Positive effects

“Hey, can I help you with that?”

Even though the question isn’t directed at me, I lift my head to watch the exchange.

“Do you need my help? I was pretty good at that.” The popular upperclassman repeats his offer, as he stoops down by the freshman’s desk.

The freshman nods, taken by surprise. Together they work, and by the end of the period, the work is done, and there is an easy banter between the boys.

He has the reputation as a bit of a smart aleck, this older boy. And he has been removed from other people’s classes more than once, mainly because he tends to amuse the class when he’s bored. Despite that, he has a heart of gold and no idea that he just did more than help with an assignment. The new spring in the freshman’s step goes unobserved except by me.

Watching them leave, I think of the butterfly effect. This was originally a meteorological term used to explain how a seemingly small disturbance could potentially change a much larger event. Metaphorically, the flap of a butterfly’s wings could alter the path of a typhoon. The term has branched out to all sorts of situations: time travel, international relations, personal interactions. Who can say what could come from a small kind gesture, a reaching out, an invitation? Maybe nothing, or maybe everything. Only time will tell.

My family spent part of spring break in Waco, Texas. Our youngest has always been a Fixer-Upper fan, and she wanted to see some of the main projects of the show. From the moment we arrived, the term “Magnolia Effect” was bantered about. This phrase refers to the enterprises started by Chip and Joanna Gaines, whose home designs and renovations were first popularized by HGTV, and later shared on their streaming network, Magnolia.

As their small enterprise and their celebrity status grew, big changes came to Waco. As one local put it, no longer was it known as “Wacky Waco,” the location of a biker gang shoot-out or the Branch Davidian Fiasco; it had become both a mecca for tourists and those searching for the ideals portrayed in the shows. People didn’t feel stuck there, they wanted to be there. Magnolia is now the second-largest employer in town (Baylor University is the first). Several rotting structures blighting the downtown have been transformed. Investors are renovating or replacing condemned housing. Baylor graduates are sticking around and starting up businesses. My favorite was Fabled, a bookstore that allows visitors to enter the children’s section through a coat-filled wardrobe (Narnia style).

Phoebe and I took a Fixer-Upper tour. We can identify shiplap, subway tile and farmhouse style, but we learned we were mere amateurs regarding fandom. Other attendees listed the season and episode number of each location and reminisced about problems Chip and Joanna faced. While they walked down memory lane, I thought about some of the inequities and problems Waco still faces. Whereas the Magnolia Effect has placed the city on a path to recovery, things aren’t perfect. Affordable housing, drug use, crime, general resentment about change — these issues seem universal these days. Our tour guide didn’t shy away from these issues, but she acknowledged them through a lens of hope.

Even here, we know them well, but I have faith in our town. Properties are being renovated and made usable again. I am heartened that so many alumni from our school system, North Country and Paul Smith’s have returned to make this home. They are investing in businesses, getting involved in government, volunteering for sports teams and joining boards. I may not always agree with them, but I am thankful they are here and stepping up for change. Maybe it’s because I am a sentimental retired teacher, but I love that I can eat, shop, have repairs done and be entertained by businesses begun by my former students. In my mind, I’ve started to call this the Alumni Effect.

That’s one ripple that I believe will intensify and improve our town. The other is the rail trail. For the Peers, many mornings begin there. We aren’t alone. There are bikers, runners and walkers. Families and fitness buffs coexist side by side. There are also folks with canes who are grateful for a safe smooth path, wheelchairs being pushed, and a commuter or two. Because it is improving so many lives, I am sure the trail will only gain popularity. The Rail Trail Effect, what ultimately will that be?

We don’t have celebrities transforming our town. Our national attention tends to come from the Weather Channel or tourism articles. But we do have small changes that have the potential to grow in ways we can’t imagine. Maybe that’s why it’s so good to be home again.


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