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Sarah Smiley: Making a Difference


Our 41st Dinner with the Smileys guest, former Maine governor and current candidate for Sen. Olympia Snowe's Senate seat, Angus King, lives in Brunswick, Maine. At dinner, between answering Ford's tough questions ("Why do people call Maine a liberal state when we always have Republican senators?"), King shared with us how much the Department of Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission's (BRAC) decision to shut down NAS Brunswick has affected the community.

In particular, King and his wife, Mary, spoke about feeling the loss of the positive cultural impact a military community brings to a region.

We military families usually focus on how our move-every-three-years lifestyle positively influences our own lives. We acquire new tastes and interests. Our eyes are opened to different socio-economic problems and conditions. Our children are exposed to different ways of living and seeing the world. We are introduced to different politics and regional concerns (what's politically critical in, say, San Diego, isn't necessarily critical in Omaha).

Too often, however, military families neglect to appreciate how much of an asset we are to the communities in which we live. Our experiences abroad become part of our identity, creating new demands for culturally diverse foods and experiences wherever we go. (You haven't seen a wide variety of ethnic food selections until you've been to a military commissary.) In schools, our military dependent children share stories from their travels throughout the country and world. And in regions where many parents work in the same fields of business -- or even for the same company, factory or mill -- military children bring new perspective about the working- and middle-class and what it means to be a family.

The flip-side to all of this, of course, is that military families don't stay in one place long enough to really make a lasting difference.

Or so we think.

Angus King's comments about what military families bring to a community came, coincidentally, on the heels of my decision to run for the school committee in Bangor. At first, I was hesitant about putting my name on the ballot. Bangor is a small town. Many people involved in the local government have been in the area their whole lives. I don't know the complete history of the school department, and my kids have only been in the district for four years. What could I possibly have to offer (besides my Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education)? I'm just a military wife who moved here. Never a Mainer; always "from away."

But King's comments sparked in a me a new way of thinking: I actually have quite a bit to offer ... because I'm a military wife. I have seen schools in California, Florida, Virginia and Alabama. I've witnessed good districts and bad districts. In college, I worked in an inner-city school; in Florida, my son's school was rural. I've volunteered in countless classrooms and tutored at-risk students in Alabama.

In other words, I have a wide perspective.

And what I've always said, even before deciding to run for school committee, is that the difference between the good schools and the bad ones is people. Specifically: teachers. I've seen state-of-the-art school buildings filled with lousy teachers. I've seen schools made up almost entirely of rundown portable buildings and filled with excellent teachers. My son went to a school with 14 (yes, 14) kindergarten classrooms. Then, he went to a school (in Bangor) with only two classrooms each for grades K-2.

In all of these cases -- big, little; rich, poor; well-funded and not -- the difference is teachers. They are a school's best, most important resource. Teachers set the tone for the school. They bring culture, variety, perspective and influence. Schools (and parents) want to hang on to the good teachers. They'll fight to keep them happy and well-funded. They'll jockey to make sure their children are in that teacher's class.

Because a good teacher, like a positive military influence, is an asset. A good teacher's retirement is a devastating loss for the school district. It vibrates throughout the schools. Just as the King mourns the void that a military community once filled in Brunswick, the absence of a good teacher does not go unnoticed.

It all came together for me at our dinner with Angus and Mary. If elected, I'll fight for excellent teachers, who, I believe, are as important to a school district as military families are to a community.

I hope other military spouses will get involved in their communities as well. For too long, we've second-guessed our ability and our "right" to be involved in local politics. We've neglected all that we can give back and the chance to share our wealth of experiences and perspective.

As always, you can see pictures from our dinner with Angus King by going to

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Navy wife Sarah Smiley is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife (2005) and I'm Just Saying (2008). She has been featured in the New York Times and Newsweek, and on Nightline, The Early Show, CNN, Fox News and other local and national news outlets. Her liferights were optioned by Kelsey Grammer's company, Grammnet, and Paramount Television to be made into a half-hour sitcom. Visit for more details. To contact Sarah, you can also visit her Facebook page.