Vermont is a state that clings to its traditions.
People survive (barely) on agriculture, though now the growth industry (if you can call tiny agriculture "growth"), is artisanal cheese making. And in the 12 years or so that I have lived here that's gotten pretty good. Maple syrup is still made here despite the diseases that are attacking maple trees. The old fashioned sugaring requires the gathering of hundreds of 5 gallon buckets of sap by hand and decanting them into a container pulled by horse or tractor through the woods. There can be three or four buckets on each tree and they need to be emptied twice a day. That sap is then boiled down at a rate of 40 gallons of sap to one gallon of syrup. Most farmers around here now use gravity to draw the sap through long plastic tubes to a tank. The boiling is more often done with propane or gas than with wood, but some still cling to that tradition as it is far cheaper than the price of oil.
There are more local people tending bees in Vermont these days despite colony collapse disorder that describes the bees' inability to find their way back to the hive, and the mites that are killing them in large numbers. And there are still some stubborn farmers that milk cows in herds of under 300 rather than producing milk as a commodity on factory farms with thousands of steroid pumped bovines living on plastic bedding who never see the light of day or a blade of grass.
Vermont has other traditions that continue despite threats of the modern era.
The first Monday of March is town meeting and the first Tuesday is the vote. I wanted to be sure to be in Vermont for both and I sat knitting through the three hour town meeting that was pretty mellow this year though other years have required the presence of the constable to quell the town wackos.
Many people have written about a tradition that has people so invested in both the large and small issues that affect not only their spending for the coming year, but the quality of life. I sat in the front of the Firehouse on a metal folding chair with friends I have known since I moved here, but I probably knew about half of those in attendance by sight or by having shared a table at a local potluck. While voting I had short chats with a half dozen people I knew. I
knew all the town officials who were running the polling place and I also
knew all the other voters who walked through while I was there.
There were 32 articles on the town government ballot and eight articles on the school ballot. One of those included the expenditure of $1,934,623.00 for school programs in the 2012-2013 fiscal year. (There are 72 elementary school students and 49 secondary school students at a per child cost of $15,988.) That did not include the cost of a proposed study of the viability of combining the five tiny local schools in some administrative or educational way, nor the $10,000 for a .2 FTE (one day a week) language teacher. The school board presented their ideas with a power point, projected on an ancient pull down screen, and there were comments from the principal, the school "moderator", the head of the "Supervisory Union", the budget manager and others. There was less anger this year and fewer challenges, though it wouldn't surprise me if it were voted down again, as it was in the last two years, necessitating some serious scrambling and a small roll back of costs that amounts to little other than some muscle-flexing by a community that has little choice, as long as it has to bus its secondary school students to other private schools in the area that charge what they want to. The town has to pay what they ask. (FLASH: This just in: the school budget passed. The foreign language teacher did not.) But what surprised me were some of the ideas that reflected tradition in a place where I frankly think it is wrong.
The principal (beloved from what I understand) did a rather awkward job of presenting the school's successes. His ability to convey the students' scores in reading and math on state-wide tests, were... unconvincing... even troubling, coming from the chief school official. While he repeatedly told the town citizens that "good things are happening here," programs that he pridefully identified included wood working and doll making (as Jerry Seinfeld would say, "not that there's anything wrong with that").
I am a great believer in the power of craft to center us, and the opportunity to build skills early is important. But wood working and doll making instead of language skills seems problematic in an era of globalization - even in Vermont where those artisanal cheeses are competing for attention with the best French cheeses. And taking pride in programs that make our kids cooperative rather than intellectually competitive seems to put them in the slow lane for the rest of their lives.
It reminded me of an earlier conversation with a bright and talented woman in this town, who is also the mother of two young boys. And it reminded me of the friends that Herb and I have, that are considering home-schooling their kids. And if there are four families in our immediate friendship network who are considering this, there must be something more than that in the country at large (though we COULD be outliers).
OK, it is a return to tradition. I get that.
It is a reflection of the very bright kids of the very bright people that we tend to hang out with. I get that.
It demonstrates the very real failures of cash-strapped schools to address the needs of kids at the extremes on the spectrum - gifted and troubled. And of the broken schools in even big cities. I get that.
But what I don't get, is why at this moment in time, we are curtailing the opportunities of kids to engage intellectually and socially with other kids in real ways that don't involve technological mediation (though there is far less texting in a town with no cell towers!). And I don't get why talented smart women are opting out of the mainstream to raise their kids at home rather than making change in the world, in careers that we (old woman that I am) fought for access to. [Pause] OK, so I get that too.
The economy makes it both necessary that there be two wage earners in the family, and the economy makes it impossible, with fewer and fewer jobs outside the fast food or service industries. (There is a powerful movie on working class women in the fast food industry that was made in 1992 but is probably still pretty accurate. An excerpt is available here). And Herb's post back in the mists about the Breatharian economy underlines that the smartest of women are working in adjunct or low wage jobs that give them no sense that the work they do matters. I recently read an article by a full time faculty member at a decent school that said she was broke-- a combination of student loans and a lack of a family nest egg that could have helped her with the basic expenses of getting educated while raising kids. And I read one about a woman who took a job in a knitting store because at least it made her feel that she had some value in the world though she measures her value in the comments that the customers make rather than in a livable wage. These women are not alone. I am wondering how we measure our value.
And I worry that we are perpetuating the divide between the kids who are being educated for success and those who are educated in rural schools by well-meaning and caring people who want the best for them, but don't have access to the resources of the larger institutions e.g. language instruction. The principal talked about his goal of making cooperative kids, and I was reminded of the phrase I heard when I taught at the local college: "The students are very nice." We are supporting a generation of kids who are being taught to be nice. In an economy that isn't nice.
So maybe my big city values are showing. And surely I have no grounds to speak on this since I never had kids. But I DO have friends who grew up here, and are struggling to make viable careers and viable lives. They are struggling to survive. The real dirty secret is, so am I.
One final note... A friend recently sent me a magnificent video of women in art. You can see it by clicking here. I watched it mesmerized until I realized that all the women had their mouths closed except for four that had coy smiles. I wonder when we are going to start speaking out again-- for what we believe. And I wonder when that will have some value.