“Flaming pennies are ruining our country, Tommy Boy!” My lifelong friend and childhood hero, Toby Dawn McIntyre cornered me recently to bloviate on the ills of society. “Flaming pennies,” he explained, “are the less than 1% of people who have completely lost the ability to discuss or conversate civilly, so they set the whole world on fire to get their way.” (Conversate is also Toby’s terminology.) He continued, “Most people can engage in rational discourse, even when they vehemently disagree, but not these flaming pennies. There aren’t many of them, but they are destroying this nation.”
As Toby talked, I remembered the story of Sampson lighting foxes’ tails on fire and sending them into the fields. Those angry and terrified foxes wrought havoc as they recklessly destroyed everything around them. But instead of foxes, I now pictured little copper Abraham Lincoln heads rolling through communities. Pennies are small, but if they were on fire or red hot, no one would be safe because it only takes a tiny spark to start a wildfire. Toby Dawn then warned me to check between my couch cushions before pantomiming an explosion with his hands. He said “Poof!” as he walked away. I was disappointed he didn’t have a little smoke bomb for dramatic effect.
My friend Toby might just be on to something. I interact with a lot of people every day, and a lot more interact about me on social media. The flaming pennies sure get a lot of attention, but they really are the exception. In fact, I have not encountered very many flaming pennies in my lifetime, even including the COVID age. I see them on television, in my news feed, and on social media, but I have met very few real-live flaming pennies focused on destroying everything and everyone to make a point.
To be clear, I interact regularly with a lot of very passionate people with very sincere beliefs that they will never compromise. I also encounter a lot of really upset people on a regular basis. People who are willing to hurt others or their community to make a point, however? Honestly, not very many, and I once had a guy named Vern chase me with a machete. Even Vern calmed down . . . eventually, so despite it all, I believe that most people are still capable of having a civil, rational, and adult conversation.
A good example of this is our recent board meeting when they engaged the community on the most difficult of issues: face masks. We are all aware of such meetings spiraling into chaos, but we never hear about the thousands of school boards and city councils across the nation who have held meetings on the issue without incident. Yes, we had very passionate people with opposite views provide input. Community members also spoke at the board meeting, and every single person was respectful, rational, and tolerant of differing opinions. Not a single flaming penny in the group! No one was willing to set the board meeting on fire or to insult anyone else to prove a point. Just a group of rational adults having civil discourse about a very complex issue. What a radical idea. Where were the cable channels when we needed them?
As often happens after such complex discussions, no decision was made, but the meeting turned into something more meaningful than even masks. As one attendee explained, the rest of the world is losing its capacity for tolerance. Our community, however, once again modeled the tolerance we hope to see in our children. People treated each other with dignity and respect, despite conflicting views. I couldn’t be prouder as a superintendent.
I am struggling with Toby Dawn’s theory about flaming pennies, however, because on social media, it sure seems like more than 1%. Maybe flaming quarters? Nevertheless, a keyboard can often make people seem bigger and more threatening, so again, Toby Dawn might just be on to something with his crazy flaming pennies. (Disclaimer: no foxes or Verns were harmed during production.)