Baccalaureate Address
May 2024
Laurie L. Patton

This is a poignant moment for me, as it is unexpectedly my last Baccalaureate with you all. That is something I share with each of you. In a way, we are graduating together, and we are thinking about how Middlebury will take shape in our memories.

But let me describe for you now, as I have on many other occasions, the way you have shaped Middlebury. As I look at all that you have done since you began here, there is no doubt in my mind that you are fully prepared to take it on.

Let me offer you some numbers as evidence: Among you are multiple recipients of nationally competitive fellowships, including five Fulbright winners, two NSF Graduate Research Fellows, a Udall Scholar, a Truman Scholar, a Goldwater Scholar, an NOAA Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholar, two Critical Language Scholars, and two Gilman Scholars. 

One hundred and fifty-five of you were Spring Student Symposium presenters; 90 were summer research assistants; and 53 of you were peer tutors. Twenty-six of you are senior peer writing tutors who have not only provided tutoring to thousands over their collective years of work, but have also been mentors, researchers, and trainers in writing pedagogy.

Among you are varsity athletes who have been a part of 18 NESCAC championship teams and seven NCAA championship teams. Eight of you are All-Americans; three of you are CSC Academic All-Americans. One of you is an NCAA Elite 90 winner, and two are NESCAC Championship Relay winners. Many others of you participated in club sports, from crew to rugby to Ultimate to water polo, perhaps with less recognition, but with no less passion and pride. 

Then there’s what you accomplished as individuals and in small groups. Through Middlebury College Access Mentors, you helped Middlebury Union High School students navigate the college application process and supported the expansion of MiddCAM to Mt. Abraham Union High School. As Language in Motion volunteers, eight of you helped to develop and deliver remote and in-person school programming to support the global awareness, curiosity, and intercultural competence of scores of Vermont schoolchildren—and you helped make sure folks could get to the schools!

Through your dedication to the Sustainable Solutions Lab over the past two years, you established the EcoReps program, which is helping to increase sustainable practices with students, and you worked on plans to rewild all 300 acres of campus grounds and to connect the Knoll to campus. 

Five of you collaborated with students from International Christian University as an international translation team, extending the stories and testimonials of Japanese Americans incarcerated as a result of the World War II–era Executive Order 9066, and two of you extended this work by becoming fellows with the Go for Broke National Torchbearers program.

You served in over 38 community-focused leadership roles during your Midd years. You established Civics in Action, a new student organization that fosters civic engagement and participation in policy and governance; you led MAlt, the alternative break program; you completed Privilege & Poverty summer internships around the country; and you worked with Community-Connected Learning, receiving Cross-Cultural Community Engagement Grants to create intercultural learning projects with community partners for the common good, including with Conservation Heritage-Turambe in Rwanda and turtle and coastal conservation assistance and education in Zanzibar. You challenged us and the Middlebury community: To be better about isolation protocols. To be better about responding to wars. To be better about environmental justice as part of our Energy2028 plan. To engage with you as you protested.

You may know that I think about the essential character of particular classes when I have addressed them at Baccalaureate. I have even given them particular names. The Feb Class of 2023 were “Dancers”—people who had pivoted so much in response to difficult circumstances that they had become Dancers. The May Class of 2022 I called “Recovery Artists”— people who knew what kind of community it took to survive through COVID and begin to rebuild, as all communities do, through COVID. The June Class of 2023 were the “People Emerging from Isolation.” So what would I say of you, the Class of 2024? It’s super clear. You are the “People of the Eclipse.” You are people who have known unexpected, even inexplicable, darkness and then have found ways to emerge back into the light.

You know all this in your bones, but it bears repeating that your entire high school graduation was eclipsed by the pandemic. I’m so happy you will have one here! But four years ago, you came to us not in the usual schlep from the train station or airport or the drive-through up to Battell or Stewart, waiting in cars behind other families, managing siblings and dogs and the need for lunch. No. You came to us through the Virtue Field House. With masks. You greeted me and other administrators with the shared knowledge that it was nothing short of a miracle that we were opening, and that you were going to college after all. We handed you a big bag of groceries for your period of isolation and wished you well during that time so that you could come back, test negative, and make sure that all was well for you to pursue your classes. At your virtual Convocation in 2020, we also reminded you that upon your arrival in that strange season, we had handed you a mug. We asked you to think of it as a talisman for all that Middlebury had to offer, even in a pandemic. Many of you tell us that you still have it and keep it today. As Mark Orten asked you to do then, you have kept it as a reminder of the learning and teaching that has been part of your experience at Middlebury.

