Better than Chocolate

By now you’re probably tired of hearing me talk about Work Day, about how everyone works together and all, lugging, sweeping, raking, digging and generally getting more dirty and sweaty than they do in art history class. But I swear, this week’s Work Day was different. Maybe it was the beautiful sunny day, or the fresh composted manure delivered to fill new raised garden beds, or the phalanx of students who moved materials around the library like a well-oiled ant colony, or the volunteers stuffing bags with holy cedar (Batman) to raise scads of money for the Cross-Cultural Collaborative Service-Learning with the Diné and Lakota Peoples class. Whatever it was, by all accounts this Work Day was the best since they built the Pyramid of Khufu.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Dan MacArthur (son of John MacArthur, retired physics professor) and his crew were there, raising the timber frame of the new greenhouse across the road from Persons Auditorium. It was very gratifying for everyone to see this project get beyond the foundation-as-conceptual-art-installation stage, and Dan’s hard-working and amazingly noisy and waggish crew set the pace for other projects nearby, such as building stone retaining walls for the greenhouse, building raised beds, cultivating soil and turning over the compost. I mean, if an alien happened to land there, he or she would probably think it was a chaotic rite-of-passage ritual or something, but to those of us caught up in the groove it was better than chocolate.

Before embarking on Work Day, students, staff and faculty participated in the chaotic right-of-passage ritual we have all come to love, known as “community photo.” As always, this is everybody and their brother’s excuse for pulling out their favorite costumes, flags, obstreperous banners and rowdy hand signals, as demonstrated in the video clip below.

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A Symposium of Students

Well, if I had any doubt that Marlboro students were smarter than me on B vitamins, that doubt was blown clean out of the water on Saturday. That’s when Marlboro was the site of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences Spring Student Symposium, an annual jamboree of hard-thinking students from across the state. I mean, there were more than 40 great minds from University of Vermont, St. Michael’s, Norwich, Castleton State College, Green Mountain College and Marlboro, presenting work in a whole bunch of areas of study. With all these delegations coming from every corner of the kingdom, it felt kind of like a gathering of the Fellowship of the Ring to conquer the evil forces of ignorance and illiteracy in Vermont.

Like, take junior Sam Grayck’s discussion of “Dialogism in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince,” for instance. I didn’t even know that dialogism was a word, or heteroglossia, for that matter, another word Sam like to use a lot. While my idea of a literary weekend might be reading the Sunday comics, she is busily doing her own translation of The Little Prince from French. Her talk helped me understand that translating is much more than just finding the right words; it is about finding the right meaning, and that can depend on the meanings attached to words by different social groups and in different contexts. In other words, it’s darn complicated, even in a book so apparently simple as The Little Prince. I considered telling Sam that the book had already been translated into English, along with Chinese and Latin and Sardinian and more than 250 other languages, but I did not want to spoil her enthusiasm for the project.

Or take senior Alex Tolstoi’s talk about “Charles Phelps and the politics of internal dissent in revolutionary Vermont,” or senior Brandon Willits “Wilderness themes in William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.” These are not the kinds of subjects you pick up on YouTube or the inside of bottle caps. I mean, I need to take Dramamine just to get through a couple of sentences of Faulkner, and Go Down, Moses is like 360 pages. Probably the most accessible bit of scholarly work for me was freshman Haley Peters’ paper about “The legend of Bigfoot in the American mythic consciousness,” because who doesn’t love a Yeti? Of course I’m used to this kind of thing, but I think a lot of other participants at the symposium found they still had lots to learn.

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Mount Olga without Oxygen

We were on the final pitch of the challenging East Face, just before the knife-edge traverse known as the Devil’s Shinbone, when our seasoned climbing guide Kyhl Lyndgaard turned to the rest of us roped up below him like teabags in the wind and asked, “Who’s got poetry?” Just kidding. Actually we were climbing Mount Olga from where Route 9 passes the snack bar of the former Hogback Mountain ski area, which does happen to be on the east face, and my imagination was getting away with me. It was last weekend’s field trip for Kyhl’s class called Writing Like a Mountain.

A nice thing about mountains is that they’ve been around practically forever and they can be found practically everywhere except Kansas, so lots of people have had thoughts about them. In Kyhl’s writing seminar students have been reading a whole bunch of perspectives on mountains, from 13th-century Japanese Zen Buddhist Dōgen to Beat poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder. I mean all the way from Petrarch, the Italian Renaissance scholar who apparently coined the term “Dark Ages,” to Miriam Underhill, the American mountaineer and feminist known for the concept of “manless climbing.” But what the students are doing more than anything is writing their own essays about mountains, with the object of having a portfolio of high-quality written material sufficient to climb the summit of Marlboro’s renowned writing requirement.

Leading a dozen well-brunched students up the twisting trails, Kyhl was also hiking for two because he had his two-month-old baby mountaineer, Lars, strapped to his front. Incongruously, he was also carrying a briefcase, which apparently held one poem by Gary Snyder. We found this out once we reached the lofty pinnacle of Mount Olga, 2450 feet, and climbed the old fire tower in groups of four. The windows of the tower were all gone, and the howling wind made the old structure shake like a tuning fork. But there was a great view to enjoy while listening to the poem by our man Gary, who spent his share of time in lonely fire towers, writing poems. Lots of high-elevation food for thought, and hopefully for writing.

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Singing Zulu as a Second Language

Here is my recipe for world peace. Send Becky Graber to the United Nations to get a rousing four-way round of “Row, Row, Row your Boat” going among member states. I’m not kidding, last night Becky, a local music educator and director of Brattleboro Women’s Chorus, had people from all around the world crowded onto the Serkin dance studio bleachers, singing songs in three-part harmony and feeling pretty damn euphoric about it. The event was dubbed a “Global Sing-in,” sponsored by the world studies office, and it coincided with a visit from students at Harare International School, in Zimbabwe.

Okay, when I heard that a group of 30 high school students from Zimbabwe were coming to sing with us, and visit Marlboro as part of a tour of northeastern colleges, I very reasonably pictured them to be of Zimbabwean nationality. But, being at an international school, these students were from all over, including Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Africa, China, South Korea, Great Britain and the United States. To top things off, we had visitors from the SIT Graduate Institute who came from Rwanda, Mongolia, India and elsewhere, as well as students and local neighbors from as far away as Queens and Columbia. When Becky had everyone say where they were from, the mutual sense of jaw-dropping awe at our national diversity was palpable. Marlboro’s Fulbright Arabic Fellow, Mohamed Jalal from Morocco, even earned an “ooooooooh.”

But getting us all into one room was only part of the undertaking, as the United Nations General Assembly frequently demonstrates. Becky, with her radiant smile and startling ability to sing three parts simultaneously and in perfect pitch, despite an out-of-tune piano, got us all on our feet and singing together beautifully. This is all the more impressive in my case, as I have a voice that sounds like the mating call of Sasquatch and is perfectly in tune with the piano. Remember we’re talking about high school students, who might easily have been too cool for anything other than texting four friends simultaneously. Au contraire, Voltaire, these kids were up and clapping like peace-loving maniacs with the rest of us. The highlight was when a group of them got up with Becky to lead “Shosholoza,” a popular Zulu song once sung by laborers far from home, which means literally “Go Forward.” The visiting students did just that after the event, moving on to visit colleges in New York State, but they will not be forgotten soon.

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