Widgets and Wonders

The senior class graduates Saturday. The fifth grade, the elementary school’s senior class, celebrated their ‘moving up’ to middle school a few days earlier. Thing2’s graduation to the next step of his education was a huge milestone for us. It’s the first time in twelve years that we won’t have a child in elementary school. But it’s not only our perspective that made the afternoon unique.

The Big Guy and I each went to schools with thousands of kids. Graduation at mine lasted almost two hours because we had to wait for hundreds of kids to accept their diplomas. I knew the principal’s name, but I doubt he knew mine before he read it on the slip attached to my diploma. We were widgets, school was a factory.

At Thing2’s ceremony, there were songs. The music teacher handed out awards to the kids who had done chorus and band. The teachers from each 13-kid section handed out academic awards, and then, at the fifteen-minute mark, it was time to hand out the ‘diplomas’.

The principal started with a gentle reminder of the rehearsal instructions the kids had received earlier, producing a chorus of giggles from the risers behind her. She started to read out a name and the first boy climbed down to accept his certificate, but then she stopped.

“Wait a minute Mr. Smith,” she said, holding up her hand and seeming to wipe a speck of dust from her eye. The grinning boy froze, watching her as she stopped to tell the parents a story about his first day at preschool. It took less than thirty seconds, and the entire diploma handoff took less than thirty minutes for all thirty kids, even though, for most of them, the principal paused to recount a special moment or running joke.

Even for a small state like Vermont, we know our school system is on the very small side. It’s small enough that, despite ranking second in the state, there’s been a push from above for improved efficiency and lower costs by consolidating with other districts. Our district has strenuously resisted that push, and much of the resistance has focused on the school’s academic achievements. The district has also conducted more than one study to justify its existence financially.

It was Thing2’s commencement that reminded me that, in education, value can’t be determined solely by efficiency, or even scores.

The principal and teacher to student ratio won’t be any different on Saturday when Thing1 is climbing the risers. The high school principal has taught each of the kids, has coached many of them in little league, has been a presence in most of their lives for the last thirteen years. The teachers have been coaches, are parents of their classmates.

The whole ceremony, if history is any judge, will take 30-45 minutes. In those 45 minutes, however, will be packed thirteen years of phone calls and parent-teacher conferences, of field-trips and spur-of-the-moment meetings to talk over a parent’s concern, of newsletters and community service days, of nurses calling to make sure everything’s still alright, of teachers saying ‘he can do better’ because they absolutely believe that their students can. Those 45 minutes will be the result of thirteen years of creating young adults invested in a community that they know has invested in them. They will be the results of a community saw something more important than widgets.

It saw the future.

And That’s the Way it Was


The home internet isn’t great, but, in truth, it’s been worse. Still, at 8:55 AM, I pack my up my laptop and head for the country store five minutes away.

I know I’m really after something more than WiFi.

Saturday morning is sunny, the cool air a reminder of a vicious storm the night before. Our south-facing, earth-sheltered house escapes the effects of even the worst winds. If not for last night’s pink lightning and intensifying winds following me and Thing1 home from the Tux shop, seemingly targeting us for annihilation, I would only note a few left-over rain drops minimizing the late spring fire hazard that threatens after the snow melts and the trees are still naked.

I hit the radio button but promptly turn down the volume as I head out our long, rocky driveway. A grouse family now lives at the top of the driveway. The territorial ‘dad’ often tries to flutter inside or attack the car, so I listened for him instead of for news .

The county store is quiet when I arrive. The first round of coffee-klatchers has already been by, sharing farming and turkey hunting gossip before abandoning the gingham oilcloth covered roundtable behind the register. I grab a seat by the deli so I can enjoy the smells of frying and baking and enjoy a view of the giant antique roll top desk and the window.

“I’m operating on four hours of sleep.” The store’s matriarch sits at the desk going through bills. She stops to prop her elbow on the desk and her head with its crown of silver-white hair on her hand. I rarely see her sit, let alone sit without moving. Normally she’s brightly chatting with coffee-breakers while answering questions about where the restroom is and if she carries a certain kind of ammo as she manages the paperwork.

“Tommy has a tree on his house, so I switched with him today,” she says.

It’s my first news of the day. Coming from the Midwest where tornado warnings regularly accompany summer storms, I’d rushed to get us home Friday night. The storm moved over our mountain and river so quickly that I’d laughed at my fears. Last night fears were realized for other people, however.

Another store regular strides past the register and round table to the hunting license counter to use the phone.

“Are you out, Margie?” the owner asks.

“We are and so’s the Pipers.” The new arrival’s sweatshirt is wet down the front, her hair is wild. “Mark had to chainsaw a tree across the drive so I could get out. Have you seen any power trucks yet?”

