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Jessie Veeder, Published April 27 2013

Coming Home: Warm welcome to new children of our state

I was 9 years old, and the mid-morning sun was beating down on the scoria road, turning the pink rocks to dust as my legs sent my bicycle tires spinning up the steep hill toward the mile of dirt, pavement and cow plops that separated me from my best friend.

It was a typical summer day, and we had typical summer plans: ride our bikes on the pavement between the two cattle guards as the queen of hearts buzzed across the spokes of our tires and we zoomed along with no hands, moving aside for the neighbor’s pickup, yelling at the cows to get off our road, laughing free and safe up there between the straight lines of barbed wire fences and the boundaries of the familiar.

This memory is one of my most proverbial, and I count on it to roll to the surface of my thoughts, ready and waiting when I need a reminder of what it feels like to be 9 years old with a bike and a best friend, the only two things I thought I needed.

And so I found that faithful memory again as I stood before an audience of 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds from Boomtowns across western North Dakota.

They were looking at me, waiting for me to tell them what it’s like to go from riding that bike with the playing card in the spokes to standing before them as a grown up who’s supposed to have most things figured out.

But my story, the one I know by heart, is not their story, and I was quickly reminded of this when I asked who among them had moved to North Dakota the past two years.

In a room of almost 800 children, almost half of them raised their hands.

I was momentarily intimidated, paralyzed by the sight and what that number meant, not just for the community, but for each child.

It means almost 400 children in that auditorium have found themselves in a new and unfamiliar place trying to learn about the pilgrims, fractions and what 20 degrees below zero really feels like while navigating new sidewalks and trying to make new friends.

It means that my memory of freedom, safety and certainty is not what every child gets at

9 years old.

And it means that we have a responsibility as a community straining under the pressure and excitement of a bursting-at-the-seams economy to welcome these children, show them to their desks and then to where they can sled in the endless winter and swim in the fleeting summer.

And so I said the only thing I could think appropriate at the moment.

“Welcome to North Dakota!” and we gave each other a round of applause.

Because we’re quite lucky aren’t we? See, these children were gathered with their teachers in that auditorium to share their ideas and inventions, and I was standing before them to celebrate the end of a long and exciting day.

And they had much to celebrate. I took the time to browse their business ideas and inventions and found that among the tandem scooter, the duct tape jewelry and the floating pingpong table were some real solutions to real issues these kids see in Boomtown every day.

Solutions like the double-decker camper made to provide a more spacious option for temporary housing, the “Under Boot,” designed as an easy way to keep mud off the floors of business and homes and a Taekwondo class to give kids an outlet and an alternative extracurricular activity in the community.

These kids are brilliant. They’re full of energy and ideas that come from the comfort of the backyard where they’re growing up and the unfamiliar road they traveled to get here.

Yes, I’ve always believed I was lucky to have North Dakota, a place that held me close as I flew down that empty highway and thought about how I might change the world.

But today, North Dakota, I believe we’re lucky to have these children and a chance to do right by them so that they too might call this home and we might call them our own.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.