Left in Andover: A wider world, a wider vision

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

When I sent my tender firstborn off to kindergarten in Chester in 1989 I fretted she would eat white sugar, discover Twinkies and Barbies, celebrate Christmas, take the DARE program literally and go steady by third grade.

Although my daughter did most of the above, I discovered it was not such a big deal. I never worried about her personal safety. My concerns, which seem trivial compared to those of parents at the beginning of this school year, were probably indicative of our need to expose her to the rest of the world.

Susan’s daughter is seen off to kindergarten on the bus in 1989.

On balance, it was a plus to engage with our local public school community, made up of people from diverse backgrounds, lifestyles and eating habits – sort of like broadening foreign travel in one’s own front yard.

Living in Japan for 18 months during college enabled me to learn about and respect a completely different culture. More importantly, it gave me valuable insight into myself. Even as an alienated hippie during the Vietnam War searching for my identity, the experience of being ‘away’ helped me to realize how deeply American I was.

I tried my best to compensate for raising my kids in the sheltered, homogeneous context of Vermont by bringing them on trips to the city and sending them abroad as much as possible in high school.

There were remarkable opportunities for this, many through the local public schools, which did an impressive job making trips abroad accessible to young Vermonters of all income levels. A stellar example of this was Journey East, a Chinese studies and traveling performing arts semester instituted In 2000 by Tom Connor at Leland & Gray High School in Townshend, and open to students from neighboring school districts.

Brattleboro Reformer article on Journey East program.

Over the course of its existence, at least 250 local kids, my own then 14-year-old included, studied Chinese culture in a semester-long magnet school format that  included a one-month tour of mainland China performing an original stage show for Chinese audiences. A reciprocal home stay and collaboration with student actors from a performing arts college in Mongolia rounded out this ambitious exchange program.

Alumni of the program cite their participation as a moment of awakening to their own privilege as Americans, as well as their potential as leaders. A typical testimonial begins, “I was 15 when Journey East carted me away from my safe, comfortable home in rural Vermont and shoved me into the real world.”

In the early 1970s when I was living in Tachikui, a tiny pottery-making village in the Kyoto mountains of Japan, I was astonished to discover that many of the locals had never traveled beyond the confines of their narrow valley. It was even a no-no for them to step inside the doors of neighboring potteries. What seemed extremely parochial to me then is becoming the new normal in 2020 as our personal orbits shrink in response to the pandemic.

A page from Susan’s daughter’s scrapbook on her trip to China.

Ernestine Pannes explores the sociology of small town Vermont in her wondrous 1982 ethnography of Weston, “Waters of the Lonely Way.” Interviewing old-timers and newcomers alike, she captures an insular community at a mid-century time of transition.

Raymond Taylor was Weston’s postmaster from 1916 to 1957, arbiter between its townsfolk and the rest of the world for 41 years. Pannes paints this old-time civic-minded Weston town historian of breathtaking erudition in a sympathetic light.

But she does not shirk her duty to report the honest feelings of the man. Pannes quotes Mary Mitchell Miller, when she first arrived in town toward the end of Taylor’s reign at the Post Office:

“Yes, there was at that time considerable prejudice in Weston. For example, one of my first experiences in Weston was when I went down to get the mail just after we moved here. The boxes were in front and there was a counter. Raymond was behind the boxes and he would peer at you with those glasses down his nose. If he had something interesting to say or hear he would leave his part of the post office and come out front. He had a way of standing, rubbing his hands together, looking out the window. This day he didn’t rub his hands at all; he clapped them together and said: ‘Well, today is a great day. The last Catholic is moving out of town, the last Jew left last year, and now we are all alike.’ He took credit for both these exits. I said, ‘I am sorry to have to tell you that we just arrived and we are five Catholics.’ He almost fainted. Very seldom could you get his mouth to drop open in amazement, but it did. He said: ‘I never would have thought it of you.’”

Ernestine Pannes’ book on Weston, ‘Waters of the Lonely Way.’

In that 1982 book, Miller, who would go on to become a prominent realtor in the area, continues: “But Raymond changed. I sold a house to a Black (sic), a very fine couple, who were the very first ever to live in Weston, Reverend Heacock and his family.”

Raymond got to know them, and found that he liked them very much. He invited Heacock to be visiting preacher at the Church on the Hill.

Miller continues: “Raymond was a man of great ability. He was a changer. He told me a good many years later, towards the end of his life, that it had made a great difference in his life to go to Florida and to see the outside world, that he hadn’t ever had the chance when he was a boy, but had stayed right in Weston. I told him I thought he had done very well and had changed a good deal from the time I first met him.”

“He said: ‘Yes, but I’d have liked to have gone before. I would have known more earlier.’”

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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