Opinion: Vermont values come shining through

A Brattleboro, Vt., resident carries an umbrella while walking down Elliot Street as the snow switches to rain on Wednesday, Nov. 16.

A Brattleboro, Vt., resident carries an umbrella while walking down Elliot Street as the snow switches to rain on Wednesday, Nov. 16.

Associated Press

If “Florida is where woke goes to die” as its governor, Ron DeSantis boasts, Vermont is where elitism goes to shrivel up and starve.

When I moved to Vermont 37 years ago from Eugene, Ore., my housemate in a South Royalton farmhouse, Carol Brock, told me “You’ve got to do your time in Vermont.”

She didn’t mean it like a jail sentence, she meant it like marinating. You’ve got to spend enough time in Vermont to let its values sink in and change you.

What are Vermont’s values? I was born in New Haven, home of Yale University, which overshadowed everything in New Haven. In Vermont, Yale is a lock company and a good one. The Ivy League school by the same name isn’t even a topic on the radar up here.

My references to my birthplace and Yale when I first came to Vermont were met with polite boredom. Ho hum.

Vermont is the second-least populated state in the union with around 600,000 residents in 2022. It was even smaller in 1985 when I moved here at age 40. My point is there aren’t a lot of jobs available in Vermont. As Brock told me in 1985 when I couldn’t find a job in another of her pithy jewels: “You’ve got to wait your turn in Vermont.”

It didn’t matter that I had three college degrees. I was just one of many in line for the same job, whatever it was, so I took a job at $3.25 an hour pumping gas at Texaco in White River Junction 14 hours on Saturdays and 14 hours on Sundays. I took a second job at a gift shop in Quechee from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday at $3.10 an hour, and I took a third job as an apartment superintendent of two four-unit buildings in Randolph for $80 a month.

I had to wait my turn.

After two years I finally got a job as an English teacher at a White River Junction high school for $18,500 a year. That’s where I learned the most about Vermont values.

In my first year of teaching, I had a student whose kitchen had an earthen floor and a student whose parents were professors at Dartmouth and spoke French at home. True diversity, I thought, with a bit of pity for the family with the earthen floor.

I loved to brag about that diversity for 20 years until I read on the front page of the local paper that the family with the earthen floor sold their house and 300-acre farm for $16 million. So much for my misplaced condescension.

Two other stories from staff at my White River Junction high school involve 90 pounds of potatoes, which caused me to think even more deeply about Vermont values.

The first was from the 60-year-old custodian at my school. He told me he was one of 10 children, five girls and five boys. His parents had two double beds for the kids as he grew up. His brothers slept four- side-by-side and the fifth perpendicular across the bottom of each bed. His sisters the same, in another bed.

His parents, he told me, bought 90 pounds of potatoes every week to feed the crew.

The Vermont value? Make do.

The second potato story, also 90 pounds (believe it or not), was told to me by a 65-year-old faculty member in our vocational school, also an old Vermonter like our 10-sibling custodian.

This faculty member told me how his 40-year-old son had got married the summer before.

“Mother and I put on the reception,” he told me. He called his wife “mother.” “We cooked a roast beef dinner for 60 people,” he said with just a smidgen of pride in his clipt Vermont accent. “Mother and I got up at 6 a.m. on the wedding day and peeled 90 pounds of potatoes ourselves,” he said, with a hint of Yankee satisfaction at the accomplishment.

Vermont value? Show love, don’t say it.

After 37 years living in Vermont, I think I’ve finally finished my Green Mountain marinating.

I’ve had the same Vermont gentleman collect my trash every third Monday for the 30 years I’ve lived in this house. He is 82 years old now and I marvel when I see him back his always shiny small dump truck into my driveway.

So does my golden retriever mix named Dodger marvel.

That’s because that 82-year-old man always brings dog biscuits which he throws over the kennel fence to Dodger. He tells me that he does that for all the dogs on his route and they actually wait for him on the assigned day. They know he’s coming.

Vermont value? Make work fun.

I’m glad I moved to Vermont in 1985. The last 37 years have helped me get my head straight.

Vermont is where elitism goes to starve and where people go to thrive — with potatoes, dog biscuits and love.

Paul Keane is a retired Vermont English teacher who grew up in New Haven and Hamden.