As my second year with Shelburne News and the other weekly newspapers of the Vermont Community Newspaper Group comes to an end, it’s safe to say this has been my strangest year in journalism.
It also may be the strangest year in the history of journalism.
I think we tend to forget that all year was not suffused with the tragedies and restrictions of a global pandemic. The year began with the kinds of stories hyper-local newspaper scribes have been writing for decades.
Here are a few things I’ll remember:
As January ended, I got the chance to meet and write about Rick Bessette, Shelburne’s pied piper of poetry. The state of Vermont’s only town poet laureate, he discussed his creative process, reading his stanzas and encouraging others to write their own, particularly students at Shelburne Community School.
He was going to step down as poet laureate, but no one stepped up to the job of town wordsmith, so he continues as Shelburne’s designated rhymer.
In February, I had a fun and inspiring interview with Jeff Beerworth, of Charlotte, a man whose interests and talents are myriad.
Beerworth is an artist, a police officer, a detective, an author, a singer-songwriter, a maker of bamboo fly rods, a painting instructor and the program director at the Shelburne Craft School.
I was just concluding our interview when he mentioned he had written a history of Burlington law enforcement, “Historic Crimes and Justice in Burlington, Vermont.”
I am still trying to understand how he’s keeps his fingers in such a plentitude of pies.
On a Saturday evening, I found myself at the Hinesburg Town Hall for an evening of logger, writer and humorist Bill Torrey’s stories. If you weren’t there, I wish you were. It was hilarious and so much fun. And an example of why small Vermont towns are so wonderful.
Working for Abenaki apology
At the very end of February, I covered the effort to get the legislature to pass J.R.H.7, a resolution that would apologize for the state-sanctioned eugenics movement forced-sterilization program of Native Americans in the 1920s and 30s.
Although I had interviewed Don Stevens, the Chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation, a couple of times before, it dawned on me as I was writing this story that if the state of Vermont had had its way, Stevens never would have been born. During Vermont’s eugenics movement his grandmother changed her name three times and his mother twice to avoid being forcibly sterilized.
This realization has really stayed with me.
Black Lives Matter flags at all the schools
On June 19, Juneteenth, Black Lives Matters flags were raised at all the schools in the Champlain Valley School District.
Juneteenth commemorates the day at the end of the Civil War when news reached Texas that all previously enslaved people were free.
The CVSD board unanimously adopted a statement that was read at all the school flag raisings in the district on that Friday. The statement pointed out the day they chose was Juneteenth.
On June 19, 1865, more than two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, “the last enslaved Africans were finally freed,” the board’s statement said.
“We hope that raising this flag will be a reminder to everyone in our community that your school district is committed to change,” the statement said. “Hold us accountable. If we’re not moving fast enough, let us know. If we aren’t going far enough, tell us. It’s on us to do the work, and we encourage your feedback.”
We also took the opportunity to look back at the history of racism in Vermont through the stories of two African American families — Shubael and Violet Clark and Prince Peters and his wife Hannah Lensemen — who settled on Lincoln Hill outside of Hinesburg in the 1790s.
Historical records indicate that for the first 25-50 years they did well at farming and appear to have been accepted as integral parts of the community. Their children went to mostly white schools. Members of the family became leaders at mostly white local churches.
Initially, the predominant belief was that African American culture was inferior. As the 1800s advanced towards the Civil War, a belief grew that African Americans were biologically inferior. This attitude appears to have gained some sway in Hinesburg.
Elise Guyette, the author of “Discovering Black Vermont: African American Farmers in Hinesburgh, 1790-1890,” pointed out the long-held assertion that the Vermont constitution made it the first state to outlaw slavery isn’t completely true — children were still slaves under this constitution.
Pandemic punch in the gut
After all of the struggles of COVID, this newspaper was punched in the gut in July. Half of the staff was laid off. Our newsroom in South Burlington was closed, although we still have an advertising office on Williston Road and moved to one newsroom in Stowe for all five weekly newspapers of the Vermont Community Newspaper Group.
Happy as I was to still have a job – not only that but a job I love – it was a painful transition. Wonderful, talented people were let go. People that I admired, looked up to and hoped one day to work more closely with were suddenly gone.
When the school year began in the fall, I had the chance to talk to some students about how this strange new teaching process was working for them. All of them agreed being in school, even if it was just for two days a week, was better than learning online-only in the spring.
Ethan Lisle, a Champlain Valley Union High School senior, said it wasn’t ideal “because nothing’s ideal when we compare it to pre-COVID-19.”
The CVU senior shared his theory that months of social distancing and isolating at home had students feeling a lack of connection. But he said having the opportunity to experience this together is ironically unifying.
Anderson, Max and Reeves Howard talked to me one morning as they got ready to go to Hinesburg Community School. The Howard household almost unanimously supported being back in school, feeling like two days were better than none.
The one dissenting voice was from Samson, their 150-pound Russian bear dog, who could be heard over the phone howling his displeasure at seeing his boys preparing to desert him for their in-school instruction.
Shelburne Community School student Jack Ahrens said there were just six students in his class. This meant more attention from the teacher. The downside: “It’s harder to get away with things.”
Vivian Volver of Shelburne Community School said it’s frustrating not to be able to shake hands, high five, hug, tell secrets or pat somebody on the back.
She did feel safe at school with clear plastic dividers between students and the teacher. The classroom is quieter and during the first days of school students seemed less ready to speak up and answer questions.
Although not ideal, Volver said it was better than being on a Chromebook all day to learn.