Aaron Petty ’02 missed his own graduation. A few weeks before the ceremony, he contracted tuberculosis; by the day of graduation, he was bedridden. As the valedictorian of his class, he was scheduled to give a speech entitled “On the Existence of God” to close out the ceremony. That speech, sadly, was never delivered, leaving a significant gap in the program. His absence was especially awkward, though, because Petty was the only person set to graduate that day. Middlebury’s first graduating class, the class of 1802, consisted of one person. That person was Aaron Petty. A shoemaker by trade, Petty wanted an education so that he could become a minister. He entered the college as a junior in 1800, the year Middlebury was founded, and split his time between shoemaking and school to pay for his classes. Graduation in Petty’s time was a rather solemn affair. Considering the ceremony included 24 speeches over the course of 24 hours (two orations in Latin, two orations in Greek, three declamations, two colloquies, three dialogues, three disputes and nine orations in English, plus four sets of sacred music and two sets of instrumental music), you could argue that Petty was lucky to have fallen ill when he did. If modern graduation ceremonies are a bit of a snooze, this must have been an excruciating puritanical night terror. Despite the ceremony’s inexcusable dreariness, though, Petty must have been pretty disappointed to miss it. He was known “for his ambition to advance himself in life,” according to historian David Stameshkin, and he hoped that an education would provide the bootstraps with which to pull himself out of … well, boot-making. After two years of hard work and many pairs of shoes, Petty was expecting to have a ceremony to honor all that hard work — graduation was, quite literally, his day. But, for reasons out of his control, he had to celebrate commencement from his bedroom. Petty’s story seems especially relevant this year, when, once again, the entire senior class will miss graduation due to illness. We will observe commencement, at least for now, from our respective bedrooms. Two hundred and twenty years later, an old Middlebury tradition has found new life. Like the Panther Parade, this is not a tradition anyone had really hoped would continue. Nobody wants to fear for their health. And nobody wants to miss graduation, except maybe for younger siblings. Just as Petty did in 1802, we want recognition of our efforts. And rightfully so! The multiplicity of experiences and challenges that the members of our class have lived through over the last four years (and the last four weeks) should be honored, publicly. Every person has their own reasons for feeling a sense of accomplishment this May, and to suddenly lose the recognition of that accomplishment is like finishing a marathon only to find there was no one watching the race. There’s no sugar-coating it: losing graduation sucks. (Losing Senior Week sucks, too, but for slightly more Dionysian reasons.) It sucks for us, it sucks for our families, it sucks for local businesses, and it sucks especially for the hungry campus squirrels. Yet amid all that suckiness, there are also reasons to rejoice. Recently, I’ve found myself turning to a favorite poet of our generation, who says, “Ain't about how fast I get there, ain't about what's waitin’ on the other side … it's the climb.” Miley Cyrus’s corporate-spawned clichés hit home for a reason: it is about the climb, and that’s especially true for college. Whether there is a ceremony or not, nothing about the four (well, three and three-quarters) years we spent at Middlebury will change. We still filled our brains with useful information and economics; we still formed beautiful, lasting friendships; we still figured out that Atwater is not the place to find love; and we still leave Middlebury with memories of immense happiness, with the scars of immense stress, and, most importantly, with a whole lot of love. We will also hopefully still leave with one of those weird old-timey canes. In loss, we have been granted clearer vision of what we have been given. And we’ve been given so much. Six months after graduating from his bed, Aaron Petty died. He had never recovered from the tuberculosis that had forced him to miss commencement. Thus the class of 1802, half a year after leaving Middlebury, ceased to exist. Unless I’m horribly mistaken, the class of 2020 has a much brighter future ahead of it. Whatever may happen in the coming months, and whenever we hold our eventual physical graduation, that future — our future — is something to have faith in. Will O’Neal is a member of the class of 2020.
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College is an exciting three-and-three-quarters to four years for the raging hormone machines we call our bodies. It can also be a time of great angst and confusion. While many of us are simply looking for love, our college environment can sometimes lead us to act in ways that are ultimately counterproductive and harmful to those around us. This moment of social isolation has given us space from our peers — an opportunity to reflect critically on sex and romance in our college community. Okay, now that that’s over with, let’s talk about how to get laid at Middlebury! Never text first. If you get somebody’s number, always wait for them to text you. Otherwise, you’ll come off as “creepy” and “interested” and “having emotions.” Yuck! And, if you both wait so long for the other person to text that you never actually talk — eventually pretending not to know each other in the Proc panini line — it’s for the best. You don’t want to be with somebody who isn’t cool enough to pretend they don’t have feelings. Only flirt with someone if you’re drunk. That way, you can avoid taking any personal responsibility for your emotions. Plus, if you get rejected, it doesn’t count! You were drunk, you didn’t really care anyways. Use Tinder to see who’s into you and then never talk to them in person. This way, you can reap the benefits of knowing you’re desirable without the bothersome encumbrance of putting your self-image on the line. You would talk to them, but you’re not that interested. Like, you’d go on a date with them, but you don’t want to make it weird, you know? Since Middlebury is so small, you’ll get the extra perk of learning first-hand what cognitive dissonance feels like every time you see that person on campus. Be hot, or rich enough to pretend you’re hot. As long as you’re attractive, or rich enough to pretend, the emotions of others don’t exist. So go for it: treat that person like sh*t and don’t let it trouble your beautiful, effortlessly-manicured confidence. Isn’t being better than everyone great? Always string someone along, just in case. If it doesn’t work out with the person you were really trying to get with, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got somebody on deck to fill the gaping hole in your ego. It doesn’t matter if you actually like this person (it’s actually better if you don’t) because after one or two nights, you’ll be on to bigger and better things. Remember: Manipulating others in order to console yourself is the highest form of self-care! Ghosting people is cool. At one time or another, we’ve all ghosted and been ghosted. Why bother breaking the cycle? Nobody’s ever gotten hurt. And finally … Always pretend you’re not interested. If you take away one thing from this piece, let it be this. Having strong, genuine feelings for other people is decidedly not cool, and it leaves you vulnerable to the undesirable disruption of your personal fantasies and false self-confidence. Curate a disinterested but vaguely flirtatious persona, and then put it on so much that you eventually forget what it’s like to experience any semblance of authentic, life-affirming emotion. Deadening your inner self is hardly a high price to pay for the luxury of avoiding any kind of sexual or romantic rejection! As the saying goes, Virginia is for lovers and Middlebury is for pretending not to have feelings. Will O’Neal is a member of the class of 2020.
