By Steven Jupiter/ Brandon Reporter
Jim Avery has been at Otter Valley Union High School for so long that his first students are old enough to be grandparents. He can honestly say that he’s dedicated his career to the Otter Valley community.
But next year’s graduating class will receive their diplomas from a different hand: Jim Avery is leaving after more than 30 years.
Avery seemed at peace with his decision during a recent conversation in his office on a beautiful summer day. The last few years have been tough. His beloved wife, Mickey, died in 2019. She’d been by his side throughout his time at OV.
“Mickey was part of the community. The love I felt when I came back (after her death) was unbelievable,” he said. “But the guy who was here in 2018 was changed.”
Avery paused for a moment as if hearing himself admit something for the first time.
“It’s probably fair to say I lost my mojo.”
“Mojo” is something Avery seemed to have in abundance throughout his career. Words you don’t normally associate with school principals — kind, goofy, fun — are routinely offered whenever Avery’s name is mentioned.
He’s worn a kilt in rowdy faculty field hockey games and a fedora in a theater production of “Guys & Dolls.” Avery’s participation in student theater became a hallmark of his tenure.
“I was a jock. I’d never done it before,” he said. “But I realized that the theater kids work just as hard as the athletes. I got hooked.”
“My fondest memories are of watching Jim onstage,” said former school board member Bobbie Torstenson. “He was very good.”
But he didn’t ignore sports, either.
“Jim gave a lot of support for sports, but it helps round out a school when someone pushes art and theater in addition to athletics,” said Devon Fuller, an OV Nordic skiing coach who is also father of two recent OV grads.
Avery smiled when he showed off a photo of himself with the cast of “Guys & Dolls,” sporting a ’40s gangster costume (with the aforementioned fedora). “You have to make yourself vulnerable.”
“Jim is an authentic, good human being,” said OV tech education teacher Devon Karpak. In a video tribute that Karpak produced, now available on YouTube, scores of students, teachers, and staff say goodbye (sometimes in song) to someone they clearly viewed as a friend.
“Jim has a big heart,” said Jeanné Collins, OV’s most recent superintendent and Avery’s boss for the last several years. “He believes everyone has good intentions.”
“I trusted him,” said Josh Hardt, outdoor education teacher and founder of the innovative Moosalamoo program. “He went out on a limb for me many times. He had my back.”
The Moosalamoo program, which teaches problem-solving through outdoor exploration in the vast woods behind the school, is one of the unique offerings that Avery championed at OV. Having started his career in alternative education and the school-to-work movement, he said he’d wanted to “shatter preconceived notions of what we call student success. Family background or finances shouldn’t dictate outcomes.”
Avery added, “I was lucky to have some all-star superintendents above me: Bill Mathis, John Castle, Jeanné Collins. I wouldn’t have been able to do much without their support.”
With characteristic understatement, Bill Mathis returned the compliment: “Hiring Jim was one of the better things I did.”
Before Avery assumed the role of principal by himself in 2010, he shared the position with Nancy Robinson for several years.
“We had different skills, but were beautifully yoked,” Avery said of Robinson. And Robinson, for her part, said that Avery was as dedicated to his “OV family” as he was to his own.
“He was committed,” she said.
Vermont isn’t known for its ethnic diversity, and Avery, a longtime Cornwall resident, wanted to expose kids at OV to different cultures. So, he worked with Superintendent Collins to establish an exchange with China through the Vermont International Academy. Chinese scholars came to teach the Mandarin language at OV at little cost to the school, until Covid-19 stopped international travel.
In the past couple of years, Covid forced Avery to reconfigure much of what he thought he knew about running a school, “even down to how to take attendance.”
And OV still hasn’t fully recovered on a practical level. There are staffing shortages across the board, from teachers to bus drivers. Avery himself spent much of this past school year back in the classroom, filling in whenever necessary. Instead of seeing substitute teaching as a burden, Avery saw it as a chance to reconnect with students.
“The gift is I get to talk to (them),” he said.
Connecting with students comes up over and over again in conversations both with Avery and about Avery.
“I once asked him how he kept his patience with the most annoying kids. He said, ‘I try to treat each one of them as if they were my own,’” school board member Kevin Thornton recalled.
That attitude colors his reaction to the tragic spate of school shootings over the years, a societal development he watched with horror throughout his career.
“Kids need to feel like there’s an adult they can talk to. Building sincere relationships makes them more likely to tell you what’s going on,” Avery said.
Yet he’s clear-eyed about where things stand: He beefed up security measures at the school. “Anyone used to be able to just walk in. Not anymore. The fear is real.”
Avery pointed out that the divisions that afflict American culture eventually find their way into school.
“We’re a reflection of society. Whatever’s out there shows up in here.”
His voice caught when asked about his biggest regret as principal.
“Did I do enough to move the needle (for marginalized kids)? Did I have the courage to have that conversation? The last couple of years, I may not have had the strength.”
Retirement will afford Avery more time to take care of himself and enjoy his leisure, but he also needs an intellectual challenge.
“I want to bring something exciting home to the dinner table,” he said. He might continue his work with China. He will work as a mentor in the Vermont Principals Association. He will be involved in a grief counseling group.
“Doors have always opened for me … do I go through that door? If it scares me, I have to find out why,” he said.
There were slips of paper pinned to the corkboard above Avery’s desk.
“These are from a suggestion box we had,” he explained. “I kept my favorites.”
One enthusiastic student gushed, “You’re doing great, Avery!”
But a less satisfied kid said, “Read the suggestions.”
The latter may seem like an odd choice to hang onto, but anyone who speaks with Avery about his time at OV will understand: “I wanted every kid to feel loved.”