The American Playground
Maine villages have their own brand of diversity.
One thing you have to say about raising a family in Maine — getting beyond the usual issues like schools and safety and small-town-versus-suburbs — is that your kids grow up with a wildly diversified peer group. Or to put this less diplomatically, they get to know some truly oddball characters, whose homes and families and general thought-worlds are far removed from your own. [For the rest of this story, see the September 2008 issue of Down East.]
Parents don’t expect this, often. They come here generally, I think, with the vague, somewhat dreamy notion that their kids will grow up at a safe remove from the rampant materialism and drugs and STDs and other ills that blight the suburban landscape of twenty-first-century America. True enough, as far as it goes. But you can’t conclude from this that your kids’ lives in Maine are going to be, in consequence, simple or innocent or idyllic. What you’re really doing is trading one complex social milieu for another.
Think about it. In a place like the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia, where my older son grew up, the community was populous and variegated, schools were crowded, there were kids from every imaginable cultural and ethnic background, and as a paradoxical result, my son’s friends were all pretty much alike. There must be some anthropological principle at work here: given a dense and confusing social environment, children (and perhaps even more so, their parents) will tend to seek out the familiar, the unthreatening, which often means a close reflection of oneself.
In small-town Maine, that usually isn’t an option. There just aren’t enough kids in the local schoolyard to allow for stratification along cultural or economic lines. Your kids will take their friends where they find them. And on balance, that’s an excellent thing.
My younger son, now fifteen, has grown up in a midcoast Maine town of two thousand, and more particularly in the village center with a population of maybe a couple hundred. In second grade, he became best friends with a little boy who lived up the block. The canonical version of this story holds that they started off as mortal enemies, waging daily battles at recess in which neither was able to conclusively destroy the other, until inevitably they bonded over their numerous visits to the principal’s office. For the next several years they were inseparable.
Now, it’s safe to say that before they began wandering into each other’s homes, eating dinner in whichever place they happened to find themselves, these two little guys had zero things in common, apart from being eight-year-old boys. Their families, for starters, are archetypally mismatched. The best friend’s folks are solid working-class Maine stock, politically and religiously conservative, living in an old house passed down by relatives. We, in contrast, are the quintessential people from away: artsy, ultra-liberal, with a dash of the unconventional in our lifestyles. Our respective households reflect this in everything from tunes on the radio to food in the fridge. In an orderly — i.e., suburban — environment, we would never have met. We would probably not much approve of people like that, and our kids would sense this, absorbing it into their worldview. The possibility that, through our children, we might become close friends, regular attendees at the other family’s rituals, surely would never occur to us.
Welcome to Maine, folks. Where the assortment of waist-high characters traipsing through your kitchen — and the personal dramas and back-stories trailing behind them — will make the average soap opera look like pretty insipid stuff. Where a five-minute drive to drop off your kid at some school acquaintance’s birthday party can be a plunge into the socioeconomic twilight zone. Where you live cheek-by-jowl with people to whom you are as alien as a little green dude with twitchy antennae — but who, because of your mutual offspring, and the general dynamics of small-town life, are more or less obliged to get along with you.
It’s a cool thing, as long as you choose to see it that way. Not all parents do. The urge to shelter our kids runs pretty deep. We move here in part because, in some blurry fashion, we want our children to lead more authentic, more grounded lives. But we shrink from a certain kind of authenticity, an unvarnished naturalism of the strictly human sort. Fortunately our kids tend not to be so fussy, and the Great American Playground still exerts its time-honored democratizing influence, here perhaps more than most places. Embrace it, I say. And keep the fridge stocked.
- By: Richard Grant