I live in a tiny old mill town of 250 people on a river in North Carolina. My son Rio was born at our former home in Oakland, CA, but has grown up on the other side of the country in a place Tom Sawyer would’ve loved. There are few cars on the street, no fences between yards, and a river to throw rocks into.

Bynum is about half old-timers and half newcomers. The old–timers grew up in Bynum and worked in the now-defunct mill for most of their lives. The newcomers sport progressive bumper stickers on their cars, shop at the local co-op, and mostly work in Chapel Hill or Durham.

Amazingly, the two bodies have more merged than collided. We celebrate holidays together on the old bridge that is now shut down to traffic. We talk on the street and congregate every Friday summer night for an outdoor concert next to the old general store. I once asked my neighbor Ollie (who in his lifetime worked every job in the mill, he says) why the newcomers and old-timers seem to get along together so well.

“I reckon new people who moved here but didn’t fit in moved on out. The ones who fit in stayed,” he replied.

“What does to take to fit in to Bynum?” I asked.

“I’d say that if someone in Bynum asks you how you’re doing, they really want to hear your answer.”

A key part of the community’s connective tissue is undoubtedly Clyde Jones,  a mill worker cum folk artist who years ago reportedly had a vision of carving animals out of trees. He now spends his days chainsawing and hammering pieces of cedar into large wooden creatures, which he paints and calls “critters.” Clyde’s yard is littered with giraffes, aardvarks, and reindeer, and he has ensured that every house in Bynum has a critter for its front lawn, as long as you agree to keep it lit up at night. When he’ s not making art, Clyde is riding around town on his driving lawnmower, making sure everything is as it should be.

I once asked Clyde why he graces every lawn in Bynum with a critter, and he replied, “So ya’ll associate.” I took him to mean that the art gives everyone in town something in common, no matter their background or story.

This is all to say that Bynum has the same small-town values it’s always had, even though many of the faces have changed. What this means for Rio is that I hear about any community infraction he’s committed before he even makes it home.

Not long ago, an adult friend of ours taught Rio how to make a very annoying sound with his voice — “screech” would be putting it nicely. When Rio does it, people react, negatively, but he still screeches because he’s five and small and cherishes invoking strong reactions. Last week, I was at an outdoor concert in Bynum, and a fifth grader I know told me that Rio had been screeching on the bus, and that the bus driver had summarily assigned him to the seat right behind her as punishment.

That night, I asked Rio if he was still making that sound.

“No,” he lied.

“Well then how come Miss Beth made you sit in the front seat of the bus?” I asked him.

His eyes grew wide. He probably thought I was omniscient, but really I just live in a small town.