by Alison Dennis ’94, CAPA Fellow in Residence
I woke up on Monday, the day after alumni reunion weekend, and exhaled. It felt like the morning after an awkward Thanksgiving dinner where the black sheep relatives act up at the table, refill their wine glasses too many times, say things we hope they don’t really mean and, in a few unacceptable cases, overstay their welcomes. As for the rest, it was wonderful they came. The door will always be open for them. This is their home too. They’re our family, and we love them. Now let’s do the dishes, drain the sink and move on.
It’s a guilty pleasure, getting to stay here. Guilty because, of course, I was a Thanksgiving guest too. I was happy during all four of my years at Bennington (yes, those four years) even though being happy made me unpopular, and it remains a comfortable habit to distance myself from the unhappy. But was I any less narcissistic than the people I avoided? Was I any more capable of seeing past my self-interests to the deeper issues at stake on campus, and in the world? I wasn’t a partier: the only thing I “dressed to get” was warm waiting for the heat to turn on in Booth house, and I took my self-centered academic inquiries seriously. But wasn’t the way my friends and I talked about other students as cruel at times as I remember? How much of our humor was enjoyed at the gossipy expense of others? How many thoughtful and genuine peers did I ignore because we came from what I judged to be opposite sides of Commons lawn? And how many of the people I wrote off, because they were wilder or louder or more intoxicated than I was, acted out because they were struggling in ways darker and deeper than I was capable of grasping? How might I have championed their Bennington experiences as valiantly as I championed my own? How, if we had all been more compassionate toward one another, might we have taken shared responsibility to leave our college and each other whole?
On the Saturday of the reunion, after the celebratory dinner, I took a walk with a group of old and new friends through CAPA, around the loop to Jennings and back toward Dickinson. The pond was dark and still, and when we reached the bridge, an alumni from my same year, one I was too arrogant to interact with as a student, stopped, approached the bank, stripped down to his underwear, swam silently out to the center of the pond and returned to me, dripping wet, with a bouquet peace offering of cattails.
Today, I’m uncomfortably reminded of my student indifference each time I meet with the good people of the Bennington Sustainable Food Project, or take a seat in the alto section of the Sacred Harp square, or attend a sublime student concert in the library garden and listen to us serenade one another with ukuleles and bass clarinets. There are so many kind, engaged citizens here today. I have to rise up to meet you. Somewhere between my time here as a student and my time here now, something essential has shifted, something adolescent has matured. My experience of our college today is one of a genuine community in a kind of collective accord that only occurs when the burden of stewardship is shared. We care about each other. We see connections between our work and the world. When members of our community cross moral lines, or are at emotional or physical risk, we don’t just gossip in the dining hall, we take shared responsibility and public action.
Not all of the Reunion weekend’s events were uncomfortable. Some of my favorite moments took place during the panels in which current students, parents, administrators, faculty and alumni from across classes came together to share epiphanies and advice. Through this sharing, experiences and ideals universal to the Bennington experience rose up above the din.
A special highlight was meeting Fran Bull ’60, who participated with me on the Artists as Entrepreneurs panel. In follow up, Fran reached out with student advice she had intended to share:
Bennington is so much about this: dare to discover who you are, discover all that you are, then put your life together in an original and inspiring way. And now, with CAPA, I get the impression Bennington is focusing with passion… on how each student steps into the world -- the world we have now with its enormous challenges. …they are "what's new," they are the ones who will be world-building into the future, even as they create their own lives. …The idea that “I am it" is so very empowering -- and challenging.
How does each of us step out into the world we have now?
How can we complete our shift from a self-centered orientation to one of helping each other develop and share our unique contributions to the world from a place of service?
What new ways of working together might expedite this shift, deepening not only our bonds of shared experience and place, but also our bond of shared commitment to take on the pioneering, healing, world-serving work that lies ahead?
These are the questions that draw me here today.
The party is over. The cattail bouquet is drying on my fireplace mantle. I’m so grateful to be here this term, learning from you and working alongside you. It’s taken you half the years it’s taken me to arrive at this same time and place. Let’s take the next, deliberate steps together to advance our college community wholeheartedly and humbly toward service.