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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Paradise and Paradise Lost

As Published in the Record Journal Sunday May 30, 2010

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By John Bau

I’m John Bau. I have a daughter at Dag Hammarskjold Middle School, a son at Moses Y. Beach Elementary School, and another who will be at MYB in just a few years. I’m not originally from Wallingford, but I got here just as quickly as I could.

Over the past several months, I’ve uttered these words— or something similar — as I’ve stood up to speak at countless meetings, forums, and ‘focus groups’ as Wallingford has examined the reconfiguration of its eight elementary schools. I always thought it provided a good, quick synopsis of the origins of my point of view. I’m a dad who loves his family and is proud to have chosen Wallingford as his home. I grew up in a 1970s development of cookie-cutter homes in Virginia. When I bought my first home in North Carolina after college, I chose a brand-new house in a neighborhood of cookie-cutter homes. I figured, isn’t that how everyone lives in our modern society?

When I took a job that moved me to Connecticut in 2001, I was charmed by the state’s ancient hamlets anchored by historic neighborhoods clustered around storied town greens or quaint central business districts. Having a lifelong love affair with our great nation, its history, and even two summers under my belt leading tourists through military drills as a “sergeant” in Colonial Williamsburg, I believed that towns like Guilford or Chester only survived in the movies. When I saw the home prices in those towns, I learned that I needed to be a movie star to afford to live there.

Then I found Wallingford.

Founded in 1670(!), Wallingford featured a recently-revitalized downtown with shops, restaurants, Victorian streetlights, and more. It was comparatively affordable and — miracle! — I was able to scrape together enough to buy a small, charming (if rundown) home tucked in between the public library and the elementary school right on Main Street. Who knew that places like this still existed?

I worked hard on that house and it became a little gem. We could walk to the school, walk to shops, and generally live a life that was otherwise consigned to textbooks and storybooks.

When life changes forced me to sell that home, I settled on a ramshackle house one block off Main Street. I was still downtown, and my children would not have to change schools; they could continue to walk to Moses Y. Beach, to church, to the YMCA. This new neighborhood was not quite as polished as Main Street, but is still a place where folks — rather than hunkering down on private backyard decks behind tall vinyl fences — sit on their front porches and talk to each other, chat with passersby, and generally engage with their community. Wallingford as Mayberry, if you will. And my family gets to live here.


The reconfiguration of Wallingford’s eight community based elementary schools into four pairs of K-2, 3-5 partner schools is not a patently bad idea. It helps to ease some of the disparities in class sizes that our town’s ridiculous and ridiculously-outdated school districts have long assured. Like middle schools, high schools, and industrial monoculture farming, it allows for certain efficiencies and economies of scale that arise when you conduct more of any single process — be it fifth grade or growing soybeans — in one place. It lets my seven-year-old ride a bus to school instead of a bicycle. It might even save our town $199,149. I get it. I really, really do. I shall embrace it and support my children and their schools because I’m a dad and that’s my job. Reconfiguration is good.

But in the process, it takes one more swipe at a fabled way of life in our proud nation. And it takes one more step toward making Wallingford into just another suburban zip code.

Paradise lost, anyone?

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