I do not like the town I’m from. Yesterday, I overheard a neighbor announce that he wasn’t selling off his stocks, because, and I quote, “I only invest in companies I believe in, like ExxonMobil.” I don’t know his name, because all of the neighbors I did know got divorced and moved away. My only plans for post-grad seemed attainable, if not specific: to never, ever, ever move back to Westford, Massachusetts. Well. Here I am. In the grand scheme of things, I am fine. I have a stable home and a loving family and good health. For me, in my position of privilege, this pandemic is more of an inconvenience than a life-shattering catastrophe. Still, during my morning pout, or my afternoon grumpies, or my evening sulk, or my bedtime brooding, it’s hard not to let things grow out of proportion. All I wanted from this life was to live somewhere interesting, where I didn’t have to define the word “queer,” where I could remake myself free from the religion of hyper-corporate normativity. (That place may exist nowhere, but that won’t stop me from looking.) But since I find myself here in Westford, and not cool queer dreamland, I have to make the best of it. I’ve tried some different coping strategies during this time of exceptional angst — saying I’ll bake bread, masturbating, not baking bread, masturbating again, and getting annoyed at my parents for no reason, to name a few — but one thing, more than most others, has helped me stay sane: birdwatching. Now I’m no expert birder. I can identify a few common bird calls, and a normal amount of birds by sight, but I’d never really tried to thoroughly learn the names and calls of all the birds around me. I can tell a robin’s chirp from a crow’s caw, but a dark-eyed junco from a song sparrow? I’m lucky if I can even call myself an amateur birdwatcher. So last week I went on to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website and began to peruse their massive bird guide. I learned that there’s a difference between a swift and a swallow, that there are more warblers than I ever could have imagined, and that I only recognized a tiny fraction of North American birds. I decided to memorize the calls of every bird native to Massachusetts, but soon realized that that would be no easier achieved than reopening the U.S. economy on Easter. There are so many birds in Massachusetts, more than I ever could have imagined. This would be a long-term project, I realized; luckily for me, all I have is time. Out walking the other day, binoculars in hand, I heard three bird calls in a row that I couldn’t identify. The birds were too far away to see, or hiding among the branches, and I felt totally in over my head. In this dark night of the birder’s soul, I thought to myself: what’s the point of all this, beyond maybe distracting myself from the slow-motion global apocalypse? As a literature major, I love filling my head with interesting and impractical information, so learning about birds is perhaps not a surprising hobby. The less it prepares me for the corporate world, the better. But that’s not quite it. The last few weeks have shaken my already-fragile sense of direction, throwing me way off course; watching chickadees hop-chirp around in a thicket of young pines makes me feel grounded and purposeful, in a way that masturbating too much or not making bread never have. Something more than filling time and gray matter draws me to birdwatching. Nature writer Robin Wall Kimmerer says that modern American society is afflicted with a condition she dubs “species loneliness.” In this state of alienation, she says, “as our human dominance of the world has grown, we have become more isolated, more lonely when we can no longer call out to our neighbors.” She does not mean only ignorance of our human neighbors (though I am certainly guilty of that, too); there is another kind of loneliness, a quieter one, that stems from only knowing our human neighbors. When we don’t know the name of the bird at our window, is that any less awkward, less isolating, than not knowing the name of a neighbor? The very first thing that Adam does in the Bible, directly after God creates nature, is give names to the things around him: “to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field.” This is how we find a home within the place we live. Without names, the world around us is shapes, sounds, and smells. But when we name it — whether it’s the birds or the trees or the mountains — it becomes a word, and words are a part of us. If I don’t know the birds’ names, I’m as lost in the shallow woods of suburban Massachusetts as I am in the labyrinth streets of New York. Slowly but surely, I am learning who lives in the woods around me. When I go for a walk, I hear a red-bellied woodpecker and black-capped chickadees, where before I heard vague pretty bird songs. The world around me is falling apart, but I’m finding a home where my home has always been. Call it escapism, or call it embracing the world we live in. It’s both, and it’s helping me to stay sane. I still don’t know my new neighbors’ names. That’s my loss and I should probably change that (although I’ve never known a bird to invest in ExxonMobil). Besides, I won’t be stuck here forever … right? Submitted April 7, 2020.