“A few went by, but I think they were headed up into Sandgate,” the owner answers. She looks at me. “Are you out on your road?”

“No,” I answered. “I thought the town had power.”

“The east side does apparently, but everything’s out above the notch,” she says. “Cambridge is even worse.” Cambridge, NY, the next town over from Arlington, VT is where Tommy lives.

Margie dials the power company and reports outages for herself and for neighbors she’s already checked in on before driving down her mountain. The store owner asks if they need any other help, but Margie smiled and shook her head no.

She heads out the door as the red-headed son of our plow guy saunters in. Not too long out of high school, he already has his own landscaping business. He also asks Margie if anyone on her road needs any chainsawing, and I think how unfairly the popular culture maligns kids of his generation.

Margie left. The young man grabs a coffee and a chair, telling us which neighbors have power or trees down on houses or cars. A store employee, a student at the local community college, comes from behind the deli to sit and nervously tell us about a tree on her grandfather’s car. The young man offers his help and leaves.

A few customers from Cambridge filter in. They tell us they think they were hit by a tornado, rapidly recounting moments spent huddling in mobile home bathrooms and later chainsawing trees to get out front doorways. Their voices pitch higher as they remember the panic, illustrating the magnitude of the storm more fully than any news reel.

Over the next hours, more regulars file in and out, making their calls to power and phone companies. The store owner always asks do they need help. They regularly answer with inquiries about her house. Other self-employed landscaping guys stop by for coffee breaks.

This morning customers are simply friends and neighbors who need to be safe. Later in the day, my Facebook feed features photos from friends and of New York’s governor stopping by to survey damage and make what are hopefully not empty promises.

The visit and a confirmation that at least one microburst caused the extensive damage may make the local news. What likely won’t make the news are the reports of people sending pizza to homeowners and power crews working to clear trees from a local street. I doubt I’ll hear on the radio about our plow guy helping someone out of a house or the countless offers of help and favors done — big and small — made by the country store employees.

But that’s the way it was this afternoon, and that news was just what I’d gone looking for, even if I didn’t know it.

What You Need


Saturday our rural internet started feeling like we should be attaching rabbit ears to our modem, so I went to work at the round table with the red and white checkered table cloth at back of our local country store, parking myself next to the deli case, compete with a view of the giant rolltop desk that sits in front of a sign that reads, “If we don’t have it you don’t need it.”

Most Saturdays what I need, in addition to the internet, are soda and vittles from the deli, but there are other things I need from our country store that aren’t on any shelf — and they can’t be had any place else.

Yesterday, the store’s proprietress sat at the desk working on an order for the summer season, and we chatted as we both worked and visited with neighbors stopping in for groceries or a coffee break.

Around lunchtime, the owner’s granddaughter came in for her shift. Her son toddled behind her, continuing a time-honored tradition of ‘helping’ at the family business. Kids love the sights and constant flow of friends and family in and out, and this toddler did an excited two-step, giving a little squeal whenever someone he knew came through the door.

While his mom worked in the office, he darted between her and his great-grandmother.  Occasional soft whimpers began signaling the need for a nap , and his great-grandmother reached out, inviting him to snuggle with her for short nap. He went happily to her outstretched arms and, with a little help, climbed onto her lap, resting his head on her shoulder and looking as contented as a person can be.

It took only a moment to draw enough energy from that hug before he got back to the business of being a toddler. I watched him explore thinking how nice it is that somethings can still be made right with a hug, which was exactly what I needed

Cocooning

It was -17 this morning — so cold it froze the batteries in our brand new weather station.

These are the mornings our wood cookstove-heated earth-sheltered house wraps us up in a snowbound chrysalis. I got to pat myself on the back for having thought to get the wood bins overloaded Friday morning before the cold snap known as ‘Winter’ began in earnest.

As I cooked a farmer’s breakfast for our family who no longer has responsibility for anything resembling a farm animal (unless reformed barn cats count) or any intention of leaving the house for chores or pleasure until the mercury hits zero, I feel like Ma Ingalls in the Little House books. Then I remember that by this hour of an ordinary 17-below morning that Ma would have already done the farm chores and still be having a good hair day.

Something to Do


For the first Saturday and as many Saturdays as I can remember, I didn’t have a class or a fair, Thing1 didn’t have a job, and the Big Guy wasn’t working. 

We have plenty to do. The yard has been professionally neglected all summer, but still with everybody in the family home for once, we felt like we should look for something to do. 

Something fun.

That’s how we found ourselves driving through The rolling hills of Washington County, New York. Thing1’s driving did nothing for my painting skills, but it did wonders for my creative spark. 

Suddenly I can’t wait to get back in the studio.