Screw Cartography

When we get this project going, it’s gonna put this place on the map!

“It’s a problem now, but it’s going to put us on the map.

We need to get this place on the map.

I’ve heard it all before. Sometimes from people or institutions that end up in some way, “on the map”. Other times from people who couldn’t even read a map, let alone get themselves on one.

My response? What the hell is so important about being on this proverbial map? You always hear people wanting to get there, but a small percentage of such people ever seem worried about producing a quality product, providing a valuable service, or just being a decent presence. Those things are viewed, if at all, as means to the map.

It has been my odd and unfortunate lot to stumble into organizations just as they are deciding to place themselves on the map. Or, as I like to think, just at the very moment they decide that the community they have been serving just isn’t good enough. (Which is really, when you think about it, what “getting on the map” is all about. Escaping from a community that has been the heart and soul of what you do, but can no longer keep up with the greed, or thirst for power and influence sought by the institution in question.)

My high school was a rather elite but small private high school in Maryland. For decades, it had established itself as one of the premiere private high schools in all of Maryland. Some out of state people attended as well, of course. Word of mouth being what it is. Not to mention the draw of the place’s history. Yet once you got out of say the Maryland/Virginia/West Virginia tri-state area, my tiny high school, (population of less than 200 students at the time) was little known.

Until the year I, having been impressed by their pedigree, chose to enroll there after much thought. For it was that very year that somebody in the power structure decided that it was time to put this already highly regarded, rather elite, and solidly established private high school “on the map.” They hired one of the nation’s most famous and successful varsity basketball coaches. Hoping to increase the school profile.

Increase it, it did. By the end of my first year, the school was winning all kinds of tournaments. It was regularly featured on ESPN, Sports Illustrated and other such places. Indeed, more people became aware of our little high school by the end of that year, than in the previous 50, I dare say. And the term, “putting us on the map” was almost a rallying cry. Surely, this could only be beneficial to the alumni. The staff. The students, as well as to prospectives.

That depends on how you look at it. Because while the school’s name was becoming well known, things within the school itself suffered. Suddenly everything was channeled in one direction. Given the cartography of the basketball program, the sport, previously just one extra curricular activity offered within this academic mecca, became the pervasive theme of everything we did. Instead of academically minded students with an athletic interest, athletic powerhouse players from literally all around the world were now recruited to attend our high school, simply for the basketball program. (The ethics of which were always questionable to some….)

Pep rallies took place only for that team. The other teams received little to no official school recognition, and as a result, little to no attendance. Whether you played or not, basketball was part of your identity. Class pictures always included someone holding a basketball. Seniors, upon graduating, regardless of their reasons for being in the school, were asked to sign basketballs for the trophy room. An effort, at times rather forced, was made to equate being proud of attending that school with being proud of the team. And people who are proud of the team attend games.

For newer people, or people that were into this whole “map” thing, it worked. Enrollment increased. Portables went up like weeds, and more money poured in. But for a good portion of the last remnant of the “old guard”, it meant that the mission of the school, its very founding principles which had served it and students very well during their 100 years of semi-obscurity, were being abandoned. The very reasons I chose to go there were being pushed aside in order to gain fame. And resentment against athletes, who through no fault of their own were participants in a destructive program, built up over they years. But hey, as the waterboy wanna-be player in my class would always remind me when I complained, “Coach is putting this school on the map.”

Thanks a lot, coach.

“Coach” is long gone, and the school now has four times as many portables, and has a population at last check of about 500 students now. Still small, but huge compared to what it was. Their plans to build a new facility have been put on hold three times since I left, and due to lack of funding, recently abandoned outright.  There’s your map.

The same thing happened when I went to college. When I arrived as a transfer student, it was a small, little known but locally renowned private college of about 1,100 students. Charming in its own way. Gorgeous old brick buildings. Wonderful mall area in the middle of campus. You could feel the history.

The second semester I was there, the announcement went out that that “Revitalization Plan” had been approved, and would be completed hopefully over ten years, starting right away. By the next year, ground was being dug up for a new ten million dollar sporting facility. (Not a sports school at all before then.) Half of the mall and walking area would be torn up a few years later for a huge, hulking 20 million dollar biology lab. Two new dorms as well, to house the proposed increase in the student population to about 2,500 when all was said and done. And with these mostly non-academic expenditures came of course, increases in student bills. The music program was cut, in part, in order to help save some money for all of this.

“A school is no more than the amount of students that come to it,” a professor told me once. “And I want more resources for myself and you.” She said that can only happen if we (say it with me) “put this school on the map”.

Mind you, this school had been around in some form on that very spot since the 1840’s. That’s the 1840’s.

With this came the predictable results over time, not unlike what I mentioned for my high school. Getting on the map became a priority instead of being content to serve an academic mission that had remained in tact for generations. (Including two previous generations within my own family, whom I never met.)

Even the theatre department, one of the few things about this quaint, smaller, but changing college that I loved, underwent a bit of this change. The theatre, unchanged for many years, started to focus more on community relevance and spectacle, than on intimate and personal in-house instruction in the theatre arts.

Not that this was the only theatre program to suffer this fate in my presence. A local community theatre around here, with an excellent facility had been under the stewardship of a much beloved and still-praised man for years. My first show there, however, happened to be during the first year after this man left. The new guy was quiet for a while. But soon everything became about expanding the brand, or getting corporate sponsorship, or raising thus and so amount of money by the end of the year. All in an effort to convert it into a professional, for-profit theatre one day. (Thus leaving those of us who for years had volunteered our time and energy to the place feeling as though our days were numbered.) Many regulars have over the years been driven away. Including myself. And of course the overall goal of this terrible, artless and talentless new manager was simple. “Put this place on the map.” (Casting his own wife in every single show he directed being a major part of the strategy it would seem.)

You get the idea.

So my luck in showing up at places just as they are trying to “put themselves on the map” has not been good. I will concede it may have just been the manner in which these places went about putting themselves on the map that I found distasteful. But speaking from my personal experience I have yet to encounter a single example of “putting something on the map” resulting in something better.

Just once, I would like to find an institution, an organization, a company, or a group which is small, effective, special, steeped in tradition, not particularly well known, but content to be so. I long to be part of a community that doesn’t fall into the first grade mindset of “whoever has the most toys wins“, or that making something bigger, by default, makes it better. (A lesson small towns with urban sprawl could, but have never learned.) Or that contributions to society are directly proportional to the number of people who have heard of you.

Not that I am against making money. (Though non-profits of course should not make a profit, though many act like they should.) Money is needed to keep things running. I am however against the idea of expanding just for the sake of making more of it. It’s lazy thinking, and only partially effective. I’m against not opting to find a way to improve the budget in-house. I’m against selling off the earned reputation in order to purchase a flashier, emptier one. Why is everyone more worried about “getting on the map” than they are preserving what made them great in the first place?

Greed. Keeping up with the Joneses. A mistaken notion of keeping up with modern times. Lack of internal vision. (As opposed to external.) Who knows why? But if I were a school or a theatre company, I would much rather have my reputation proceed me, than have my reputation thrown in the faces of anyone who happens to pass by. I’d rather establish a mission that doesn’t include expansion as a primary goal. Lighthouses, after all, don’t move. They stay right where they are. And thank god they do. How many people would be lost without them? I’d much rather be a part of a light house, than have my name in bold print on a map.

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