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Things I Learned Growing up in a Small Town

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

Eva enjoying small town life Julian, Ca with a "Make in America" shirt on.
This photo is copyright of Jennifer Gutierrez. © 2019 - 2022 by Jennifer Gutierrez.

Growing up in a small town has its pros and cons. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses. This lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and that is okay. I struggled for many years before I discovered my authentic self and my place in the community. Despite the trials and tribulations, my small-town upbringing has taught me many valuable lessons. I often say, “What you put into the community is what you get out of it.” I have always believed that this community has helped me become who I am today. I am mountain made. (Pun totally intended.) Today, I want to share some of those lessons with you.

What you can and can’t get away with

One of the first things I learned as a child is what I could and couldn’t get away with. Not only are small towns notorious for town gossip, someone is always watching. Time and time again, I watched my peers try to get away with some rebellious act without getting caught. For example, one time a group of high schoolers ditched school to eat lunch at a local restaurant. The school clerk caught them when she walked in to pick up her lunch. Their failures taught me that doing something stupid wasn’t worth the consequences. Have pride in yourself. I don’t say something unless I am willing and able to back it up. You will receive pushback so you have to be ready to stand by your words or actions. If you don’t want the whole town talking about you, don’t give them something to talk about. Most importantly, when you do something wrong, there's no hiding it. Make your wrongs right by taking responsibility for your actions.

How to get along with people you disagree with

While I haven't completely masted this skill it is too important to leave off. Whether it’s kids at school or your bossy neighbor, in a small town, you have to learn to live with people you don’t necessarily like. Avoidance is not an option. It’s Murphy's law. You will cross paths with the one person you care not to see. The majority of us get our mail at the post office. If you don’t run into them in the post office, they will be at a community event. You already live in a small town, don't make it smaller by hiding out to avoid someone.

One thing that is overlooked, is how feuds are felt by the whole community. A big part of our culture is being a close-knit community and feuds get in the way of this. Everyone is related or best friends. Feuds put third parties in a difficult position. Sometimes it can feel like walking on thin ice while trying to remain friends with both parties in a dispute. You love them both, but inevitably one or more of the following drags you into the mess. A friend may make a negative comment about the other that makes you feel award. The tension can be felt. Socialization becomes challenging when trying to decide who to invite among the fears that one side will get an impression of favoritism. Consciously or unconsciously jealousy and competition are involved. Not to mention how much drama feuds add to the small-town rumor mill. Topped off with a game of hind and go seek around town while trying to avoid paths crossing. The bottom line is no matter how much you try to keep non affected people out of a feud, it is felt by everyone in a variety of ways. It’s all an unnecessary headache that only hurts more people. So please work things out for the sake of the community.

Giving Back Is Good for Your Soul

In small towns, especially in Julian, people show up for each other. Being a close-knit community means that everyone feels the trials and tribulations community members are going through. My community has survived multiple natural disasters, traumatic losses, and a whole host of challenging times. We get through these hard times because we come together to lend a hand. Whether it’s raising money for someone's medical treatment, giving to fill a need, or stopping to put on a spare tire for a neighbor, we do it. Small towns teach what the word "community" really means. Growing up in such a caring culture made giving second nature to me. As a young adolescent, I was really struggling to find myself. My parents pushed me to get involved in our local volunteer fire department. Almost immediately I found more confidence in myself, and the volunteer work I was doing brought new purpose into my life.

How to stand up for something you believe

In communities with smaller populations, the impacts of political decisions are felt on a more personal level. A tax increase or a school budget cut is directly felt by community members. I will never forget the morning after three of my eleven teachers received pink slips. Fortunately, local public officials are accessible. I mean like a school board member is your best friend's mom, and the local fire chief is your neighbor. This also means that it is easier to get elected to a local public office with a grassroots campaign. Throughout my childhood, I had the opportunity to participate in controversies like the battle to reopen Jess Martin Park and the battle to keep local control over fire protection. If my parents weren’t hosting the meetings at our house, they and my friends’ parents took their kids to local meetings. As early as fourth grade, I was writing letters to the editor. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, I spoke at numerous local meetings on a variety of issues. At the age of nineteen, I was elected to the Julian Cuyamaca Fire Protection Board of Directors. Needless to say, over my short lifetime, I have learned how to stand up for what I believe in.

Work ethic

In the early days, my parents taught my siblings and me a work ethic through chores like the never-ending yard work and volunteering throughout the community. One by one, as we reached our teenage years, my siblings and peers learned a true work ethic by taking a service-based job during the busy tourism season (aka Apple Days) at a local business. There’s nothing quite as intense as serving thousands of hungry visitors for an eight- to twelve-hour shift and doing so every day for five months. Did I mention the pay is minimum wage? Now that’s how we teach our youth a true work ethic.

How to entertain yourself

Living in a town with the closest mall, movie theater, theme park, or you-name-it over an hour away, entertainment was a luxury. (Side note: the internet wasn’t ubiquitous when I was a kid, but for the record, it is very unreliable in the mountains.) As kids, we spent hours outside, using our imaginations to turn our backyards into any place we could dream of. We rode bikes, built forts, and learned to hunt, and I built any toy I wished for out of cardboard. It’s crazy to think we did all of this self-education and entertainment without the internet to teach us. Still to this day, I don’t watch much TV. Maybe that’s why I have so much time to blog.

To be well-rounded

When there are only thirty students in your class and an entire high school population of 110 students, there aren't enough kids in the school to fill up all the clubs and sports teams. So we made up the difference by double-dipping. Do you want to be on the varsity football team? Just sign up. Wanna be the yearbook editor? The volunteer position is yours. Lead in the school play? Break a leg! Moral of the story is attending a small school in a close-knit community makes you a well-rounded person. Knowing a little bit about a variety of things has come in handy for me more times than I can count. I can understand a variety of people, I have an array of experiences to bring to the table, and self-education is second nature.

To be prepared for anything.

Living a rural lifestyle, surviving multiple natural disasters, keeping myself entertained, and being well-rounded have all taught me to be prepared for anything. When you live twenty-five miles away from the closest chain business, you have to be self-sufficient. This means buying in bulk, keeping an emergency supply on hand, and knowing how to do just about anything yourself. Living in an uncontrolled environment keeps me grounded. It reminds me that a higher power is in control. When things do go awry, I am reminded of the countless blessings I have been given.

Life can be simple—and that’s okay.

The community I live in is very economically diverse. For the most part, we are made up of average Joes just living out a simple life. We really don’t need a big house, a fancy car, and the latest technology. After an hour or two stacking firewood in the cold, when you finally come inside, you really appreciate the fire. Country folk work hard, live within their means, and give back when they can. It’s a simple, old-fashioned way of life but that’s just how we like it.

How to grow where you are planted

It wasn’t until my teenage years—and even more so now in my twenties—that I really started to learn to grow where I was planted. As a young child, I was unaware of the life I would have had if I’d grown up in the city. So I lived the life I knew. In my early teens, being surrounded by peers who lived for the day they could leave made it a real struggle for me to grow where I was planted. Through lots of personal development, college experiences, and travel I was able to write my story and embrace my authentic self. Whether it is a job you hate or the town you are stuck in, we all have to do things that aren’t ideal. Being able to persevere will help get you to where you want to be. I acknowledge that small-town life isn’t for everyone. It is for me, though, and I am creating a path that allows me to live this lifestyle.


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