You commuters drive through Morris Mill without even noticing our little town on the Millstone River. Our Main Street is just a shortcut on your way to work. You probably think life in Morris Mill is as sluggish as the Millstone in July.
Well, you’re dead wrong. I’ve lived here since I was a little girl, and I’ve been principal of Morris Mill Elementary School since it opened. Believe me, I’ve seen plenty of turbulence in this town. Take what happened when we chose a school mascot. It started when developers bulldozed the old Harrison farmstead across the river from town. That’s where Morris Mill folks always released those wretched squirrels we trapped in our flowerbeds and vegetable gardens. We figured that traffic speeding across the bridge would make those pests think twice about returning.
It turns out that squirrels devouring our gardens was small potatoes compared to development residents devouring our town. See, the investment bankers and corporate executives who moved into the million-dollar “estate homes” of Morris Mill Manors voted each other onto our town council and installed a traffic light on Main Street. They voted each other onto the board of the volunteer fire department and bankrolled the purchase of a Pumper Tanker X2000 Supreme. They voted each other onto our school board and decided to build an elementary school rather than bus our students to neighboring Rocky Hill.
I know those changes sound good, but they were completely unnecessary. And they happened too fast. And they weren’t done the way we long-time residents would have done them. For example, we eventually warmed to the idea of a new elementary school out of nostalgia for the little red schoolhouse that once stood on Schoolhouse Street. But we didn’t get a little red schoolhouse. The development residents built a “technologically advanced, cutting-edge, performance-enhancing educational environment” for their Ivy League-bound offspring. They even installed door handles “scientifically proven to improve test scores.”
We felt as if our town had been hijacked by the newcomers of Morris Mill Manors. So we townies continued to cross the Millstone after dark to shake out the contents of our Havahart traps. De-squirreling our flower beds felt doubly gratifying when we could watch newly-released squirrels frisk across the professionally manicured lawns of Morris Mill Manors in search of tulip bulbs.
All the same, on the September morning when the new school opened, even its strongest opponents had to admit the building was impressive. As students struggled with the door handles, the whole community felt proud. Not as proud as we feel that General George Washington marched down Main Street on June 23, 1778, but proud nonetheless.
But before the first layer of gum had hardened under the desks, residents on both sides of the Millstone began saying Morris Mill Elementary was missing something important — a mascot. Of course, I knew that. But, as principal, I was busy developing policies and prohibiting dangerous substances like drugs, alcohol, and peanut butter.
I decided to leave the mascot decision to the school board, so they’d stop pestering me about “gifted and talented” programs. So I called the board president, John Walker from Morris Mill Manors. He was the only board member who got votes from both town and development. He probably thought it was because of his charm. Actually, older residents mistakenly thought he was related to Dick and Ellen Walker, who lived at 3 Main Street until 1962.
“John,” I said. “We need a school mascot. Is that something you can handle?”
That irritated him.”Of course, I can handle it,” he snapped.
Of course, he couldn’t handle it. I found out later that his wife Sheila supplied “his” idea. And she isn’t known for her good sense: she wears stilettos while walking the dog. Anyway, Sheila told John that, according to Posh Parents magazine, the mustang is a “very now” school mascot.
That was all it took to convince John and the other four board members from Morris Mill Manors. They prided themselves in being “very now.” But school board member Mrs. Harrison, the self-proclaimed town historian, shook her head. “Mustangs never lived in Morris Mill. They’re western.” The other townie, Mr. VanDyke, agreed. “Besides, aren’t mustangs wild? That smacks of discipline issues to me.” Mr. VanDyke can turn any topic to discipline.
John Walker scowled.”Maybe you have a better idea?”
“I do!” Mrs. Harrison exclaimed after some thought. “The Morris Mill Millers! It celebrates our proud past, when Richard Morris built his gristmill on land bought from the Lenape for the price of one red ribbon.”
John scowled harder. “Isn’t that redundant, mill and millers?” Development resident Mrs. Patel agreed.”Besides, there aren’t miller costumes. And millers aren’t inspiring for sports teams.”
“Millers certainly are inspiring,” Mr. VanDyke thundered. “They’re hard workers. Every parent should want their child to be a hard worker.” He glared at Mrs. Patel. She stared back, unperturbed.
“Shall we vote?” asked John impatiently. It didn’t matter what Mrs. Harrison and Mr. VanDyke thought. They were always outnumbered five to two.
But Mrs. Harrison refused to vote until she could alert the Morris Mill Preservation Society of this opportunity to promote town history. “Fine,” John replied with a sigh. “We’ll vote at our next meeting.” He was probably already picturing himself in a “very now” Morris Mill Mustangs baseball cap.
Within 24 hours, Morris Mill was divided by a lot more than the Millstone River. The town insisted on millers, the development on mustangs. Things got ugly fast, which is precisely what happened whenever I let John handle a decision.
Development residents were outraged when Mr. Riley (town) hung an “It’s Miller Time” banner outside Riley’s Pub on Main Street. Townies were outraged when Mrs. Hernandez (development) blocked the banner by parking her red Ford Mustang in front of it all day. Everyone pointed fingers when Mrs. Hernandez noticed a tiny scratch on her car and Mr. Riley noticed a little rip in his banner. I couldn’t see any damage beyond usual wear and tear. If these people were my students, they would have lost a week of playground privileges for their ridiculous squabbling.
At the next school board meeting, tempers ran higher than the Millstone in Hurricane Floyd. As usual, John was ineffective at keeping order.
Eventually, he shouted, “People! Shouting will get us nowhere. The board will now vote.”
