April 13, 2020: Pandemic—About Seniors

April 13, 2020

Dear Middlebury Community,

These past weeks, seniors have been on my mind. Many have written to me with news of their alternative plans on the April occasions where they usually gather—Earth Day, Passover, Easter, or the celebration of spring. (Thank you for writing and keep doing so!) I also spoke with one senior, Kenshin Cho, about his experience of “alternative” life on Middlebury’s campus in this extraordinary time. Kenshin is the Student Government Association treasurer, and we discussed the SGA’s inspired decision to donate the remainder of its funds this year to help with our efforts towards wage continuity. You can see and hear our conversation here.

Speaking of alternative plans, you all know that we also recently made the difficult decision to move our graduations in Vermont and Monterey to being virtual ones. Don’t forget that we are nonetheless determined to hold a live ceremony within the next year for the Middlebury College Class of 2020, with all the trimmings. Never ones to lose an opportunity to be together, the College Class of 2020 will therefore have two graduations. And even though they are not technically called “seniors,” those of you graduating from our master’s programs in Monterey are missing the same in-person experience with your families and friends at historic Colton Hall. We are planning both synchronous and asynchronous events to honor our graduates, and will be including a student speaker, a trustee address, and alumni achievement award winners, just to name a few features.

Seniors have also been on my mind in another way. Our neighborhood on South Street took up the challenge of a scavenger hunt for stuffed animals placed lovingly in peoples’ windows. A nationwide phenomenon, and ostensibly for kids, the hunt has also attracted plenty of adults like me who were into the challenge of finding the dragons, cats, bears, and Raggedy Ann dolls. So, I went on the hunt, too. Just as I had finally found the armadillo, a car slowed down and a window rolled open. It was a friend from town—one of Middlebury’s great volunteers, an organizer extraordinaire of community suppers, and someone whom I see at awards dinners, Memorial Day parades, and many other local events. She took off her mask (from a safe distance) and said, “Thank you for everything the College is doing! And keep our seniors in your heart.” And she sped away. “I will, for sure …,” I called after her.

Immediately, I thought, “Seniors? Which seniors? The ones at the College, or the elderly?” Then I realized, both. I have had College seniors on my mind since we had sent out our letter about graduation. I’ve also had the elderly on my mind, since we were getting daily updates about the nursing homes in Burlington where the outbreak of COVID-19 had been particularly severe. That news had led in part to our decision to create a small unit of housing for healthy Porter Hospital employees, “the working well,” on the outskirts of campus, to reduce the likelihood of the spread here. I have also been reading about Monterey County businesses’ decision to offer seniors-only shopping hours in an effort to protect the community of elders there.

In addition to the elderly, we know how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the poor and underrepresented populations. We are working on a number of other collaborations with Porter Hospital, and our Dining Services has regularly supplied meals to our local shelter to support our vulnerable populations here in Addison County.

This April and May especially, seniors of all kinds are on all of our minds. Those whom the pandemic has deprived of a celebratory and timely transition from college or graduate programs into the next phase of their lives. Those whom the pandemic has deprived of peaceful and productive later years, and whose homes have become places of fear and isolation, at the very best, and untimely death, at the very worst. Now the pandemic is closer. We are all grieving someone we know.

The pandemic has reminded us that these two generations have the same name. In sharing a name, young and old are bound together, inexorably, by an obligation of care, one toward the other. There would be so many senior citizens at graduation—grandmothers, great uncles, neighbors who had seen us through. And they would have been delighting in Middlebury seniors’ own joy, each accomplishment remembered and woven into a new, shared narrative of the heart. A friend—poet, professor of English, and psychologist—Gary Margolis, sent me a poem about this very simple fact:


Imagine all the seniors
in America sitting outside
on their folding chairs.
Some with their walkers,

some with their aides.
With programs in their hands
and bouquets. A pair
of binoculars, if they’re sitting

as far away as the past
of another day.
See if you can see the oceans
on either side of them.

The in-between prairies.
Vast buildings. Mounds.
Burial mounds, breaking
a bulldozer’s blade.

Flags, the Department of
Buildings and Grounds
display. Of worldly countries.
For the wind to play with.

To see if they’re listening
for the first marching notes,
a graduation’s parade.
Notes Elgar made.

For the elderly, their
families. The stand-by
ambulances. The staff
handing out bottles

of noon-day water.
After the speeches are over,
diplomas awarded.
The speaker said America’s

still a big tent.
Trying to reach everybody
beyond the cliché.
Beyond the fact

of what day and month
it is. In May,
all things being equal,
when we should have been

gathering, pushing some
of our seniors into the shade.
Standing to cheer the caps
and gowns flying into the air.

Margolis’s poem speaks to this April moment, all of us trying to reach beyond the cliché as we try to articulate the losses of the spring, when we “should have been gathering.” When we should have been taking care of each other in person—the bottles of water, the music of Elgar, the graduates pushing their family seniors into the shade to make sure they were not burned by the sun. In Monterey. In Middlebury.

Instead, this spring, we are taking care of all seniors, and seniors are taking care of each other, in another, more urgent way. In an era of intergenerational misunderstanding, the COVID-19 crisis forces us to put down, for a moment, the generational differences, even resentments, and instead become vigilant for each other. In these anxious, difficult months, our practice of social distance also demands of us that we create, and practice, an intergenerational closeness. I am seeing that closeness in all of your letters and notes.  

This April, I am inspired by all your plans for alternative celebrations. As you mark these moments, hold your seniors close, in all the ways you can.


Yours cordially,

Laurie Patton

Office of the President

Old Chapel
9 Old Chapel Road
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753