The mayor of Montpelier has had things thrown at him from a number of sources and probably is wondering why he let his lobbyist tendencies take hold of his otherwise serviceable judgment. To pressure an employee or underling of any sort in favor of an industry you are lobbying for is probably a loss all around. Best thing to do is to just admit you lost track of things and you won’t do it any more. But that takes a firmer grasp of the relative worth of victory and loss than Mr. Hollar appears to have.
I taught school for many years at U-32. I started the first year the school started and stayed there through the halcyon and somewhat loony years of the first decade. The school was built partially in response to the general destabilization caused by the Vietnam War and the rise of what can be safely called the counter-culture. Anything that had previously been considered even slightly organized was discarded. U-32 was opened on a disastrous concept known as the “open school.” This mean that, among other inane concepts, there would be no schoolrooms. The teaching would be done in huge bay areas, separated by rolling bookshelf units. The tables formed circles, since the circle is, as we all know, a spiritual thing, based on Stonehenge or something. The noise from the adjoining henges would be ignored, since the gripping nature of the immediate instruction would hold students’ attention like rivets. In addition, to add to the general lack of discipline — because discipline is derived from military structures and is inimical to the freedom of youth — teachers were known by their first names without the formal “Mr. Danziger” that was thought to erect an unnatural barrier between the teacher and the student.
I didn’t mind being called by my first name, especially after four years of being called “Lieutenant Danziger,” and I liked the easy-going nature of U-32. Whether or not the system made teaching any better was never proven one way or the other. But the school was a happier place than any school in my experience, and I had never taught anywhere else. The lack of classroom architecture did demand that teachers were more entertaining and creative, and that they worked a good deal harder to dramatize the subject. This was easier as an English lit teacher than as a math teacher. And for chemistry classes we were probably fortunate that no one blew the roof off the place.
Ah, the roof! It turned out that the roof, which was flat, had no insulation. The explanation given — when in horror this was discovered — was that due to the expected snow load the architect had planned to have heat escaping from the building melt the snow as quickly as possible. This architect also called for the building to be situated on the top of Gallison Hill, and to be made mostly of glass. There was no doubt that large expanses of glass are dramatic, providing a modern and provocative appearance in this middle of Vermont forests, and that all that glass provided spectacular views. Most Vermonters would point out that if you wanted to enjoy the view you could simply step outside for a few minutes, in the biting cold and searing wind, and get all the viewing the average person needed. And since the view didn’t really change from day to day, a few minutes a week would probably suffice.
In the second year of operation it was discovered that the heating bill would equal or exceed the bill for books and things. There was no repair in site. The building had been equipped with the most expensive heating form know to modern man, electricity. So there was the school, built of brick and glass, situated on top of a hill in the teeth of the Vermont winter, with no insulation in the roof, heated with the same form of energy which the practical Vermonter limited to make his morning toast. And all supported by five towns in which money was tight. The question arose: How the hell could such a disaster have happened?
Fingers pointed to the school board, and even they were perplexed by where such a decision sprang. Most of them were residents of several generations, some were builders, but one was a lobbyist — a public relations hack for Green Mountain Power Co. For the utility, the school on top of a hill, made of glass, heated with their product was producing the other kind of green, the old reliable kind, tens of thousands of it. This board member produced evidence that electricity was the heating fuel of the future, in fact, the clever phrase that the utilities repeated in everyone’s ear was that electricity would soon, as nuclear power came on-line, be “too cheap to meter.” Electricity would come through the wires as a sort of dial tone, always there in whatever quantities you wanted, all for a meagerly low flat rate.
The lobbyist’s family was from the area and his children went to the school, and were wonderful. De mortuis and all that, but there was something else to the tale. At about that time, I began submitting drawings to The Times Argus of a political nature, and the story of that seemed to grip readers was about questionable hikes in the rates for electricity. Electricity that had been promised for much lower costs.
The Public Service Board was grilled about these increases and general unhappiness seemed to descend on everyone. Several of my drawings hinted at unhealthy collusion between the Public Service Board and the utilities. Editorials were even more direct.
This was the type of story that newspapers love because they affected large numbers of readers and evolved slowly and painfully keeping everyone’s attention. The cartoons made depicted the heartlessness involved, poor Vermonters unable to make toast because of the costs involved, huddled pitifully around candles, freezing in the dark. It was dramatic and sad and where it would end no one knew. The winter dragged on.
One cartoon in particular I remember. It showed the average Vermonter, a sort of long-suffering fellow in his padded vest and L.L. Bean hat, hunched on a large tray with an apple in his mouth. Carrying the tray was the Public Service Board, grinning, saying, “This is how we’re serving the public today.” Evidently this was too much. The U-32 school board member who worked for the power company took me aside in an affect of fatherly concern. He warned me that these cartoons could seriously endanger my continuance as a teacher at the school. The power company had long arms. They were ready to act. I should be careful — think of my own future. He said he hated to think that I would wind up with “my neck in the wringer.” I remember this phrase for its silliness and for the old-fashioned reference to a washing machine.
The chair of the school board was appraised of this rather stupid move and remonstrated the man severely in executive session. My editor at the paper called him up and asked if indeed he had made such a threat. No, he lied. But I admit that for a few days I was worried. I needed the job. Teaching positions were scarce. All jobs were scarce, besides I was enjoying teaching, which, after the army had a hopeful restorative sort of mood to it. Nothing further happened, and the errant board member went on to other public relations failures. I continued to teach for another eight years, and actually got somewhat effective at it. Somewhat.
There must be an irresistible urge to throw your weight around if you’re in a position of power.
The urge must be strong in inverse proportion to the tininess of the position. Perhaps the need is to find someone to boss around and threaten, if for no other reason than to raise your own self-esteem.
We can all imagine the towering prestige of the position of mayor of Montpelier, and one would think that threatening staff members and other inferiors would not be necessary. Or perhaps it is an automatic reaction of professional public relations people, to try to illustrate that they have political clout and are ready to use it. This must impress their friends, who are probably other public relations people and lobbyists.
It is a close, little world, or so I have heard. Lobbyists can only find love and respect from other lobbyists. A professional loneliness sets in. This is sad and someone should do something about it.
Like not vote for them, just for starters.
Jeff Danziger is a syndicated editorial cartoonist whose opinions are featured regularly on these pages.MORE IN Commentary
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