The first week I started working for the newspaper, they sent me out to a buildings and grounds committee meeting for a school board far from us.
It was long. I was lost.
The next week was a voting meeting for that same school district. It went on for five hours in a crowded gym. I sat on bleachers on the side of the room, ate lemon heads between desperate note-taking, wished for more comfortable shoes and doubted my job choice.
Over the next three years I drove out there countless times, for regular meetings and special meetings and committee meetings and court cases, oh the court cases. One summer it seemed there was another hearing every week.
Most meetings security guards roamed the halls, mostly old men or very young ones who, I think, were there more for show than anything else. One group of residents always sat in the front, at first, then moved to the back, and – though they wouldn’t call it this themselves – they heckled everyone they disagreed with.
Once a fist fight nearly broke out between two taxpayers. The younger man didn’t like my coverage of the incident, said he was the victim and never participated in the confrontation, but I’ve always wondered what he said to make the old man’s blood boil. Another time – but I didn’t see this one – a board member and a tax payer nearly got into their own confrontation, or other reporters said so anyway.
But slowly the fight died out. Meetings got shorter. Decisions were made that couldn’t be undone and people stopped coming, stopped arguing and pleading and heckling.
“I want to see the district unified,” an incoming board member told me once, and while that’s years away, it doesn’t look as impossible as it did when I started. But things are lost, too. Schools are closed, children uprooted, older graduates without a place to call their home school.
I thought of that as I drove home last night, a light rain starting to fall and mist rising from corn fields in the valleys. I remembered driving that way so many times before, watching for deer grazing by the side of the highway under summer moons, creeping around snow-covered curves in the winter. I remember driving down toward the river and suddenly crossing a sort of wall into a fog bank, the sunlight extinguished just like that.
I had friends on both sides – amazing, really, when you think of it. It helped that I did live so far away. I clearly didn’t have anything to gain from any outcome. I talked about cattle with an old farmer who sat in on ever court hearing, dressed always in a green work suit.
I talked about tractors and summer plans with the couple from the other side, who faithfully attended every meeting and made snide (and funny) remarks under their breaths.
Once, the building locked when I arrived, I sat in the back seat of a pickup truck with another couple and talked about my baby, their grandbaby, until the building was unlocked.
That was the last time I’ll cover a meeting out there, I think. They asked me to finish out the budget season and then it will pass to someone else.
I won’t miss the drive. I won’t miss waiting an hour for the meeting to start because an executive session got out of control (and does so every time). I won’t miss the anger that boils under the surface, that made me cry on occasion because the bitterness is so toxic, it burns everything it touches.
But – and isn’t it always this way? – when you get any of them by themselves, they’re nice people. The people I will miss.
And it’s strange that something that was so much part of my life for three years is suddenly not there.