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The Key Word

By Erica Walch Illustrated by Leonard Kenyon



"And." "What?"

"And." Susan remembered Fred Morris repeating that one-word sentence in answer to her question about how to be successful on the selectboard. Her idea of success was getting the town’s stores to open on Sundays. She smiled now, but eleven years ago - when the exchange took place - she might have stomped her foot in frustration and wished he would just get to the point. Now here she was, about to impart that same wisdom to the newest member of the town's elected body. She was prepared for foot stomping. "What do you mean, and?" she asked Fred Morris, as politely as she could. "How can and be the answer?" "Well," Fred said, drawing that word out in a way that felt like he was considering several options but arriving at the decision not to share them quite yet, "It just is." Susan waited. In her one year in the town and two months as a selectman, she had learned to wait for Fred to come out with whatever it was he was going to say. Prompting him to continue just made him more terse. She practiced the calming breath she had learned in a yoga class back in Connecticut. "Take our state motto," he finally continued. "Freedom and Unity?" she asked. "Yep." She waited. "It's not 'Freedom or Unity.'" "Okay," she said, still not getting his point. “Did you read the constitution?” Fred asked. She had. Fred had suggested she read it over to help settle in to her role on the selectboard. “‘That all persons are born equally free and independent,’” Susan quoted the opening lines of the founding document of the state. “I love that Vermont made slavery illegal in its constitution. That’s the kind of progressiveness that I love about Vermont!” "Well,” Fred went on, “all through that constitution and is the key. That's Vermont. That's how to be of service to the town. And." Today, Susan knew what he meant. But back then, after just the one year of having lived in Vermont, she hadn't appreciated his point. "Sorry, Fred. I don't get it," she said, overcoming her frustration and wanting to learn. She had run for the open seat on the selectboard to improve the town. She wanted to make things better. "Well," he said, drawing that one word out yet again, "we're a small town, but we're a town full of thinkers and doers, and everyone's got their own ideas. Selectboard's job is to listen and figure out a way that takes everyone's ideas into account. You won't make everyone happy. You might make everyone unhappy. But you've got to see all the sides, and you've got to let people know you see their side. ‘The frequent recurrence to fundamental principles, and a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty and keep the government free’,” Fred concluded, quoting The Vermont Constitution. “It’s riddled with ands. You could count them some cold winter night.” "But letting the stores open on Sunday is such a no-brainer!" She blushed now, remembering how sure she was that she was right. "Think of all the tourists coming through town on their way home. They'll stop and spend tons of money. It's a win-win. Don't the shop owners want to make money?" "Have you talked to anyone who wants to keep things the way they are?" Fred asked. "No. I can't understand why people are opposed to my idea. I just want to help the town." "Well, if you can't understand, maybe you should ask." She had revisited this conversation many times over the years. It was the conversation that got her thinking that her vision of sweeping in and fixing the town, just like she'd fixed failing businesses back home in Connecticut, wasn't quite right. And it made her realize that whenever she had a thought that began with the words “I just can’t understand...” it meant that she should ask. "We can all go together," Fred said, meaning the three members of the selectboard. Fred Morris, Susan Jacobi, and Marty Stone. Two wry old-timers and one fired-up new arrival. And they did. They visited folks. "Well," most conversations started with that same winding road of a word. "I go hunting on a Sunday," was heard more than once. "I'm for it. We need that tourist money," was heard a lot, too. "If it ain't broke..." said several people, before they talked about how they spent their Sundays. “Money isn’t everything,” she was surprised to hear shop owners say. Turned out a lot of people liked things fine the way they were and enjoyed a day off. Others didn't know if they could hire anyone to work the extra hours. These answers surprised Susan. When she started to tell the shop owners how they could make it work, Fred managed to steer her back to listening mode. Thinking about it today, Susan knew the only reason anyone talked to her on that little shop tour was because she was with Fred and Marty. Of course now she couldn't go in to the shops without hearing people's opinions. Eleven years of living in a small town and serving on the selectboard will do that for a person. And now Fred was winding up his final days as a selectman. He'd served the town in that role for thirty years. And though she didn't know it, one of the reasons he felt good about stepping away was because Susan Jacobi had learned how to take people's ideas into consideration and had a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles. "We need WiFi!" Mason Fournier exclaimed. "It's the 21st Century, hello!?" "Well," Susan said, drawing the word out a bit. (A little hill, compared to the mountain Fred could make out of that word.) "Not everyone agrees." "But they don't know what they're missing! People would want to live here if we had WiFi," he said, clearly exasperated. "I was elected to the selectboard to bring new ideas to the town. I didn't spend the last four years in Burlington for nothing. I want to make the town better." Mason was from a family that had been in the town for generations. Dairy farmers. He and his brother, Connor, went to college. Connor moved away and Mason came back home to modernize the dairy farm and the town. He’d done a fine job with the dairy. "Why do you think some folks are opposed?" Susan asked gently. "Because they don't like change, and they want the town stuck in 1975," he said, with what might have been a foot stomp. "Mason," Susan began, "Fred Morris taught me three things when I joined the selectboard." Mason paid attention at the mention of the man who was the go-to guy for just about anything in the town. "Oh yeah?" he asked. "One is to listen. Don't assume people are opposing you just because they hate change. People in this town are 'thinkers and doers,' as Fred says. Ask them their opinion. Listen to their opinion." Although he wanted to, Mason couldn't argue with that. “When I wanted to get the shops to open on Sundays, Fred and Marty Stone took me around to all the shops so we could listen to what the shop owners actually wanted. We can do that now about WiFi. We can ask people,” she said. "Okay. What are the other two things?" he asked. "Number two is - Read this. Repeatedly,” she said, handing him a copy of The Vermont Constitution. Mason had to admit he’d never read it. His time in college had been focused on alternatives to antibiotics, herd management, and bookkeeping. He considered the slim pamphlet in his hands. “Okay, I’ll read it tonight,” he said, happy to receive any advice that came by way of Fred Morris - and wanting to do as well for the town as he had for his family’s farm. “And the last thing he taught me is that the key to success in town government boils down to one word." She was trying to be as sagely mysterious as Fred had been, but she still used a lot more words to get there. "WiFi?" Mason asked, smiling. "Nope," she said. "It's and." "And?" "Yes, Mason," she smiled… "And."

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