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History

Agriculture.com Staff 02/03/2010 @ 8:40am

The problem with being at a dinner party with some people you know a little, and some other people you've known your whole life is that you don’t have any chance of editing your own history.

"Hey Brent," someone will say, "tell the story about the time you shot yourself. I love that story."

Sigh.

There goes my chance to make a good impression.

It's a lot easier being around people who don't know every stupid thing you've done for the last half century.

When I was in college, I met a girl who came from a small town not very far from mine. She was tall and gangly, with a mop of blonde hair and a mildly puzzled expression on her face. She went by the name of "Margo."

She always made me smile, because I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she'd spent the first 18 years of her life as a "Margaret" or "Margie." Now, those are two fine names, but they were not names that fit the picture she had in her head of who she was. But, come the first September after she graduated from high school, she boarded a Greyhound bus as Marge and got off it four hours later as Margo. And good for her.

I've always thought that was one of the coolest things about America. When my great-grandfather left Norway, he was a nobody. His family had lived in the same small town for hundreds of years and never accumulated anything of any real value. He was a tanner's apprentice, perhaps the lowest status job available. His wife's family had some land and some standing, but it must not have rubbed off on him, because pretty soon he was on a boat with his pregnant wife, headed for the prairie, where he spent the first winter in his new country shoveling snow off railroad tracks in order to put food on the table.

The following spring, they headed across the prairie and found a little patch of land no one else wanted. They were surrounded by neighbors just as new and raw -- the longest standing residents in the county had been there about 5 years.

Almost before he could speak English, he was on a school board -- because kids need to go to school -- and shortly after that he was elected to a township board. A few decades later, when he and his wife were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, the local newspaper interviewed him. He gave some thoughtful comments about the future of agriculture and the editor put their picture on the front page, calling them pioneers.

He'd made himself over, changing from the lowest form of hired labor to a man of respect in the community. You can do that when you're allowed to reinvent yourself, when you can look in the mirror and decide to change what you see.

We don't let that happen often enough. As a kid grows up, we like to stick them in the same slot their parents were in; we trust or distrust them based upon what their granddaddy did. That's probably a mistake. We should let people be whoever they want to be, even if their choice changes every now and then.

And we can let the story about shooting myself go. Nobody wants to hear that anymore.

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