Mr. Fraboni, who lives on my block, shot to his feet. “That’s not fair! You development people always win because we’re outnumbered. We’re tired of you taking over our town.”
Town residents cheered.
Mrs. Patel responded, “What don’t you like? We’ve improved Morris Mill.”
Development residents cheered.
John pounded his gavel. “We’ll let the children vote instead.” He finally had a decent idea of his own.
That week, mascot discussions bounced across the ultra-safe playground surface, raced through the hallways, and spilled into the cafeteria. Most students sided with their parents, although pony lovers from both sides of the Millstone desperately wanted to be the Mustangs. And sixth-grader Michael Miller (development) covered his locker with homemade “Vote for Miller” signs.
On Friday, voting in the cafeteria was overseen by a retired judge from Kingston. He sealed the outcome in an envelope to be revealed at Monday’s school board meeting.
The weekend was full of noisy speculation. I was speculating about how much drama I could have avoided by choosing the mascot myself.
Monday’s meeting had a record number of constables to keep the peace (1) and residents to hear the results (134). I bit my tongue when I saw all the kids there. On a school night.
I was greeting people in the hall, when Sheila Walker tottered in on her ridiculous stilettos with daughter Emma in tow. They were followed by my neighbors the Youngs and their daughter Emma. Emma Young and Emma Walker were sworn enemies. They spent hours in my office telling on each other.
Emma Walker turned and stared at Mr. Young.
Emma Young glared back. “What’s your problem?”
“Is that your dad?”
“Yeah. So?” snarled Emma Young.
“He brings us squirrels,” Emma Walker replied. “I love squirrels!” Emma Young looked shocked. “You do?” Then she added, “I love squirrels too. We’ve got lots.”
Emma Walker smiled. “Thanks for sharing them.”
Emma Young smiled back. “You’re welcome. Want to sit by me?”
I nearly tipped over. And I was the one in sensible shoes.
A roving pack of second-grade boys overheard the conversation. “I like squirrels! They’re the best!” the boys chattered.
“My dad trapped three last week,” one boasted.
“My dad trapped twenty-23,” another countered.
A gaggle of sixth-grade girls returned from appraising their hair in the girls’ bathroom.”Do we like squirrels?” they asked their leader, Emma Harrison, uncertainly. Emma tossed her curls. “Of course, we do. Everyone loves squirrels.” Emma turned to the sixth grade boys following them. “You guys like squirrels, right?”
The sixth grade boys shoved each other in response. Michael Miller whispered, “Let’s put squirrels in Emma’s locker.”
“Oooh,” Michael VanDyke whispered back, “You looooove Emma.” Emma Harrison rolled her eyes and marched away with her entourage.
Once they were gone, Michael Miller turned to Michael VanDyke. “Hey, your mom brought a black squirrel to our yard. It’s so awesome!” The Michaels high-fived.
I was thinking about those hallway conversations as John Walker called the meeting to order. I was thinking about how it’s my duty to do what is right for my students at any cost. Even at the cost of John’s ego. John held up the sealed envelope and announced, “I will now reveal the winning mascot.”
I grabbed the microphone. “Hold it! There’s been a change in plans.” The crowd gasped. John turned red.
“You can’t change it now,” he protested.
I gave him my signature Principal Stare, guaranteed to instantly end all pushing, shoving, giggling, whispering, running in halls, and talking back. Then I turned my Principal Stare on the crowd. The whole audience cringed, to my satisfaction. I’m not one to accentuate the “pal” in “principal.”
“Shame on you parents,” I began. “A school mascot is meant to unify, not divide. You’ve turned our school into a battleground for your pride and prejudice.” (I like to work in a literary reference now and then. It makes the parents feel they are getting their moneys’ worth.)
John interrupted. “There’s no need to lecture u-”
I gave him my Principal Stare. He stopped.
“Unlike the rest of you, I’ve been considering what’s best for your children. My professional observations suggest that choosing between mustangs and millers could damage our children emotionally.” (That always grabs parents.) “We need a mascot that does not divide or segregate.” (Dramatic pause.) “Children, raise your hand if you like squirrels!”
All the kids’ hands, and many of their bodies, shot up.
“There now,” I said with a gracious sweep of my hand. “You can see how the children feel. Squirrels are the mascot to unite us.”
John sputtered to life again.”Hold on! You can’t do that! We have a procedure here. And squirrels are a stupid mascot.”
“Are they?” I replied. “Let’s ask your daughter.” I felt like a trial lawyer on TV, as I asked Emma Walker to stand. “Tell your father why you and your classmates like squirrels.”
Emma Walker looked scared until Emma Young popped up beside her and squeezed her hand. Then she said, “Daddy, we like squirrels. They remind us of friendship and sharing. People in Morris Mill share squirrels with each other.”
“They do?” John asked. “What do you mean? How?”
“Never mind how,” I said hastily. “Just know that squirrels represent unity and sharing to the children of Morris Mill.”
There was a long pause as the parents puzzled over this. Then, to my relief, the clapping began, possibly by Mrs. Hernandez, although Mr. Young later claimed he started it — a trickle, then a stream, then a river of applause.
I raised my hands for silence. “There’s just one more thing to say: Go, Morris Mill Squirrels!”
Steen is a medical writer, mother of two squirrel-loving elementary school students, and proud resident of Rocky Hill. She reports that “happily, the town in this story, including its citizens and conflicts, is entirely fictional.” But she would be happy to share a few squirrels with anyone on the other side of the Millstone.