Author Archives: Middlebury Magazine

Family Ties

Deep connections to the town and the College led Kate Perine Livesay ’03 to choose Middlebury—not once, but twice.

On a spring evening in 1999, Kate Perine and a friend were poring over their honors economics homework in Rosenwald-Shumway, a girls’ dorm at Deerfield Academy. Kate was wrapping up a postgraduate year at the independent school in western Massachusetts after finishing up her career at Middlebury (Vt.) Union High School the previous year.

But Kate had more than just homework on her mind. Another consequential deadline loomed: she had to decide where to go to college. She’d been accepted at both Amherst and Middlebury; coaches at both schools were hoping to have her on their field hockey and lacrosse teams. She had visited both campuses but couldn’t seem to make up her mind. As the month between her acceptance letters and decision day wound down, her parents, and two admissions offices, grew increasingly restive. “They were both great choices,” she says now. “In retrospect, there was no bad outcome—though I guess that’s up for debate, because who really wants to wear purple?”

After listening to perhaps more than she wanted to hear about Kate’s dilemma, her friend suggested a solution: flip a coin. At first, Kate thought it was ridiculous to leave that kind of decision to chance. But her friend argued it would be a way to get at Kate’s true feelings. Say it’s heads for Amherst, and tails for Middlebury, and you flip the coin, and it comes up heads. If you’re excited, then you know Amherst was right for you. But if you feel inclined to flip again, then you know Middlebury was the school you really wanted. So they flipped the coin, and Kate now says she doesn’t remember whether it came up heads or tails. But she does recall the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach as she contemplated the coin flip going Amherst’s way. In that moment, she was sure where she wanted to go.

Fast-forward to today, and you can look back on an 18-year series of events set in motion by that coin flip. It includes two NCAA championships in lacrosse at Middlebury as a player; 10 years at Trinity College, eight as head coach, with a national title in lacrosse for the Bantams, their first; and an eventual return to her alma mater, in fall 2014, as assistant to Middlebury’s legendary lacrosse coach, Missy Foote. Kate spent a year as Missy’s assistant, helping her and the team reach the NCAA Final Four in 2015, the final season in Missy’s 38-year, hall-of-fame career. Then Kate, now Kate Perine Livesay, took over the program for the 2016 season, which ended with another NCAA championship for the Panthers, and coach-of-the-year awards for both Kate and her assistant, Alice Lee.

Back in 1999, in Middlebury, Kate’s parents couldn’t foresee any of this. They were just happy Kate had made a decision, finally, and they knew where to send a deposit. And while they hadn’t pushed her in one direction or another, they were beyond thrilled to hear that Middlebury College was the choice.

Ken Perine and Carolyn Leggett Perine ’73 had long family connections with the College and the town. Both grew up in Middlebury and were classmates at Middlebury Union High School. Carolyn Leggett, president of her senior class, was a four-sport athlete at MUHS, playing field hockey, basketball, and softball, as well as a little lacrosse on a club team. She would go on to Middlebury College, graduating in 1973. Ken Perine was a cross-country runner, a ski racer, and a golfer. He was senior class vice president. He earned a degree from Dartmouth but spent his last year of college at Middlebury.

Carolyn’s mother, Janet Leggett, worked for decades in the dean of students office at the College. Carolyn’s sister Jane also worked at the school, as did numerous cousins and in-laws. Ken’s father, Gordie Perine ’49, worked in admissions and then in alumni affairs and fundraising at Middlebury. (He became known over his many years at the College as “Mr. Middlebury.”) Gordie, who came to Middlebury after serving in World War II, and his wife, Alice Neef ’47, met as students at the College. Alice, who also received a master’s from the Bread Loaf School of English, was a teacher for many years at Middlebury Union High School.

After graduating from Middlebury, Carolyn joined the admissions office, expecting to spend a couple of years there. She retired 38 years later as associate dean. Ken retired a couple of years ago after a long run as president of the National Bank of Middlebury.

Given all those connections, it seemed surprising that of their four children—Chandler, Jennifer, and twins Kristen and Kathryn—none had chosen to attend Middlebury, until Kate’s fateful coin flip. Chan went to Bowdoin College, followed a few years later by his sister Kristi. And Jenn had chosen the University of Vermont.

Carolyn and Ken say there was no pressure on Kate to pick Middlebury, and Kate agrees. But her parents do think her postgrad year at Deerfield made it easier for her to do so. Kids who grow up in a college town often feel the need to expand their horizons when it’s time to choose a college. But Kate had already been away; her decision was to return home, not simply to stay put. She also got some positive reinforcement from her Deerfield classmates; many were dying to attend Middlebury. It was, ultimately, the family connections, her love for the place, and her respect for Missy Foote that tipped the scales in Middlebury’s favor.

