The Very Best and the Very Worst of Our Small Town

(This column was published in the Petoskey News Review on Aug 25, 2015
There’s a scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” during which a town has accused a young woman of being a witch. One of King Arthur’s soon-to-be-knights attempts to sort out the mess through a series of questions aimed at proving whether or not the woman is actually a witch. The scene is a powerfully funny lesson on the flaws of deductive reasoning gone bad, but over the weekend it also became a powerful metaphor for what happens when the word “Fighting” mysteriously disappears and then reappears on a stadium wall.

As I watched our Petoskey seemingly lose its collective mind over the weekend, I realized how lucky I am to live in a small town…and how dangerous such a living arrangement can be. There is no way to ignore the passion of folks who woke up to find the word “Fighting” removed from the stadium wall. The loyalty to tradition and the passionate cries to return the word to its rightful place were impressive. Thanks to the lightning speed of social media, a Facebook page, a webpage, a petition, a sit-in, a protest, a march on the school board were all planned within hours. When people in Petoskey get riled up, it is a wondrous thing to watch as they rally behind the cause. That’s what we want our small towns to be…a place where traditions matter and where we all feel we have a stake in any potential changes.

Of course, like the people in Monty Python who didn’t want a witch roaming around the village, concern can quickly turn to mob rule and the results can be pretty ugly. And so it was in Petoskey as people began posting calls to action without even the slightest idea as to why the word was removed from the stadium. Rumors that a single person complained that the word “fighting” encouraged bullying and the school board immediately ordered the paint job dominated the discussion. This led to the typical attacks on “political correctness” because someone apparently was offended that someone else was offended by the word. By the time it was done, President Obama, Islamic jihadists, and campaign to wipe all references to Native Americans from our culture were blamed for the removal of the word. (I was actually surprised that it took someone more than 24 hours to blame the President.)

Calls for a recall election, an election to decide the fate of the name, and a call to elect new school board members who are pro-“Fighting” sprang up. My wife suggested that in light of how poorly people in Petoskey show up to vote in local elections, none of these were very good ideas.

As people asked me to sign petitions and/or join the protest, I tried to be the voice of reason. I repeatedly asked people to calm down a little and see if we could find out exactly who had ordered the painting and why it was done. But like the townsfolk in Monty Python who screamed “Burn her!” while waving pitchforks and torches, jumping to conclusions, making threats, and denigrating anyone who properly suggested that “Fighting Northmen” isn’t the actual mascot of the school, seemed a lot more fun. (And of course there was tiresome call that “Only people born in Petoskey should have a say in this issue.”)

While it remains unclear what the fate of the word “Fighting” will be, there are plenty of important lessons from the past weekend. First, if all the people who signed the petition to keep the word “Fighting” on the stadium shelled out $20 for the football fundraiser card as I did this weekend, the program will raise over $40,000. This will go a lot further in preserving the tradition of Northmen football than any word on a retiring stadium. Second, if people could muster the passion over this issue for things that really matter, our schools would be better funded, our County Commission would be a lot more accountable, more than one person per ward would run for City Council, and we’d have to worry a lot less about the quality of our ground water.
For now, I guess, we’ll all be wondering what else besides ducks and very tiny rocks can float.


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