A few months ago I was covering an event at the Bristol Elementary School with photographer Trent Campbell — the sort of story I sometimes offer up self-deprecatingly to friends when I talk about my job. This, I’ll joke, is the bread and butter of community journalists: elementary school assemblies and small town police logs. In Bristol, a handful of students spent all year growing out their hair for Locks of Love, and Trent and I were on hand at the end-of-year assembly to document the big cut: snip!
The truth is, while the haircut beat may not be as glamorous as national political reporting or big environmental exposes, I love writing these small stories. The students are awestruck at the flash of Trent’s camera and the sight of my pen, dutifully transcribing their words. What for me is a routine stop in the course of my day, a short article to bury somewhere below the fold, is for them a chance at fame, at immortality.
After the assembly I was chatting with a group of 10-year-olds, their hair shorn in uneven bobs, when I caught one of the girls eyeing my digital voice recorder. There’d been a lull in our conversation, and I was catching up with my notes.
“It must be fun to be a newspaper girl,” she said bashfully.
It is, I told her. It is tremendous fun to be a newspaper girl.
I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot lately. After just more than two years at this newspaper, this week is my last at the Independent. Just a few weeks before my conversation with that fourth-grader, I made the decision to head off to graduate school in August. Not just any graduate school, mind you, but school in Wyoming, which between you and me feels about as far away as Mars.
I have every intention of coming back to Vermont, of making my home in this place I’ve mapped for myself in dozens of filled reporters’ notebooks. But I’m bracing myself for unfamiliar work and unfamiliar faces, and the thrill and terror of starting over someplace new. It’s hard for me to remember this now, but I was just as skittish when I showed up, a rookie reporter, for my first day on the job at the Independent. As I filed my first stories, I felt queasy that my day’s work was on display not just for my boss and my coworkers but also for 20,000 or so readers.
I was a stranger to Vermont in many ways, though I’d spent four years here bent over books in college. I got lost on back roads, and that first winter drove my car into a snowy ditch not once, but twice. And yet, when I wasn’t at my desk hammering away at the news, I fell in love, helped build a house, and wound up, seemingly overnight, making a life for myself here.
And along the way, you invited me into yours.
There was the band of Addison County dairy farmers who cheerfully put up with me during a bus trip to Montpelier a year and a half ago. As I tagged along on their mission to testify at the capitol, they patiently answered my city girl questions, and spoke candidly about their passion for their livelihoods and their fear in the face of economic uncertainty.
I sat in Sam DeVries’ living room in Addison, gingerly inquiring about the family’s heartbreaking choice to auction off their dairy cows. His wife, Alisa, was eight months pregnant with her fourth child at the time, and she spoke with me while her three older children careened around the kitchen. The oldest paused to show me a massive spider he’d caught, trapped in an economy-sized pretzel jug. The littlest at the time peered at me from around the door jamb.
“Peter is three, and Peter would just keep asking, ‘Why does the chopper have to go away? Why does the equipment have to leave?’ That was his thing,” Alisa told me. “And we would just tell him, ‘It needs to go to another farmer. They need it more than we do.’”
I sat in the audience at the Hancock Town Hall while the students of the tiny Hancock and Granville village schools marked the closing of the ancient, well-loved one- and two-room schoolhouses. Though I was an outsider in the towns, it was hard to remain unmoved when the students launched into their version of “So Long, Farewell,” bidding adieu to the classrooms where their parents and grandparents once studied.
There was plenty of good news to cover, too. Almost two years ago, I moved through a dark, brisk night on the north slope of Snake Mountain, feeling my way by sound and dumb luck to the sugarhouse-turned-laboratory where science teacher Rodney Olsen and a band of fourth-graders were catching and identifying owls. The birds were small and wide-eyed, perfectly still: watching.
At the Lincoln Community School, students bustled about in costume before a pitch-perfect dress rehearsal of their end-of-year play. The students had been studying the issue of migrant labor in the county, and I had to scrape my jaw up off the floor when the sixth-graders brought me up to speed on the North American Free Trade Agreement. When a thank you note arrived a week or so later, signed by every member of the class, I tacked it to my refrigerator.
I got a lesson in beekeeping from Chas Mraz in Middlebury, and a crash course in large animal medicine from Annie Starvish, a young veterinarian in Vergennes. Ninety-eight-year-old Bill James in Bristol showed me the meticulous list of every trip and vacation he took with his late wife of more than 60 years, and I found my tutorial in devotion. Come August, I gleefully threw on my boots and headed to Field Days, feeling a bit like a school kid playing hooky while I spent the workday interviewing 4-H farm kids, carnival ride operators and the ringleader at the traveling pig races.
This is the strange miracle of being a reporter: You can drop into your neighbors’ life and start asking questions. It’s thrilling, heady work, but these stories deserve a careful touch and honest treatment. Ours is a time when fewer than a third of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, believe that news organizations generally get the facts straight — but in Addison County, readers trusted a 22-year-old rookie to do just that.
For that, thank you. It’s been great fun being your newspaper girl.