I sit in this predictably tedious, sometimes entertaining and occasionally moving civic gathering that we call town meeting and I marvel at the small miracle of pure democracy that unfolds each year for us toward winter’s end. Despite the bitter temperature and the snow that’s predicted to begin falling in a couple of hours, we’ve gathered as a town in our worn-down school gymnasium. Here we pledge allegiance to the republic, question our elected authorities and display in our far corner of this one, indivisible nation some divisiveness and some cohesiveness of our own.
We do neighborliness well here. You walk in and Sally checks you off at the door. After your first town meeting, you’ll never have to tell her your name again. She’ll hand you a tiny slip of yellow cardboard, the symbol of your enfranchisement. It’s your ticket to say what you think everybody needs to hear and to cast one vote on what we all need to decide. Norman Rockwell once told of being stymied trying to decide how he would depict “freedom of speech,” one of his famous quartet of paintings depicting the “Four Freedoms.” One evening he went to a New England town meeting where he watched everyone in the room listen politely to a citizen spouting views that Rockwell knew nobody else agreed with. “That’s it, that’s freedom of speech,” he thought, and he went on to paint what he experienced that night.
That’s a pretty good description of the spirit that prevails in this tiny town each year on a Tuesday evening early in March. The meeting’s moderator welcomes us and opens the assembly. He’s a likable fellow who happily possesses the three most important qualifications for the job: a passion for fairness, a ready sense of humor and a dedication to keeping everyone moving through the long, wearisome agenda.
The big issue at tonight’s meeting concerns funding for the local library. As if we need reminding that they’re on top of things as our fiscal watchdog, the town’s finance committee has once again recommended that the library not receive any funding this year. It’s the only non-profit request for support that the committee declined to endorse. The library, which is located in a neighboring municipality, serves a large segment of our town’s families with its cultural, educational and high-tech services. Some see this item as a “non-essential” request. Others figure that we’d never be able to provide such quality services if we had to do it on our own. In a split vote, the meeting decides to fund the full library request. The measure passes by a 60-40 margin.
That’s pretty much how our town breaks down politically: there are perhaps a few more social progressives than there are fiscal conservatives but with our strong independent streak, folks are likely to move from one camp to the other, depending on the issue at stake. But it all seems to work, although sometimes I wonder just how it does. I suppose it’s because we know we all have to live together and a lot of us are related to each other by blood and marriage! You learn that things go easier when you try to be flexible and do your best to get along. But mostly I think things work because we share a feeling that we all need each other. Whether we vote one way or another, whether we’re the folks doing okay or we’re part of families that are barely getting by, whether we were born and raised here or have come to town “from away,” we all know we need each other and depend on one another. We may fight and hold grudges and tell unflattering stories about each other, but in the end, it feels like everyone matters in this small place — nobody’s unimportant.
The evening wears on and now we face the last major hurdle: the school budget. This is when the finance committee gets out its sharpest knives. The overburdened school superintendent hopes to cut some corners and wants us to approve an item that involves some creative accounting maneuvers. Nothing dishonest, mind you, just a shortcut, a sleight of hand hidden somewhere deep in this huge, overcomplicated budget. But, as my grandmother used to say, sometimes you can be too smart by half. You might call his proposal an example of sophisticated budget management, but that’s not how the citizens see it and it gets short shrift at the meeting. The superintendent accepts the meeting’s corrections amiably and respectfully, however. It’s good to see our chief educator continuing his education in town!
Truth to tell, the man deserves our sympathy and support. He has a very tough job and so does our town, trying to keep our own small elementary school going. Every year, it seems, the state comes up with a new subsidy formula that further reduces our small municipality’s share of the funding pie. Going big is rewarded while staying small gets punished by the education know-it-alls in Augusta and Washington. And so we struggle to keep open a school for 70 or more children. We do it because we want to continue the tradition of educating our kids in a familiar, nurturing setting where there’s one teacher for every 10 students, where all the children are neighbors, where they’ll all grow up together in one special place. It’s a tough thing to fund and sustain, but we’re glad to know every day just where our kids are: right in the center of town, right in the center of our hearts.
The meeting’s over now, and as I climb into my car and start the engine, I can’t help sighing my thanks for this sweet, unpretentious place where I’m privileged to live. I drive home feeling grateful, grateful for good people who come out on a cold night to pledge their allegiance, to exercise their freedoms and to care for one another, as best they can.