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Monday, Feb 26, 2024

After the pandemic, picking up the pieces of Middlebury’s traditions

<a href=""></a> <span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">Sabrina Templeton</a></span>

At my first Atwater party during my first year, I was attempting to find the friends I had made two days before, when I looked up to realize that 75% of the partygoers around me were shirtless. I noticed a Madonna song playing that I hardly recognized, but I dismissed it quickly when a friend dragged me to a different suite.

Two weeks later, it happened again. And this time, I asked someone nearby what it meant. “It’s ‘Like a Prayer.’ Everyone has to take their shirts off!” And though I’ve never taken part in the tradition, it was fascinating to learn that a song could indicate one oddly specific activity to so many of us. 

Just as with the many other peculiarities of going to school at Middlebury, this unwritten rule is ours, and it would be a shame for Covid-19 to take it away. 

So what is going to happen to the college after the pandemic? Are we going to keep traditions such as these alive? And what even makes a Middlebury tradition? I spoke to various students and alumni in search of Middlebury-specific traditions, and it seems that, above all, they are more about feelings and moments than specific acts. 

Professor of the Practice David A. Torres ’84 recalls sledding down the Mead Chapel hill on Proctor Dining Hall trays (a dining hall staple of the past). “I think the most fun tradition I ever experienced at Midd was when… we would ‘borrow’ trays from Proctor and pack down the snow on the walk down from Mead until it was more like ice than snow,” Torres said. “We would either slide on trays or when the walk was slick enough, and even more fun, ‘skate’ down the hill standing up, using only our boots. At night there was no one to tell us not to, and the party would last until late.”

Andrew Zehner ’84 shared that unique party traditions were a memorable part of his own Middlebury experience. “Sometimes, one of the social houses would bring a few tons of sand into the house, borrow the lifeguard chair from Lake Dunmore and invite other students over for a beach party.” If you are wondering why this hasn’t happened in your time here, Zehner explained, “It was difficult to clean up the sand, and the Dean of Students was sad that this had happened.” 

Michael Wasserstein ’21 recalled Proctor’s midnight breakfasts during exam weeks. “Midnight breakfast is a Midd tradition that I’ll never forget. During the stress and difficulties of finals week, there’s nothing better than putting the work aside and coming together with 1,000 other Midd kids in Ross or Proc for some socializing and a nice dining hall meal,” Wasserstein said. 

Natasha Lowitt ’20 said, “Winter Carnival on the mountain, Chili Fest, screws, Dunmore days, graduation sunrise — looking back, there were so many days that made Middlebury magical.” 

Like Lowitt, many people I asked about Middlebury-specific events struggled to pin down particular traditions that they hoped would last.

If I were asked to look back on my time at Middlebury one, two or 20 years out, I don’t think I would be able to put my finger on it either. What first comes to mind are sunrise hikes at the Snow Bowl, J-Term ski days and picnics at the Knoll. But my favorite traditions are less concrete. They are the Sunday morning breakfast runs that turn into two-hour-long drives, or the nights spent cooking with friends in a Gifford suite kitchen that was not made for pasta dinners. 

Of course, there are memorable parties, places in town and college-sponsored events that stand out. But it is the smaller moments that blend together into traditions in their own right, and though these experiences themselves aren’t universal across campus — the feeling is. 

I like to believe it is a feeling that everyone here has felt at some point. It creeps into the late-night conversations with friends and the walks to class when the sun is out. It is in the waves in Davis to people who we’ve never actually met and in the days when we have way too much work but we spend the whole morning at a table in Ross anyway. 

So when it comes to the traditions that we intend to revive at a post-Covid Middlebury, my opinion is that it will be much less about the names we put to these things that we do — or whether we want to take our shirts off and scream Madonna lyrics — than it will be about making a collective decision about how we choose to frame our time here.

After this era of Covid-19-related regulations comes to an end, we clearly have some work to do. We have events to hold, phrases to use and songs to play at parties. But mostly, we have however many years left of college to experience. And it will not be the specific, named things that we do that will keep the traditions of Middlebury alive. It will simply be the fact that we have a finite amount of time here, and, especially coming out of a pandemic, we owe it to ourselves and each other to take advantage of the activities and people and little moments that make Middlebury unique.