One of my favorite short stories is Rebecca Rule’s “Yankee Curse.” Here is how it begins:
“At School District Meeting, Miranda knits. May your neighbors steal from your wood pile, Mort Wallace. The points of her flexi-needle slide in and out of the heavy burgundy wool. May they incinerate their garbage in a barrel at your property line. And may the wind blow in your direction.” As Miranda knits, the vitriol inside her toward her neighbor grows ever more toxic – and funny. No one in the meeting has any idea of the rage Miranda is harboring, especially as Mort Wallace gets up to speak.
I think of that story often this time of the year. Tomorrow night the renowned village of Lincoln, Vermont – named not for our sixteenth President, but for a Revolutionary War general most of the world knows nothing about – will be holding its annual exercise in legislative self-determination: Town Meeting. I’m a fan. Lincoln, of course, is simply one of a great many Vermont towns that will be holding its Town Meeting this week. And while no two are alike, they all share a couple of things: The faith that as a village we are capable of deciding what to spend on graders and schools (which have less to do with each other than I’d thought at my first Town Meeting). And that we will not, in the end, stone the school board.
Over the years I have written about town moderators, selectmen and women, town clerks, and school board members. All are way better people than I am. I celebrate them all.
But some years it feels to me that no one is braver than the folks on the school board. There are thankless jobs in this world – think of those courageous women and men who perform colonoscopies day after day – but there is no work more likely to get you castigated than being a member of your local school board. In some towns, you can probably cook meth and be more popular.
Among the twists that makes Rule’s short story such a delight is that Miranda appreciates the hard work of the school board. Her well-concealed fury (“May your second wife find a sharp tongue in the bottle she loves and slice you with it.”) is directed at Mort for the way he tries to browbeat and bully and humiliate them.
Now, no one who lives in my town would ever try to browbeat or bully or humiliate anyone on the school or select boards. I mean that. We have disagreements and people question the numbers that the school and select boards present, but most years I am very proud of what a civilized bunch we are. Oh, once in a while I find myself thinking like Miranda. But usually I’m just waiting for the moderator to call someone out for saying something that is not “germane.” (I live in constant fear that I am going to say something that is not “germane.” Saying something that is not “germane” isn’t as embarrasing as being the Mayor of Toronto, but it isn’t pretty.)
Is that true in every Green Mountain Town Meeting? Is every community as calm and caring as Lincoln? Probably not.
But the fact is, Town Meeting works in a state like Vermont. Sure, there is the occasional Mort Wallace, but as Rule’s story makes clear, there are considerably more people who are willing to do the seriously thankless work that allows a town to function. You think it takes a village to raise a child? It also takes a village to figure out how much a dump truck should cost. Or how to balance a budget. Or how to allocate the limited resources we have at the school.
And so once again this year I raise my glass to everyone who serves on the school and select boards, and everyone who does their homework before Town Meeting – the folks who prepare the Warning and those of us who actually read it.
Sometimes, like Miranda, we might be thinking, “May a rat die between the studs of your bedroom wall.” But we will smile and keep that thought to ourselves. It’s how, year after year, we get things done.