Last night was the swearing-in ceremony for the members of the the Howard County Council and the Howard County Executive.
When I walked through the doors at Atholton High School, students from various schools were lined up in the lobby, ready to assist. I was escorted to the auditorium by a member of the River Hill High School Honor Society. The young woman was friendly and poised as we walked down the hallway. It turned out that she had taken my husband’s guitar class at River Hill.
The auditorium was abuzz with the voices of people who knew they were gathered for a happy occasion. While the Marriotts Ridge High School Jazz Band filled the room with music, there were happy waves across the room, hugs, and exclamations of welcome. Many were dressed in their Sunday best, or even party finery. The woman seated on my right realized that she knew the woman seated on my left and they had a lovely conversation with me in the middle, wondering if that counted as eavesdropping.
We like to feel like we are kind of a big deal here. We have great schools, an overall wonderful quality of life. We win national awards. Howard County has well over three hundred thousand residents and is an attractor of people and businesses. Yet we hold one of the biggest nights of our civic life in a high school auditorium.
So many moments last night could have been vignettes from the Grover’s Corners of Our Town or Hillsboro from Inherit the Wind. The high school ROTC Honor Guard bringing the flags to the stage. The children of the elected officials leading the Pledge of Allegiance. The singing of the National Anthem by two local musicians, the musical selection “If I Can Help Somebody”, the choral reading of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” by members of the Alpha Achievers.
The master of ceremonies was Vic Carter, well-known as a Baltimore news anchor, brought his big-city television star quality to the stage. Last night I learned that he lives in Howard County.
Each member of the County Council had the opportunity to make a speech after their swearing-in. Their words and their delivery spoke not only to broad themes or gratitude for re-election but were imbued with the personality and quirks of each one. Thornton Wilder could not have created more vivid characters. Each one said every bit as much in what they did not say outright as what they chose to put into words. This was small town politics - - and rivalry - - at its most revealing.
When County Executive Calvin Ball was sworn in for his second term, there was clearly a strong feeling of elation throughout the room. To be sure, some people were in attendance because it was their responsibility to be there for some reason or other. But the majority had a lot invested in the leadership of this man and his re-election. This was an audience that was eager to hear the prepared remarks that followed. They responded with warmth and enthusiasm to Mrs. Shani Ball as she introduced her husband.
I wasn’t surprised to hear about the accomplishments of the last four years, or the challenges. I was ready to hear great things about the place where we live, or over-arching themes and goals for the future. What I wasn’t expecting was a small and deeply human story about a wishbone.
Yes, a turkey wishbone. Dr. Ball related how his late father would save the wishbone so that they could make a wish together. His voice filled with emotion, Ball recalled the moment in adulthood when he asked his father what he had been wishing for all those years.
“I was wishing for you to get your wish.”
This sentiment - - to wish that someone else could get their wish - - was, to me, the biggest and most universal challenge of the evening. Dr. Ball took that moment to invite us to be that person who can want and work for things that won’t necessarily bring us personal honors or rewards. Honestly, that’s harder than many things we do in life. It’s as big as letting go of control, as simple as shifting the focus away from ourselves, yet as deep as a father’s love for his son.
In that moment last night I thought of my first Christmas in Howard County after marrying my now-husband. I was at the Mall with my daughter and we put Christmas letters to Santa in a mailbox put out for that purpose. Mine said, “thank you for everything. Please give someone else their wish.”
Celebrations are nice but they aren’t the reason that we were gathered at Atholton High School auditorium last night. Nights of small town pomp and pageantry are rare, and they should be. The real work is public service: good government, wise decisions, community engagement. That holds true for the smallest of towns and the biggest of cities.
Howard County may feel to some like it is growing by leaps and bounds and becoming more like a big city and less like the place they grew up with and remember. But we’re still small enough to celebrate in a school auditorium and feel connected to one another in small town sorts of ways. I hope we never lose that sense of connection.