The Small Pond Talk

Last Thursday a colleague asked me to give a talk to his Public Speaking class about serving on Lamar Town Council, working as a teacher, and how I balance the two.  Below is the written version of that talk, which is adapted in part from my post “Small Pond” (read the full version on SubscribeStar).

Mr. S— asked me to speak to you today about teaching, serving on the Lamar Town Council, and generally about balancing various responsibilities.  At times, it is more like juggling chainsaws and hoping I do not drop one of them, but keeping a good calendar really helps.

I grew up in Aiken, South Carolina, and am the middle of three brothers.  I attended Aiken High School, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Tennessee, where I earned a Master’s degree in US History.

My family is very important to me.  My father worked for the City of Aiken for thirty-seven years, starting out as a water meter reader, and slowly working his way up to Assistant Public Works Director and, ultimately, the Human Resources Director.  He read meters while attending school full-time at night and raising my very ornery older brother.  My mother was also taking classes and working, though by the time I came along things were getting a bit better financially.  My parents’ hard work and penny-pinching really shaped me into the man I am today, and taught me the value of education and a good work ethic.

I am still very close to my brothers and my parents.  My younger brother has three beautiful children, my niece and nephews, and being their uncle is my proudest accomplishment.

That is a little about me.  In this talk, I want to draw on a common theme, what I think of as the “small pond.”  I have largely spent my life in small ponds, which has afforded me many opportunities that would not be possible in “big ponds.”

In my life,  I have learned that the small pond—the small school, the small town, the small institution, the small business, etc.—is, while often overlooked or derided, a very nice place to be.  The small pond is where opportunity exists.  I have made a good life for myself being, perhaps, the First Among Mediocrities, the one willing to toss his hat into the ring.  That has made all the difference.

In looking back on my thirty-six years, I have enjoyed opportunities that would otherwise be quite rare if I were in a larger setting.  My recent run for Lamar Town Council is a good illustration of this fact:  as a relative newcomer to Lamar, I won an election (after losing my first time out) without doing very much campaigning at all, simply because I was willing to show up.  I put myself out there, and my neighbors responded.  All it took was talking to some folks and having the drive to serve.

Serving on Council has been an interesting experience so far.  Someone once told me that teaching takes up as much time as you give it, and I have found Council works the same way.  Teaching full-time, I try to dedicate part of my evenings to conducting Council business, but I also try not to stress out about things I cannot attend.

Working in a small town comes with many strains.  We are financially strapped, and have to purchase our water from Darlington County because our local water has trace amounts of radium.  Apparently, drinking town water every day for a year is the equivalent to the amount in a single chest X-Ray, but spread out over 365 days.  That is too much according to the Environmental Protection Agency, so DHEC will not allow us to sell our water until we dig new wells and build a new water treatment facility.

Ironically, the very federal regulations that shut off our water and deprive the town of its primary source of revenue also make it possible for us to apply for grant funding to fix what is, essentially, a non-existent problem.  Unfortunately, many top-dollar grants require matching funds, which we lack.  Raising millage on property taxes is a possible approach, but that will—at best—only yield a few extra thousand dollars a year while also ticking off residents.

We are also facing a severe shortage of law enforcement officers.  The Mayor assigned me to work with our Chief of Police, so he and I speak a few times a week about the police department’s needs, or sometimes just to vent—he is one of two full-time officers on our force, so he is very overworked.  We are in the process of hiring more officers, but we cannot afford to pay our officers as well as neighboring communities—even Timmonsville pays its officers more.

Otherwise, I liken serving on Council to being the neighbor of everyone in town:  if someone has an issue or needs help, I am a potential source of information.  For example, I helped my elderly neighbor find where he could get a COVID vaccine.  A local pastor called me once because his drainage ditch was overflowing (it had been raining for a week straight), and I called our water and sewage expert with Public Works, who checked on it the following morning.  Mostly, serving on Council consists of dealing with these kinds of mundane—but important—everyday problems.

For the most part, though, balancing Council duties has been manageable.  Like most things, it comes in waves—I might have nothing Council-related to attend to for a week or two, then everything comes up at once, especially when our monthly meeting approaches.

When it comes to teaching, my entire career as a music teacher is happenstance.  I have always loved music—playing it, composing it, arranging it, talking about it, writing about it—but I lacked the passion and focus as a younger man to truly pursue music as a career.  That is a very tough road, and I did not even seriously consider a degree in music education.

Then I returned to [our school] in 2011, to teach history and music.  The school at that point had no music to speak of; when I taught here for the 2008-2009 academic year, there had been no music, either, other than the Music Club I created for students to play after-school.  I was a bad pianist (I am still only a mediocre one, at best), did not know how to play bass, and just assumed that learning to play guitar would be an impossibility for me at the then-age of twenty-six.

Out of sheer necessity, I honed my piano playing, learning increasingly difficult riffs, chord formations, and the like, so that I could accompany student singers at the annual South Carolina Independent School Association (SCISA) Music Festival.  Now I am—without a music education degree, or even a minor in music—an essentially full-time music teacher, with multiple students for private lessons.  In effect, Music has become my life, how I earn my keep.

That was inconceivable to me ten years ago, and would have been impossible at a larger institution.  When I started at [our school], we had no Music program and only 100 students; the entire program was mine to create and mold.  Far better musicians would kill for that opportunity and God plopped it into my lap in 2011.

These are just some small examples.  My point:  being available, sharing your gifts and talents, being willing to put yourself out there—these go a long way.  In a small pond, even with mediocre talents, you can make yourself a big fish.

One coda:  God deserves the credit for all of these small victories.  He gifted me with my musical abilities and my driven-but-amenable personality.  My parents have also been huge supporters, helping me buy a house and putting me through college before that.

Thank you for your time, and to Mr. S— for the opportunity to speak to you today.

To God be the glory!

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