Middlebury

Student Speech by Tom Stults '05

 

Beyond the Bubble

By Thomas Stults, Class of 2005
May 22, 2005

I never really liked it when people referred to the Middlebury Bubble. I'm talking about that imaginary film that encapsulates this campus, the one implying we're isolated, preoccupied, turned off, just disinterested. Actually, lately I've been working down at the admissions office a little bit, so I've perused my fair share of essays, applications, e-mails ... but I never did come across that one essay that begins: "Hi. I'm looking for a place to escape, to wrap myself in a comfortable blanket, to play a $40,000-a-year game of hide and seek with the real world." It just didn't happen.

Because what you're dealing with is a bunch of aspiring, if not desperate, 18-year-olds chasing down their dreams and betraying a profound, if not somewhat naïve, desire for exploration. And I'm pretty sure that four years ago, when we were all filling out that same common app, trying to make ourselves look as accomplished and admissible as possible, there was within all of us at least a small seed of genuine curiosity looking for somewhere to take root.

And that curiosity came in all forms: Be it academic, political, athletic, even social, we were pretty sure that high school wasn't enough (not that many of our parents would have necessarily given us that choice). But regardless, we accomplished the first step. We all at least began our walk down the Middlebury runway. So when did the whole bubble thing come in? Did we lose our vision? Tone down our aspirations? Get a little too comfy in those BiHall chairs? It seems unlikely. But it was, I think, in a way, self-imposed. It happened when teachers, administrators, and even we as students, claimed we didn't take (or have) the time to pull our heads up from our books, or, maybe more appropriately in some cases, our lips away from that can of Busch Light.

But now it's all over, and so I guess we'd have to say, what, that the bubble is about to burst? And that's when you realize, the bubble was never there in the first place. Sure, maybe we didn't all have the time to read the Dining Out or Automobiles section of the New York Times each day, but that's missing the point. The point is, we're ready (whether we feel like it or not). Ready to continue. Ready to start anew. Ready to move on. Ready to give back. Why? Not because we've somehow finally managed to make our way out of the bubble surrounding us, but because this experience, these four, four and a half or five years-whatever it took you-have been a launching pad placed surreptitiously beneath us, a geyser of inspiration on which we found ourselves standing, and, at the very least, a non-stop trip that none of us could've avoided getting swept up in. Because, honestly, there's no better place for beautiful views and even more beautiful people. I'm talking personalities of course. But, while we're on the subject, let's discuss the "homogeneous, J. Crew catalog" stereotypes that supposedly inhabit this bubble. It may be true, in fact I may be a guilty contributor, but it's also superficial, because any designation categorizes individuals who are, by virtue of simply being individuals, too unique to be categorized.

And, as I think we all know, some serious differences do exist here. Being a small school, Middlebury has forced us to confront those differences. And I'll be honest: I don't think we've always overcome them. Lacrosse, econ, Proctor, ADP, the Mill, Frisbee, Angela's: They all conjure up certain images in our minds. For some, they're positive, for others they're pretty prejudicial. But I only hope that for a small number of you, they're strangely inspiring. Because here, let's face it, in the middle of nowhere, we continually prove, almost unwittingly, that differences can and should persist.

And I'm convinced it's a cause for optimism and confidence. Confidence, not only in yourself, but more importantly in everyone else. After four years, we can look around and say that we've all made it. We've made it in very different ways, we don't all necessarily get along, but we're reassured by each other's ability to get by, or actually do a hell of a lot more than just get by. And we did it in a way that worked for each of us. We've learned, or at least tested, the fact that there won't ever be just one "right way" through life. I mean it's a ridiculous proposition. I think Mark Twain was on to the same thing when he claimed, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." Now there's a little sarcasm in Mr. Twain's remark, and I think this campus has shown as well as any other that a little naked run here or there doesn't do much to discredit a person's opinion in the classroom.

But these little nuggets of wisdom we've supposedly picked up along the way haven't always been immediately apparent. We have to go back, really remember where our mind was at, say five or 10 years ago, to see just how far we've come. When I was about 11 years old, I was a pretty self-confident little guy, and I thought of this word: "truthemist." That's what I called myself. I was a truthemist because I didn't believe in optimism or pessimism, half-full, half-empty. I believed in the facts, because the facts didn't lie. The glass was halfway: halfway full if you were filling it up, halfway drunk if you were drinking it down. But then this so-called bubble of ours somehow introduced the idea of perspective. Because, and anyone who's taken stat can back me up here, one fact can tell plenty of stories.

So when uncertainty arises, when a problem needs to be addressed, what matters is what we, each one of us, bring to the table. There was 9/11, there was (and still is) the war in Iraq. The death of Arafat. Genocide in the Sudan. Tsunamis in Southeast Asia. Blizzards right here in Vermont. The fall of the A-frames, and the rise of the Commons. Again, it's not about where you stand; it's about standing at all. It's about having the optimism and confidence that others, like you, have a genuine interest in standing up, too. It's about having the tolerance to really listen to their side, and finally, it's about using our heads and our hearts in forming our own views.

A professor of mine claimed that college is not about imposing a system of values; it's about creating a dialogue so that people can come to their own conclusions. Middlebury has been that dialogue; in class discussions, on the playing field, from our cramped freshman dorms to our posh senior housing. So let's take that optimism, let's take that confidence, and let's wear it on our sleeves wherever we go. And remember, even our education is not a fact, it's a perspective: it conceals from the ignorant, and illuminates for those who really choose to see, the limits of what we as individuals know. Together I think we've moved beyond those limits, and I wish you all the best. Thank you.