Indulge me for a moment while I share with you one of the best Town Meeting Day stories ever written. Dorothy Canfield Fisher told the story in her 1953 tribute to Vermont, called Vermont Tradition. Fisher (1879-1958) was one of the country s most popular novelists, but her heart was deeply rooted in Arlington. This story the story of Patrick Thompson s speech at an Arlington Town Meeting is one of the great Vermont classics.From Vermont Tradition: This was no academic discussion group debating the abstract proposition: Resolved that every child has the right to four years schooling beyond the eighth grade. This was a fight over action to be taken now going into debt for an ideal, an ideal which is almost the only primal urge for which humanity need never blush sacrifice by the old, to give the children a better chance.Those voters who believed the town could never raise the extra money required for building and upkeep, they were sincere in their mournful admission that, what with wretched train service, hardly any automobiles, the nearest existing public high school might almost as well be fifty miles off as the actual twelve miles of unplowed winter snow drifts, and spring mud-holes. But with even more bitter sincerity, they listed our community s urgent material needs one after another. The hill roads should be resurfaced, or they would wash out to stony trails. Care for the sick poor was more costly every year. But above all the bridges.In a mountain town with flash floods roaring over the banks of its water courses after hard rains, bridges have an imperious priority. Our bridges need reinforcement, not only from recurring high water, but against the great tonnage of modern traffic. It would be dangerous not to rebuild them. It would take all of the resources of a poor mountain town to keep our bridges in repair. To add to that expense the enormous cost of a new school insane!The tangible needs of the body and the impalpable needs of the mind and spirit stood up to see which was the stronger. The material needs outshouted the ideal. They sounded real and actual. The little flickering flame of responsibility for the future of the town s children died down to a faint glimmer in the hearts of the men and women whose voters would in a few minutes make the decision. Those who had longed and worked for the school sat silent, disconcerted by the predicted crashing of the bridges, loud in their ears. What could be said against that?Then up sprang Patrick Thompson yes, you are right in guessing from his name that he was Irish, was Catholic, was only one generation away from those who drank stinking water from the ship s barrel, long strings of green slime hanging down to the floor, as they struggled on towards the New World and Vermont. He had worked his way up to partnership in one of our two grocery stores. What education he had it was sound he had received in our public schools. We usually saw him in a white apron, standing behind the counter, selling sugar and tea. We have never forgotten and we will never let our children forget how he looked that day, his powerful shoulders squared, his hands clenched. We still remember his exact words, intense as the flame of a blowtorch: We are being told that our town cannot afford to keep its bridges safe and also to provide for its children a preparation for life that will give them a fair chance alongside other American children. That s what we are being told. Not one of us here really believes it. We just can t think what to say back. But suppose it were true Then I say, if we have to choose, Let the bridges fall down. What kind of town would we rather have, fifty years from now a place where nitwit folks go back and forth over good bridges? Or a town with brainy, well-educated people capable of holding their own in the modern way of life? You know which of those two is really wanted by every one of us here. I say, Let the bridges fall down!He took his seat in silence, the American citizen, the Celt, whose grandparents had lived in enforced ignorance.It was a turning point in the life of our town. We knew it was. So we spoke not a word. We sat silent, thinking. And feeling. What we felt, with awe, as though we saw it with our physical eye was in all our human hearts, the brave burning up to new brightness of the ideal.Presently, the Moderator said in the traditional phrase, Any further discussion? The silence was unbroken. Then Forward your ballots. In a silent line the grave faced voters moved slowly towards the ballot box, each hand holding a white paper.The school was built. Years later it burned, and was replaced, almost without opposition, by an even better one. The first battle had been conclusive. As we old timers look at the building, our hearts bursting with thanksgiving, we can see clearly as if actually carved on the lintel, LET THE BRIDGES FALL DOWN!*****The story of Patrick Thompson comes to mind each March, as we gather in town halls and schools for town meetings.This year, though, the story resonates even deeper. Vermont faces incredibly difficult choices. Sure, there is still a division over whether money should go to schools or bridges, but the choices are much more nuanced than that. And there are so many choices to be made.Our resources are limited; our needs are great. And the choice still boils down to the way Fisher described it more than a half century ago: The tangible needs of the body and the impalpable needs of the mind stood up to see which was the stronger. The material needs outshouted the ideal.In our debate this year we must be careful to weigh the merits to seek the balance and not be swayed by who shouts the loudest.Chris Graff, a former Vermont bureau chief of The Associated Press and host of VPT’s Vermont This Week, is now vice president for communications at National Life Group. He is author of, Dateline Vermont: Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state – and influenced a nation.