RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen



If you work on issues that require public attention, whether they're related to the environment, minorities or education, sooner or later somebody is going to suggest that you -- that's right, YOU -- set up an information table someplace, with the idea of educating passersby.

So you set up the how-to-save-energy booth, say, at the Earth Day event and everyone welcomes you, adds a comment to your sign-up sheet, and you go home with a whole new list of connections. It's a party!

But try tabling on the edge. Take labor rights to the Chamber of Commerce event or anti-sprawl information to the developers' meeting and you'll know how it feels to be marginalized.

The local chapter of the Women's International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF) tables once a month at our high schools. The military is there every week with handsome recruiters, slick magazines, cool videos.

Attention from the military puts pressure on high schoolers, who are, after all, just a few years out of elementary school and trying so hard to become grown-ups. The kids believe they need education, but they don't know how to pay for it. They know they will soon be on their own, but how?

Keeping up with high school culture is stressful enough. Miss a movie or a new song and you're a total dork. The latest trend in our local high school? This fall, it's wearing fluffy slippers all day long. It would be mortifying to show up in last year's goth look -- capes, black fingernail polish, stiletto heels and motorcycle boots.

So here comes the military: standardized, athletic and groomed young people just a few years out of high school themselves, setting up shop in the cafeteria. Recruiters behave like big brothers, offering sure-thing success. In their snappy uniforms, with their important-looking briefcases, they're friendly proof that life has a place for even the most awkward and confused.

The recruiters joke and tease, then offer forms to fill out. "Last name first" is a comforting instruction to a kid who has spent a lifetime filling out forms.

Peace advocates have no forms to fill out or glossy brochures. In contrast to the structure of military life, which may seem like a comforting extension of the structure of school, graduating and getting a job to save money for college or trade school sounds like tightrope walking without a net.

But, still, WILPF, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Veterans for Peace and other peace groups set up their tables and hope that somebody stops, picks up the photocopies and even talks to them.

The kids sidle past, looking at the table out of the corners of their eyes. One tubby kid approaches, picks up a brochure and shyly reads a headline. It says something about being trained to kill.

The tabler starts to talk, knowing that she may be the first person the kid has ever heard talking about peace. It's a bold mission. She wants to say that even with no resources, no sports, hobbies or girlfriend, the kid can go into the uncharted territory of adulthood, and find a community that thrives on sustainability and trust. She wants to talk about the amazing potential of a life just out of high school -- forty or fifty years to bravely live your ideals.

She knows you can live your beliefs, because she's done it herself. And she knows others who have made it under the most unlikely circumstances. They own bike shops and work in bakeries, do landscaping, plumbing and house painting. They have been to college -- or not. But all she can think of to say is, "Help yourself to any of these articles. We're here to help you get information."

The tabler can't be too eager, too insistent. The recruiters can push and even intimidate, but her approach is different. She channels Jane Addams and Rosa Parks and tries to be a presence, not a force. She's not offering the kid a plan. She's offering a non-plan. And that, for a teenager, is scary.

Her own kids are close to the age of this one, or maybe a little older or younger. Her own kids have advantages, and she thinks she can keep them safe. But this one? Standing here in the hallway, sun streaming in through the tall windows, he seems so fragile.

He looks at the brochure and takes a deep breath. He smiles proudly. "I'm already in the military," he says. "I joined last year. If I can make the world a little safer, so that people can sleep a little easier, I'll go anywhere. After graduation."

In her head, she hears the doors slamming on this one's future. Ten years from now -- dead? Wheelchair-bound? Homeless?

What to say? "God bless you" leaps into her mind, but this conversation has no room for God. God has been too-often invoked, abused. Still, she has no desire to shred the kid's dignity or his hope. He'll need them both.

"Well," she says, "I wish you well."

And she means it.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Dec. 15, 2005

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