That semester, you saw us making rounds in the middle of the night. You had to curb your natural instincts to meet friends in large gatherings. Your capacity to learn spontaneously in and out of the classroom was eclipsed. Your capacity to play sports was eclipsed. Your capacity to be artistic—to dance, act, and paint with others—was eclipsed. Everything but your love of learning and your determination was in sudden darkness.

You told us in the middle of the year that what you longed for most was spontaneous gathering. So we created a way—with a whole bunch of predetermined rules and structures!—to support spontaneous gathering. You were the ones who learned to silent disco dance on Battell Beach as a way of signaling to your classmates that you were there for them. You figured out a way to be with your teammates, even though you didn’t play for almost two years.

Then, during the middle years, slowly the restrictions eased, and you have experienced your last two years of college in a way far more like what college might have been like before the pandemic. But of course, it looked nothing like those earlier years. There was no “return to normalcy.” Instead, there were new forms of learning, of social interactions, and even of having conversations. There were new kinds of exploring that you can only do when you’re free to move around. And you carried memories of what you endured. You carried powerful memories of all the losses, of what had been eclipsed that will shape you and your imaginations long after you have left this place.

That’s the dark side of the eclipse. That’s the darkness that people don’t expect and that people have feared for millennia. An eclipse suggests that the darkness will never go away. Ancient people told stories and performed rituals during eclipses to give voice to their experience that the reverse of the natural order was happening. In ancient China, people banged on drums and symbols because they believed that a dragon was eating the sun. Versions of that belief also existed in India, Peru, and parts of Southeast Asia—that something demonic was consuming the sun. Ancient Armenians imagined a black planet invading the sun. In Togo and Benin, the sun and moon were thought to be fighting, and people performed rituals and chants to get them to stop their battles. 

I am sure that many of you have felt that way, whether it was in the dark hours of COVID isolation or the equally demoralizing hours of watching the destruction and civilian casualties in Ukraine, or in Israel and Palestine, or working on an adequate response to climate change when the challenge seemed too big, too impossible, and the world not responsive enough to the dire need. You might have felt like something dark was consuming all the light, all the possibility, and you’d do anything to make it go away. To get the sun and the moon to stop fighting.

Those who lived in the ancient world felt like you did, too. Some Native American people felt that the sun had lost its capacity to give light, and the best way to light the sun’s fire again was by sending burning arrows into the sky toward the sun. Ancient Japanese people created great bonfires and made large displays of shining jewels to restore the sun to its original luster. During eclipses, people have wanted to give the world back its light. In all that you have done, you, too, have wanted to give the world back its light. 

We know now that the sun emerges and that an eclipse is nothing short of a miracle if you get to witness it. The gathering of millions across America to watch the eclipse on April 8, 2024, was a joyful, awe-inspiring moment. The gathering of Middlebury students, faculty, staff, and neighbors on Battell Beach was even more awe inspiring. Of course, it was only natural that we were in the marvelously named “path of totality.”

Let me share the thoughts of eminent journalists and your professors Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern as they reported from Middlebury for the New Yorker eclipse diaries: 

“A college turns out to be a good place to watch an eclipse. Most of the student body, released from classes, assembled on the lawn around 2:15 p.m., waiting for something to happen. An astrophysicist set up a pinhole camera. A specialist in spacecraft propulsion was taking 10-second time-lapse images…. But, when the sun went dark, at 3:27 p.m., thought seemed to cease to exist. The students, who had been playing Frisbee and volleyball, fell silent. When the light came back, 55 seconds later, a loud, rolling clamor broke out across the field.”

This was indeed a veritable carnival of science and humanities and social science and arts. On Battell Beach. With everyone gathering. With citizen scientists everywhere. 

In fact, someone recently told me about a project that emerged during the eclipse that reminded me of this scene. The project fits you, our Middlebury students, perfectly. It’s called SunSketchers, and it facilitates the participation of potentially millions of regular folks to gather virtually and contribute to cosmological knowledge—nothing less than the measurement of the sun. As SunSketcher’s website states:

“Sunsketcher is an app anyone can use to photograph a solar eclipse. First used during the April 8th, 2024, total solar eclipse, we are now counting down to the next total solar eclipse on August 12th, 2026. Mass participation will generate an incredible database of images that, when analyzed together, could allow scientists to map the Sun. ‘We don’t know the shape of the Sun?’ you ask. Nope. Well, not exactly. Scientists have a pretty good idea, but it’s not nearly as precise as it could be. As you’ll see on our Research page, our hope is to change that—measuring the Sun’s oblateness to an accuracy of a few parts in a million!”

