As I buckled my seat belt on the flight to Montana for a storytelling workshop, my seat mate introduced herself as Shelby heading home to small-town Montana for vacation from study abroad. I snapped shut my guidebook, turned to her and asked, “Study abroad? Where?”
“North Carolina,” she said.
When I shared that anecdote the next day with workshop participants—many looking mighty skeptical about storytelling —they roared and nodded, indeed that would be abroad. It was a moment of cultural bonding, of sharing a common context—of belonging—they recognized Shelby; they recognized themselves. They connected through her story. And they began to connect with me, a newcomer.
All in that moment.
But the story didn’t end there.
I asked if she was looking forward to going back home.
She smiled as though it was a crazy question. Oh yes! I love my home town.
What do you love about it? I asked.
Oh, our beautiful ranch, she said without hesitation. And the people—everyone is so close. And the town—we have a movie theater that sells hot pizza!
When I asked for a favorite moment, she told of early spring calf branding, how no matter what, the whole town stopped everything to pitch in: cooking, herding, branding, down to the high school boys—whether they lived a ranch life or not— wrestling the calves. Ranch people, townspeople, every people showed up to work and eat together, to laugh and swap news.
Then she stopped smiling. But it’s changing so fast. Even in the time I’ve been in college, things have changed. The boys no longer want to help out. Kids aren’t as connected to this place—they’re heading to the cities and even out of state. They’re leaving.
She shook her head.
Do you want to go home after college? I asked.
Oh yes. But I won’t. I’m training to be a schoolteacher, but I’ll have to go to a bigger place. No jobs at home.
What would change things, make the future brighter in your town?
Wow, no one has ever asked me that.
Well, we need more job opportunities, sure. But we also need to feel that our town is special, as special as anywhere else. Instead of everyone on phones and computers, we could do things together and talk about what we want to save.
Like our movie theater or our ranching life.
Shelby dared imagine a different future and even in that plane ride was plotting possibilities. But no one in her own community had ever asked for her story.
As we left the plane, she reached out to shake my hand. Thank you, she said. Thank you for asking. I have a lot to think about now.
Imagine what could happen if youth and elders shared and collected and discussed stories about what they celebrate about their community— past and present— and what no longer works or has never worked, and most importantly, what they envision and need for the future?
Shelby and her community.
You and yours.
Final photo sent to bg by Shelby, the rest by Barbara Ganley.