Joe Brewer - Cuba, IL

How Rural Identity is Intertwined with Rural History

March 9, 2023 |

Banner image courtesy of the Forgottonia Project

Joe Brewer is a veteran history teacher working in rural Cuba, Illinois. We interviewed him about his experiences doing history with students in this unique region of Illinois, often referred to as “Forgottonia.” Joe is a rural transplant, having grown up just south of Chicago, but he has fallen in love with the rural lifestyle through studying the history of his new home.

Like many others, Joe was inspired to be a teacher by an educator in his own life - his mom, a music teacher. However, his choice to teach rural was deliberate after experiencing it for the first time.

“I’m originally from a more metropolitan area and I got my first job teaching in Cuba in 2007. When I first moved here, I had some kind of culture shock. I saw camo everywhere, I saw cutoff t-shirts. I just hadn't seen stuff like that. Now, I have just fallen in love with this small town, rural lifestyle. Being a teacher in a rural area is just fused with my identity and I love it.”

He points out that the concept of rural identity has changed a lot, and how communities are doing their best to hold onto that identity, especially in the throes of consolidation:

“The school does really represent everything about the community; it's kind of difficult to articulate people. Other tiny towns that have a history of their school closing and consolidating. A lot of schools who share these same problems and same issues are trying to help each other out, but at the same time, it is absolutely heartbreaking for people who have always historically identified with that school. It is the heartbeat of the community; when that school closes down, or those school experiences change, it really is an emotional time.”

“Each community is unique, but also each community shares this collective identity.”

Joe also faces the difficulty of balancing a love of athletics with arts appreciation when the number of participants in extracurricular programs is simply lower.

“I know one of the challenges that I have is how can we also get folks to prioritize and really recognize the importance of those creators, those artists, those musicians, and that's pretty reflective of society. One thing we’ve got to figure out is how we can make it so our students, wherever they grow up, know that these things matter. I grew up on a backstage, and I'm married to an art teacher. I see that labor. I see things you have to do to recruit. You have to fundraise. You have to make your space, and declare ‘this is important,’ and it is exhausting.”

“I went to a bigger school, and Friday night was always important, but man! Down here I would use the word ‘religion.’ I'm definitely troubled by that. I do understand the connection and the place that sports offer, and that does appeal to me as well. But it is challenging to have arts programs because you need numbers, and when you have just 10-12 people, it's kind of tough to sustain.”

As a history teacher, Joe is aware of the challenges of giving students the complete picture in a rural setting where some stories have been generally underrepresented and underappreciated.

“When you're a rural teacher in a place like this, it makes it that much more important that you have kids understand how history has been experienced differently. It's my job to let people know that your experience matters, but let's also think about other lived histories and experiences that counter that. History is not just a subject you can teach; it's something that you can do. How can you do this subject to connect to your community? How can you elevate people's thinking about the community around them, how it's changing, and how it needs to change?”

Nevertheless, Joe was excited to share more information about how living in “Forgottonia” has opened unique opportunities for students to get interested in their community and its past. By working with Western Illinois University in Macomb (which Joe says is the unofficial capital of Forgottonia) and community members, students began a project to document the history of this region.

“Each community is unique, but also each community shares this collective identity. I've really been into rural identity and rural history. How can we do history, and how can I get kids to see that history is a lived experience? I want my students to really get a sense that we're from a unique place, and kind of reject that belief that, ‘I'm from a small town, I must not come from something unique, and nothing special can happen here,’ when the history is really a direct contradiction of that. Right now we're doing a grant project by the NCHE [National Council for History Education]. I had students just ask questions about anything in local history that they're interested in, some things they'd like to learn about.”

“Being a teacher in a rural area is just fused with my identity and I love it.”

One aspect of the history of Forgottonia that has come up a lot during the project is its focus on mining. Students interviewed community members about how important and challenging the strip mining work was, and they realized how much of their current culture is still rooted in mining.

“In a new [sports] co-op that we have, we're now the Miners. That is now our football team's mascot: the Miners. And a lot of the students that are in school just don't have a lot of experience with where that came from because these mines have all closed up. They have a lot of questions, so this is a great opportunity to do a project and talk with people in the community.”

Inspired by the things they discovered, students also felt drawn to the idea of starting a local newspaper.

“I teach a current events class, and they thought, ‘We're engaged in a project, let's be our town's newspaper,’ and it's a great activity. Students think about what is newsworthy, and what does news mean anyway? And what are things that people in our community need to hear? They want to talk about these kinds of things, so it's interesting to see ideas that students come up with. I think that's really the start of it - inviting students to have a space where they can ask questions, but also creating a space where they can be introduced to some pretty cool people in the community.”

Influenced by his own experiences, Joe is passionate about encouraging rural teachers to stay in rural places, rather than jumping to often higher-paying urban or suburban areas. He reflected on his own choice to teach rural, and the problem of how communities and administrators can support teachers in rural places.

“I don't think the question about why I wanted to be a teacher is important. Maybe a more important question to ask is why I'm staying a rural teacher. I've got some fun things that happened in my life to get me here, but we can't pretend we're not in a crisis anymore, and it's especially amplified in rural spaces. So the real trick is how do we get folks to stay in this profession, to be crazy enough to continue to do it? When we find someone that's good, how can we really help them understand that what they do is important? And also, how to prioritize their well-being?”

“The school does really represent everything about the community; it is the heartbeat of the community.”

Thinking back to his first move to Cuba, Joe left us with this image of what “rural” means to him:

“I remember seeing a bunch of cars on the side of the road. There's this little, 10-mile-into-town road that you take if you want to go to Walmart, and there's just all these cars pulled over and I'm like, ‘What is going on? Am I missing something? There's no way all these people have car problems.’ I figured it out: it was people just pulled over to watch the sunset. The sun was setting and it was just this beautiful landscape. They could take time out of the day to just pause, and I wish that happened more. I wish I could say I've mastered that more. But that's something that the rural world shared with me that I really, really love. So how do you know you’re rural? When you see people can pull over this side of the road to just watch the sunset. That's us at our absolute best.”

“I am a rural teacher.”

We are grateful to Joe for sharing his story with us about his experiences as an educator in Illinois and how his students are researching Forgottonia. If you would like to share 30 minutes of your time, or complete an email interview, please reach out to us at info@ruralschoolscollaborative.org. The I Am A Rural Teacher campaign is a collaborative effort with the National Rural Education Association.

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