Ways of Seeing: How I began becoming a Vermonter
What you are about to read might be viewed as a plug for your local paper, but it’s really the story of how I began becoming a Vermonter. Merely attending school in Vermont hardly made the transformation for me. That task required a different sort of setting.
After college graduation, I needed to find a job. Unemployment was high, wages were low, and young people were flocking to Vermont or, like me, not leaving. (That makes you wonder if we are on the right track now, hoping to woo a younger demographic with slick ads, etc., but that’s probably another column.) Vermont had found my heart, and I was determined to make my way.
I read the classified ads and considered the possibilities: waitress, carpenter, proofreader … I knew I could do the latter. I was a quick reader with a sharp eye for detail. And where was this job? At the Addison Press, which published the Addison Independent plus a variety of other printed items.
I headed to its office in the stone building at the bottom of “Printer’s Alley.” This was not your current newspaper; a few decades have intervened. The publisher and managing editor was a crusty, opinionated old man referred to as “the Colonel.” Col. William Slater had been running the paper for a great many years, and I think he was pleased to get a college-educated proofreader for the grand sum of $80 a week. (Minimum wage was $2/hour at the time.) For my part, I was pleased to get a job that would start immediately, had regular hours, and was close enough that I could commute on my ancient bicycle.
This new job required me to read everything that was printed, and to read it with a keen focus so that no misspelling, typo, left-out word or grammatical error would slip by. I had a special pen, a sheet of proofreading codes, and a desk in the front office. Copy was brought to me as it came off the presses, and I would wield my new pen.
I read reports of the selectboards, bowling league scores, DHIA reports (of butterfat content), and stories from the various town correspondents, mostly telling about who had whom to tea. I read the police and court logs and all the ads. The obituaries, wedding and engagement stories, and birth announcements were all part of my regular fodder. Extension Service reports provided lots of information about dairy farms, agriculture in general, forestry and nutrition.
My youth and a particularly good visual memory allowed the articles to enter my mind and stay there. Not the precise bowling scores or gallons of milk produced on a given farm, but pretty much everything else. No matter what my friends might be talking about, I would have the relevant — or not so relevant — information. I knew every event scheduled in town, plus what had occurred the previous week. If we were driving down the road, I could share information about a business or farm we might be passing. And just to fill in any gaps in my knowledge, I shared my workspace with two much older women who happily added the unprinted details behind a story.
It was, in fact, total immersion in the local scene, a larger scene than I ever could have directly experienced even if I had known how or where to try. I held this job a mere 16 months, yet I could feel, even at the time, that I had stepped more fully into this Vermont world than any of my friends. We were all busy living the life defined by splitting wood, planting gardens and driving cars that required knowing certain mechanics. But I had gained a level of in-depth knowledge that brought me a real understanding and appreciation of the whole local economy and social structure.
If I ever were to move to another community — not too likely at this point — I would immediately start reading the local paper on a regular basis. I would read every word. So often we think we know about something when we only know its surface. Just as people increasingly trend to news sources that fit their pre-conceived ideas, we tend to seek out that to which we already have connections.
You may have little interest in the high school sports stories, but you might learn that the kid who lives down the road just scored the winning goal. Or perhaps you recognize the volunteer greeting you as you enter the hospital is the person recently honored for 40 years of service. These may be small events to you as you read them, but they provide the kinds of positive social connections we all need.
So, read the local paper. Get to know your neighbors. Attend Town Meetings, potluck suppers and local performances. These things bring people together even when they disagree on some issues. They are the things that help create and solidify community. Whether you are new to Vermont or have just been living in your own little bubble, get out, get connected. That’s how Vermont gained its character. That’s how a society, be it town, state or nation, becomes great.
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental and just.
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