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Faith in Vermont: (Not) Wheeling and Dealing at Barter Day

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Posted on March 27, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



When we began homeschooling our children about two years ago, it was a choice born of necessity: Our family would be spending five months in Berkeley, California while my husband was on sabbatical, and in order to have the flexibility to make the most of our stay (and to avoid navigating the Berkeley public school system), homeschooling seemed the obvious solution. I assumed it would be a contentious, stressful, and painful experience. More than once, I assured myself (and my daughters), “We can survive anything for five months!”

When we returned to Vermont and continued homeschooling our children, it was a choice born of love. The actual experience of homeschooling my children proved my expectations wrong: It felt nothing at all like ‘surviving,’ and more like thriving.

Homeschooling in Vermont has meant that our family has become part of a group known as the “Addison County Homeschoolers.” That’s the name assigned to the group’s email list and its Facebook page, but the group itself is a bit diffuse. In a style that I’ve come to identify as very Vermont, our homeschool group is more like a loose collective of families who tend to do their own independent things, but who gather on occasion for community events.

These community events include a couple of theater productions each year, weekly open gym and sharing times, an annual spelling bee, and a monthly meeting.

This month, the Addison County Homeschoolers came together for something that was once an annual event, but that hadn’t happened in a year or so: Barter Day. Children come to Barter Day bearing items that they’ve made or collected, which they trade with each other.

To barter is, very simply, “to exchange goods or services for other goods or services without using money.” Before moving to Vermont, I filed the concept of bartering in the part of my mind dedicated to medieval history, somewhere between William the Conqueror and the Black Plague. It was a sweet idea, but nobody did things that way anymore in this age of cash and credit. 

Since moving to Vermont, I have come to see bartering as very Vermont.

People in Vermont barter all the time. Perhaps this is because we tend to live in small communities, where neighbors really know each other. Perhaps it’s because people here tend to have specialized skill sets and equipment that are valuable to others: If you have a snow plow attachment, you may still need eggs, and if you make maple syrup, you may still need hay bales. Perhaps it’s because, in a place where life is still fairly inconvenient, goods and services are often worth more than cash: In mid-winter, if your woodpile is getting low, it’s easier to swap some venison for a cord of wood than trying to find some wood to buy for cash.

Over the years, our family has bartered wood for honey, eggs for hay bales, and – in our biggest barter to date, and one that shows clearly where our priorities lie – we bartered my husband’s car in exchange for bacon and babysitting.

When I mentioned Barter Day to my three home-schooled daughters, they were enthusiastic. My 10-year-old gathered some beaded earrings she’d made, plus a collection of rocks she’d picked up from our driveway, washed, and put in a Mason jar. My 8-year-old made a menagerie of wax animals. My 6-year-old opted to get by on her smile and a tub of chocolate chip cookies that I’d baked.  

As we entered the Brandon Town Hall, where Barter Day was held, I felt strangely nervous. Although I spend massive amounts of time with my children, I try very hard not to be a “helicopter parent.” I know that my children need to experience life’s pain and challenges in order to become well adjusted people. I know I cannot control how others treat them.

Still, walking into Barter Day, I breathed quickly with the worry that my children’s offerings might be rejected. That their feelings would be hurt. That their hearts would be broken.

Eight other families were laying out their wares on tables circled around the Town Hall basement. These included handmade magic wands; potholders; origami, creatures made of Styrofoam, pipe cleaners, and feathers; homemade slime; beeswax lip balm; and a plethora of baked goods.

Once everyone had set up, the organizers gave a brief introduction to the concept of bartering. One mother, a Barter Day veteran, talked strategy: “One year,” she said, “someone brought a handmade sword that everybody wanted, and he wouldn’t take just anything for it. Everyone had to be strategic. They saved up big piles of things to try and trade for that sword.”

As it turned out, this sort of deal making was absent from our Barter Day experience; nor did I need to worry about my daughters’ hearts.

What amazed me about Barter Day was that everyone said, “Okay!” Whether it was my daughters swapping things they’d labored on for a couple of chocolate chip cookies (when we already had a tubful of chocolate chip cookies), to other children who gamely traded their treasures for a Mason jar of rocks, it was an hour of unrelenting kindness.

Can children be cruel to each other? Absolutely. Can they drive hard bargains? Every day, in my house.

But, for whatever reason, the children who participated in this Barter Day decided to say, “Okay!” A fifth potholder? Beaded earrings when your ears aren’t even pierced? Yet another cookie? “Okay!” They chose compassion over haggling, and they had a wonderful time.

For me, Barter Day was another in a series of recent reminders that we have much to learn from our children.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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