I had returned to Oklahoma after several months on special assignment to Alaska to discover that Bumpy wasn’t Bumpy anymore–he was Gary. Of course, he was always Gary, but like many folks around town, he was known by his nickname. There was PJ, the mayor, and Tub, his right hand man, and the old man Doc, who worked closest with Gary.
But sometime while I was gone, Bumpy began to let it be known that he wasn’t Bumpy any more, he was Gary. He no longer wanted to be primarily referred to as the youngest in a line of brothers (and therefore subject to the last of a series of bumps on the head). That time was over, he was his own man now, and his name was, as it had always really been, Gary.
I’d like to say that this transformation, like many others I had witnessed over the course of the community work here, was a direct and positive outcome of the project. But I really can’t. There had been no tactics or strategies with the goal of people changing their public names. You cannot do this work with any integrity without acknowledging and honoring the miracles, large and small, that set the stage for new and unexpected decisions folks make about what they will do and won’t do or put up with any more.
I understand Gary subsequently quit his job to work in a neighboring town. He’d been my best friend and local guide over the two years of the project and taught me about digging up and clearing collapsed sewer lines, repairing broken water pipes in the crawl space under the house (“dresser coupling” remains part of my working vocabulary) and wrapping them with tape to prevent them from freezing again. There had even been several conversations about settling down with a local gal. This was because Gary knew everyone in town and knew that I really, really did not.
But Gary, along with several of the other folks I worked with most closely, had been among the less visible residents of the community. They rarely appeared on the list of potential movers and shakers; yet they just continued to show up and get things done. Often they were the first to see what had to be done and would just as often simply go ahead and to it. Meetings were never high on their lists for problem-solving.
We all understand at some level that people are never, ever, ever only the roles they have played in the past or the roles they happen to play now. And yet the ability of people to freely engage in and grow in a role, and then shift as the need arises is perhaps the “quantum leap” that energizes genuine community revitalization. Like the math teacher who became the new mayor of the town, and Bumpy, who returned to becoming Gary with his own destiny.