Small town antics

A little bit of foolishness goes a long way.

When people live in close proximity to one another in an area that is remote, wide and intimate forms of exchange are inevitable. From recipe swapping to shared stories, it helps ensure that life is fruitful and hardly ever dull.

Foolish as they come

Amusing and foolish behaviours can develop into an outrageous tale pretty darn quick. To those aspiring to live beyond the urban sprawl, I would advise you to be on your best behaviour because you can be sure others will be watching. Much to my own good fortune, had I not had an audience one spring day in the quaint town of Torbay where I spent much of my youth, my husband and I might have taken a much longer path to our first kiss. Along with my childhood best friend, standing by the mailboxes behind us that day was a sweet elderly man who had watched us frolic up the road each day following school. For many months, this man would putter about in his yard. Coincidentally around the time we got off the school bus every day, and particularly on this special day, he stood coyly staring from behind the windowpane of his screen door. A minute seems so much bigger in places where the most noteworthy happenings revolve around other people’s behaviour. An audience seems to give these moments more substance, and provides cause for discussion – or at the very least, entertainment – in what could be an otherwise pretty mundane place. Needless to say, that old man’s passing left a void in our walks home.

When living away, it is a comforting discovery to meet people who have brought their foolishness with them. This is not unfamiliar to us Newfoundlanders, for whom it is regarded as a must-have attribute to ensure we can speak and behave with ease around newcomers. All too often, Newfoundlanders will end up in a new place, speaking off the cuff with a touch of brazen sarcasm or in an all-assuming way that suggests we’re all related, only to be stopped in our tracks by dead pan expressions and blank stares. There’s nothing worse than being taken seriously when you’re trying to be the opposite. Attempts at lightening the mood while living in such close quarters can either be hugely appreciated or, ironically, sometimes lead to a more awkward atmosphere.

Fortunately for me, Arviat residents share antics that I have been able to relate to, and more times than not this mirrors the jest and banter that I know all too well from rural Newfoundland. Once I was able to cut through the language barrier in Nunavut, I was delighted to find out, pretty early on, that many of my Inuit friends got on quite the same way as us east coasters. Like any small town, there is always the ongoing speculation over the unknown, local soap operas to chew about, and the collective efforts of families and friends dealing with a tragedy or celebrating someone’s good fortune. Best of all, people typically know how to have a laugh without being saturated with materialism. In fact, the less people seem to have, the more it seems they are able to not take themselves too seriously. This I appreciate wholeheartedly. People make a conscious effort to make up for what is not available to them by investing in human relations.

There are two types of foolishness I’m referring to: the type that provides a laugh and the type that leads to judgment. The former is often a matter of self expression and the ability to relax and share with others. The latter is often a result of ignorance. One of our favorite Newfoundland expressions is “Go’way b’y, don’t be so bloody foolish!” which usually translates into “Stop being so silly!” or basically implying someone is gone off their head and being unreasonable. The more universal definition suggests ridiculous or ignorant behaviour. Either way, it usually makes for a good laugh and hopefully not at the expense of another person’s well-being. This ‘silliness’ is – along with our distinctive accent and playful use of linguistics – a trait for which many Newfoundlanders are known for. Nunavummiut share a similar disposition, which makes it easy to feel at home.

Outrageous or outlandish

Even when a person’s foolishness is a bit much to bear, usually something startling and worthy of repeating will result. Situations often revolve around an inexplicable arrival into town or a sudden departure out of town. There’s also the classic, eyebrow-raising new relationships which no one saw coming (or, just as effectively, which everybody was expecting to happen). The craziest and most banter-inducing bit of foolishness is, naturally, someone’s foolish action that has life or death consequences. Either of these life-altering outcomes becomes us all in some way when you live in a small town. Peoples’ antics are more than simply a product of them playing practical jokes to pass the time. Apart from the good natured havin’-a-laugh type, the way people get on can have potentially life altering effects. It’s one thing to participate in a short lived drama, but it is another when you become an outcast in an isolated place. God forbid you step on the wrong toes: it could be your doom. Speaking out of turn or threatening an archaic system often seems more highly regarded than telling the truth.

Let’s look at education, for example. There are schools all over Canada that produce hundreds if not thousands of ill-prepared graduates each year, both from rural communities and urban centers alike. It is outrageous that the public is okay with this, sitting idly by, saying things like, ‘Well, you’re not allowed to fail a student these days,’ or, ‘You wouldn’t dare go up against a parent!’ As an educator, I must say the passé attitude people are having about the preparation of our future leaders is disconcerting and, to put it not so nicely, quite “foolish.” The antics of public schooling at large is nothing to laugh off; it’s an issue that needs to be brought to light. Where are the education authorities and what does anyone outside of the classroom really know about what goes on inside? People are too worried about playing nice and not hurting feelings in rural areas that they forget what the students need, which is an authentic education that reflects the realities of students in all of their unique parts of the country. It would be worth people’s while to follow their kids to school occasionally. Speaking from bias, I think the teaching profession is one of the hardest and most rewarding careers out there, but the behaviour and not holding people accountable is one of those things that cannot be justified by it merely being the norm. Some antics require a pure dose of serious exposure.

Then there are the amusing antics of our families and friends. In rural areas, whether you are biologically family or not, you become related by circumstances of isolation. As a result, you end up on an inside track that would otherwise not be accessible. Some individuals surprise you and are quick to dispel regional stereotypes while others live up to their reputation. You end up hearing all about – and witnessing – the breakdowns between families and couples. You might even get dragged into it. You hear about petty jealousies and fall victim to insecurities that follow people to work and into their social scene. You start viewing neighbors as family members and sometimes treat them much the same way. Everyone shares food and getting invited out always feels good, especially if there are only one or two other mediocre eateries available. There’s an individual need for recognition and for a sense of belonging that is essential to survival in these small places.

Best of all, everyone thinks they know something that no one else has heard yet. Small towns are charmingly unique in this, and yet it can create a convoluted sense of space and possession when you become too sheltered. Meeting a new town is like growing a child for the first time: you think you need to know it all, but there is really nothing that can prepare you for the headstrong personalities, or unexpected behaviours that are quick to follow. The antics of kids, and particularly their litany of bold and say-it-like-it-is expressions, can usually make you laugh or cry. And as long as it is honest and harmless, we can usually smile afterwards. Maybe this could be our new mandate for trouble-free living. Especially when dealing with the antics of others.

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