitcases to join my dad in our move from my hometown of Oakland to Lincoln, Nebraska.  Maybe that is why I am a little more sentimental because it was really over for me!  There are people that I was close to that I never saw again after that last game!  I hope that as long as Coach Lape coaches the softball team that he keeps that “hug line” in place for the girls who really do give up a lot by dedicating their summer to playing the game because it’s over before you know it and it’s kind of nice to have that shoulder to cry on.