I suppose that one of these days I should thank my parents for convincing me to apply to Middlebury College. Like many kids who grow up in Addison County, I started to crave a change of scenery sometime around my junior year in high school. When it came time to apply to college, the last thing I wanted was for my big move to be from one side of Middlebury to the other — after all, my sister had gone all the way to the exotic lands of Connecticut for college.
But I applied anyway, in many ways simply to placate my mother, who hit me with the airtight logic that, “Hey, it can’t hurt to apply.”
Boy, was she wrong. Because when I didn’t get into my top choice, I found myself struggling to justify attending any school besides Middlebury. When I sent in my letter of commitment, I found myself thinking, “Well, four more years in this town won’t kill me.”
So far, it has, in fact, done the opposite. After three years at the one school I wanted so badly to avoid, my sense of self and my connection to the community around me are stronger than they’ve ever been.
Much of my personal growth, I suppose, might have happened at any institution of higher education that I decided to attend. I have expanded my worldview significantly, re-learned how to write an essay, completed original research, learned how to budget my time properly, and figured out, more or less, what I’d like to do with the rest of my life. Along the way, I’ve made friends who have taught me more than any Middlebury professor, brilliant and talented as they are.
And while I have as much Panther Pride as anyone, I’m not foolish enough to believe Middlebury is the lone college in the country that can provide such an experience.
But between the ages of 18 and 21, I’ve learned more about the community I grew up in than I ever could have from Houston, Texas, or Ithaca, N.Y. — and not just where to take your fake ID for best results.
Equal parts Midd Kid and townie, I’ve come to despise both terms equally. In my weekly work shifts at the local drug store, where I have worked since my senior year at Middlebury Union High School, I am often granted the pleasure of pretending to be neither.
I have seen classmates look right through me behind the counter — just another nameless, faceless store clerk — only to engage in a thoughtful and respectful dialogue with me in class the following morning.
I’ve had old teachers and friends’ parents look at me in confusion and hold me at a distance, wondering what led a once-promising young man to abandon his studies and return to his hometown, only to have them brighten when they remember — or I tell them — that my studies are merely on hold until I finish ringing up their milk and Band Aids.
I’ve had coworkers wonder aloud why I “always look so tired” when I come to work on Friday afternoon.
It has been occasionally painful to realize how differently I am perceived by the various people who make up this community. More often than not, I can laugh it off. But as I reflect on it, I know that I’ve learned something valuable about human nature that will stay with me forever, and came only because I had the chance to play vastly different roles within the same community.
Not everything I’ve learned has been quite so dark. This January, I spent a month student teaching at MUMS, where I was a student between 2002 and 2004. My expectations and experience at the school could easily fill this space several times over, but suffice to say that in 30 days, my perception of the time I spent in the Middlebury school system was drastically altered.
Ever since I turned 12 and grew into the angsty, dramatic and individualistic attitude that we call “adolescence,” school appeared to me as a few adults who wanted nothing more than to suck the fun out of my childhood and fill the void with tedious, monotonous schoolwork.
My time at MUMS this winter showed me that school is, in fact, the sum of the incredible efforts of those dedicated, selfless and patient-beyond-words individuals who recognize that the vitality of our community rests upon the education of our youth, and that they strive to impart the knowledge and skills they feel are necessary to become a contributing member of our society. Learning this lesson from the same men and women who taught me about algebra and the American Revolution was nothing short of revelatory.
To all my old teachers: I’m sorry for talking so much in class. I can now begin to comprehend everything you did for me. Thank you.
Hearing about the experiences of my friends who have gone to school in big cities, or at least Burlington, occasionally makes me regret staying in Middlebury. But the more I think about it, the more it strikes me how much I’ve been able to learn about myself and those around me in just three extra years in this community.
So, it may be overdue, or perhaps preemptive, but here it is: Thank you, Mom and Dad. I owe you one (or, two hundred thousand, depending on how you look at it).
Ian Trombulak is a rising senior at Middlebury College and a summer intern at the Addison Independent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.