I met a few of my former students for pizza last week so that I could catch up on the latest college roommate soap operas and get a sense of what their lives are like outside the four walls of high school. Two students from the University of Minnesota told of how they attempted to follow some of my sage advice but got a bit more than they had bargained for. I encouraged them, as I do all my senior students, to play “bulletin board bingo” when they get out into the big bad world of work or college. This practice involves visiting a community bulletin board at least once a month and trying some of the advertised fare. It could be a concert, a play, a lecture, an art exhibit, or a foreign film – something they might not typically do without some prodding. Well, these two tried it by attending a dance recital that they described as a “bit too modern.” Translation: there were some naked folks on stage. That’s the thing with bulletin boards, I reminded them. Not everything will appeal to you every time.

Some of the other alumni talked up their latest favorite films from The X Men to Waiting for Guffman, or shared their concerns about how long their current major will require them to stay in school. Rebecca, who attends Rochester University in New York, turned the conversation into a sociological commentary. She was dismayed that the stereotype of Easterners being rough, rude and abrasive was being played out all too accurately in her experience. She didn’t want it to be the case that Midwesterners were nicer than East Coast folks, but it seemed to be true.

As I think about it, I don’t believe that distinction is all that easy to make. In fact, I think that we’re all becoming more rough, rude and abrasive. It makes sense to me, as one who needs to do deep breathing exercises before entering a mall or a movie theater or any other venue where I need to go out among the masses. I get ornery when it seems that too many people are wedged into too little space. And isn’t that where many of us find ourselves lately, in what the experts call “suburban sprawl?” It’s like one big county fair, where you’re sweaty and sticky and dusty, and you’re rubbing up against people who have cotton candy stuck in their hair and crusty barbecue sauce cracking on their lips. Kids step on your toes as they try to out-yell the carnies over the calliope music, and then that din gets squelched because it’s time to rev up the engines for the demolition derby. In situations like these it takes effort to get along and to be nice. And as the track housing and strip malls of suburban sprawl become our modus operandi, it’s tougher and tougher to be neighborly.

Now, I’ve left the noise and haste for the open spaces, so I can breathe easier. However, recalling my days in the city and suburbs, I noticed what I believed to be an increase in the number of fences – both the tangible kind with posts in the ground, and the intangible kind which reside in our psyche. It seems that, as the people multiply and the space runs out, the fences go up. This is particularly the case in suburbia, where people have tried to get away from the harsh concrete in order to lay claim to a bit of green terrain (rural folks don’t seem as concerned because they have space to spare, and city folks appear to have resigned themselves to the fact that they will be in close proximity to others all the time). But as those fences are erected, we can become a nation of “no longer neighbors.” In his poem, Mending Wall, Robert Frost cites the old adage, “good fences make good neighbors,” which suggests that such barriers would reduce friction among neighbors. What they do, however, is reduce interaction among neighbors. While many may wish to retain that 1950s image of neighbors leaning over their fences to chat, today’s yards are sectioned off by fences that are far from chat-friendly. They’re either chain link fences with those nasty, sharp twists on top, which nobody would care to lean on, or they’re 6-foot “privacy” fences that are so darn effective they could keep the neighbor’s barbecue smoke out.

Moreover, today’s new developments have more fences than sidewalks. The developers believe that people who are getting smaller lawns do not want a 4-foot strip of concrete running through them, so they sacrifice cement for sod. What does this mean for our neighborhoods? It means that we’ve got our places all plotted out and fenced in, but we won’t be taking an evening stroll off of our compound, for that means we’d have to walk in the street. Hence, we don’t go out as much, and we don’t see the neighbors as much. We can hop in our car to shuttle the kids to their soccer game, or we can log on to the web and chat with a “neighbor” in Germany, but we can’t walk three doors down to do the same. So, how we design our space has a significant impact on how we interact. And sidewalks that bridge our space are giving way to fences that divide it.

Fences are designed for containment or protection. As a character in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Fences, states, “Some people build fences to keep people out. Others build ‘em to keep people in.” They serve myriad functions, of which some are practical. They hold in the horses or keep the canine contained. They make swimming pools safer, or stop a foul ball. They redirect the snowdrifts or the golf carts.

But fences can take other forms and operate in more subtle, sometimes detrimental, ways. They can be psychological lines in the sand. They can be the Mighty Mississippi telling us whose side is whose, or the desks in my classroom giving both student and teacher the excuse for not getting too close, or providing safe haven from the challenge of breaking through intellectual boundaries. They can be the political re-drawing of voting districts or the magic marker lines on the realtor’s map highlighting the good school districts. Sometimes words can be fences, erected tall and complex so that only a select few can understand, or strung out like a long, slow freight train, coming one after another so that people are left at the crossing, unable to get a word in edgewise. Sometimes fences are those lines of demarcation running through town between the haves and the have nots – the right side and the wrong side of the tracks. Sometimes people refuse to be fettered by fences any longer, and then a wall in Berlin comes down. Sometimes people want so badly to break through fences that they break themselves instead, whether it’s at a Who concert when I was growing up, or at any international soccer game today.

In the new terrain of the World Wide Web, fences are “firewalls” to keep intruders out, or restricted software to prevent our kids from getting to the bad stuff, much like that toddler gate we put at the basement stairs to prevent the two-year-old’s tumble. Cars can be fences, providing an isolated enclave for bad singing or nose picking, not to mention epithet hurling that rarely occurs on our sidewalks where our fences are down. Some fences are less effective and protective, like the porous line of red-vested movie ushers aimed at keeping our teens out of R-rated movies (just try finding enough fingers to plug that dike).

It’s the mental fences, however, which are the most dangerous and destructive and erode our ability to be neighborly. They’re the ones that tell us I don’t need to get to know her, I don’t want to try that, I don’t care to consider the tough questions, or simply, I can’t or I won’t. I find myself grappling with these frequently in my own daily affairs when I prefer to close up shop rather than to throw open the shutters for some fresh air. My misanthropic tendencies thrust me into a mode of insularity, where I’m comfortable with stasis – my own limited thoughts, my own limited circle of friends, my own limited experience, my own space. Stasis is safe. And when the world gets complicated and intimidating and moves too fast, safety is appealing.

A while back I wrote a poem (included below) that captures the perspective of one who feels embattled by the world’s toughness and needs to erect protective barriers. Some have read its tone as desperate. Others have interpreted it as a celebration of spirit, a courageous struggle of the individual. Either way, it highlights the conditions of our culture that encourage us to erect fences, rather than reach out to our neighbors. The world will only get better, however, when the fences come down.

I Build

I build my wall with your mud,

The soggy filth you slung at me.

I build my wall with your bricks,

The rocky harm you aimed at my head. 

I build my wall high above you,

For you have been elevated so far above me.

I place your rusty barbs on top,

The ones that sliced and poisoned my flesh,

A reminder that you have infested

And infected me.

I build my wall in my head,

In my heart.

A fortress as sturdy as I can.

But you will tear it down

Like a paper wrapper on a Christmas gift.

And you will tear me down again.

And I will build.