As Principal Investigator Gordon Emslie puts it, “The 2024 Eclipse offers an unprecedented opportunity to measure the shape of the Sun and so to infer its inner structure. The SunSketcher project will use smartphone observations by Citizen Scientists situated along the two-thousand-mile-long eclipse path from Texas to Maine to reveal the precise shape of the solar disk.” The SunSketchers are much like the people laughing and cheering and providing eclipse education on Battell Beach. As Emslie goes on to remind us, SunSketchers are volunteers from the general public, and their contributions help researchers collect and analyze large datasets. His aim, somewhat like Middlebury’s educational mission, is “to involve as large and diverse a group of SunSketchers as possible,” where “every observation will make a valuable contribution to the project.”

In other words, SunSketchers are measuring the sun, yes. But they are also building hope through building knowledge—one photograph, one person at a time. Like you have done at Middlebury. I saw it in your posters at the undergraduate research symposium. I heard it in your account of your summer internships when you returned to us every fall. There was a sense of possibility in your eyes and your voices. 

This hope is not sentimental. It is clear and determined—the kind of hope reflected in Cherokee poet Linda Neal Reising’s prize-winning poem, written for the April 8 eclipse. 

The Reason We Gather for the Solar Eclipse

It is not because the light pinholes through oak leaves, creating a circus of crescent suns

         upon the lawn—performers in spangled costumes.

         It is not to feel the day lose its way,

         the waning of warmth sending icy

         fingers to stroke our prickled arms.

It is not to see the scenery’s color seeping

         away to sepia, like a tin-type photograph

         of unremembered ancestors.

         It is not hearing the sudden hush

         of songbirds rushing to roost

         among the limbs of shadowed pines.

         It is not observing orb-weaving spiders

         dismantling their webs, stowing them

         like returned sailors’ rigging.

         It is not to keep a date with Venus,

         spreading her goddess glow, outshining

         the stars, startled by their daytime awakening.

         It is not to share the wealth of Bailey’s

         beads, strung around the Moon or the golden

         corona crowning the royal Sun.

         No, we gather for that moment, after totality’s

         darkness, when we stand, faces upturned,

         waiting for that brilliant flash of promise,

and we think, Ah, yes, this is the way it will be.

Reising describes a world where all the tiny responses to darkness—the spiders putting away their webs and the birds’ sudden hush—are themselves eclipsed by the sun’s return. That is your story, too. You started college fighting a corona—a virus in the shape of a crown. You ended it by embracing a corona—the outside of the sun visible in crown-like perfection. 

You are graduating into a world where all of you will need to be citizen scientists. All of you will need to be SunSketchers. But you are Middlebury, so you already are. As Toni Morrison puts it in your book of wisdom, you will need to “dream the world the way it ought to be.” Or as Reising puts it, you will need to think, with determination, knowledge, and compassion, “Ah yes, this is the way it will be.”

Before you leave us to do that work, you will gather one more time this weekend, in hope and celebration. Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern wrote about how, as the sun reemerged from the April 8 eclipse, a loud rolling clamor broke across the field. Tomorrow, another kind of loud, rolling clamor will break across the field—your friends and loved ones cheering you on. 

That clamor is not only celebrating your journey from a dark viral corona in 2020 to a blazing solar one in 2024. It is also celebrating who you will become. As people of the eclipse, as SunSketchers, you will hear many times in your life a sudden hush, when hope seems to vanish. As Middlebury people, you have proven over and over again that you have the strength to persevere beyond that sudden hush, beyond that unexplained darkness, and stand witness to the next moment—the moment of hope—when you embrace again that brilliant flash of promise. We need thousands of you to gather in fields and be citizen scientists. To start new festivals. To greet strangers, as you did on April 8, on the blanket across the path. 

So now go and bring Middlebury into the world, with your faces upturned in hope. With your mind, your spirit, your body, and your hearts, you have the power to help and to heal, the same things that ancient peoples longed for as they shot arrows of fire at the sun and begged the celestial bodies to make peace. You will never be strangers to moments of unexpected and inexplicable darkness. You’ve already lived them. And you will have the wisdom, like all SunSketchers do, to stay, and wait, and watch. And then, in the bigness of your hearts, you know how to embrace that thin sliver of light reemerging. You will describe it. You will study it. You will film it. You will measure it. You will sing it. You will tell new stories. Because you are Middlebury, People of the Eclipse, we know that you will carry us through darkness and show us again how to sustain and light the world.