Ken says his father, Gordie, was also wondering whether there would be another generation of the Perine family at Middlebury. “My dad would never have pushed Kate in that direction,” Ken said, “but he was secretly hoping.” Carolyn recalls that even in his last days, Gordie made it to all of Kate’s home games. “One of our best pictures is of him and Kate, after a lacrosse game, and he’s on a golf cart with an oxygen tank,” Carolyn said. “He was her biggest supporter.” He passed away in 2002.

No doubt Gordie—“Grandpa GoGo” to the Perine kids—was a big supporter. But Kate and her siblings had no more enthusiastic fans than their parents, who introduced them to sports of all kinds at an early age. Carolyn, who had also played lacrosse in college, started up a girls’ youth lacrosse league when her daughters were old enough to get involved.

It wasn’t long before Carolyn and Ken became fixtures on the sidelines at high school games. They were the couple with the tripod and the video camera, taping just about every game their kids played. Carolyn started things off, just because she enjoyed doing it, and then Ken joined in as play-by-play guy. “The way I remember it,” he said, “we were watching the girls play basketball, and I was very vocal. Carolyn got tired of listening to my harangues, so she handed me a microphone and said, ‘Here, you can talk into this. You can’t swear, you can’t say bad things about people. You have to be positive.’ ”

Thus was born a family hobby that would produce hundreds of tapes, from both high school and college games, still filling most of a room in the Perine household. They shared tapes with the parents of athletes who’d had especially good games, and coaches asked for copies to share with opposing teams. At the end of each season, Carolyn would make highlight reels for the teams.

The filmmakers kept at it right through their children’s college careers, though it was a little more complicated when they had kids on men’s and women’s teams at both Bowdoin and Middlebury. They recall some horrendous weather conditions, with perhaps the worst being a game, not in Maine or Vermont, but at Connecticut College, where the field was still surrounded by snow, and the wind was howling off the frigid waters of Long Island Sound.

They also saw a lot of good lacrosse. During Kate’s four years at Middlebury (she also played four years of field hockey and two years of basketball), the lacrosse team lost a total of three games, put up 51 straight wins in one stretch, and took home two NCAA titles, in 2001 and 2002.

After she graduated in 2003, Kate spent part of a year working at Two Brothers Tavern in Middlebury, saving up for a five-month trip to New Zealand, Australia, and Southeast Asia with two college teammates, Dana Chapin Anselmi ’02 and Meg Bonney Martinson ’03. “My parents said, ‘That’s fine, but we want you to have a job to come back to,’” Kate recalled. She had looked into graduate assistant coaching jobs and found that another former teammate, Julia Bergofsky McPhee ’02, would be winding up a two-year stint at Trinity at about the time Kate got back from her travels. She landed a job there, coaching field hockey and lacrosse and working on a master’s degree in history.

As her two-year stint wound down, Kate learned Trinity head coach Kara Tierney was going to be away for a year as her husband did a one-year residency at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, N.H. Kate took over as interim head coach and the team did well, qualifying for the NCAA tournament. “That was really exciting,” Kate said, “and it turned out that early in the season, Kara announced she wouldn’t be coming back. So it was just total luck that we did really well, and they said, ‘Well, we don’t feel the need to do a search.’ So I just sort of fell into the head coaching job. And it ended up being a great gig.”

That summer, 2007, Kate married Reeves Livesay, a Bowdoin grad. She started work as the head women’s lacrosse coach in the fall, and later that academic year she completed her thesis and earned her master’s degree. She would go on to serve as head coach for eight years, turning Trinity into a powerhouse in the NESCAC and on the national scene. She had a record of 127 wins versus 26 losses, for an .830 winning percentage; her teams won four NESCAC championships and, in 2012, an NCAA title.

In the Livesay years, the Bantams also became something of a nemesis for Missy Foote and the Middlebury Panthers. In Kate’s last five years at Trinity, starting with the 2010 season, they defeated Middlebury eight straight times, including the regular season and NESCAC and NCAA playoff games; six were one-goal wins.

***

Kate’s success was in Missy Foote’s mind when she began thinking about retirement. She tells the story of being in a meeting of the Porter Hospital board of directors when the discussion turned to succession planning for the hospital’s longtime CEO, Jim Daily. They talked about having someone come in and work with Daily for a year before his retirement. “And sitting right across from me, at the other end of the table, is Ken Perine,” Missy said. “And so I’m looking at Ken, and I’m literally writing notes to myself saying, ‘Ahh, now I know how I want to do this. I want someone to come in and learn the ropes for a year, and I know who that person should be.’”

Missy had always admired Kate’s competitiveness and field sense as a player. “What makes her a great coach is what made her a great player,” Missy said. “She was a low defender, and she loved to be able to see the whole field, to evaluate what was going on. She knew, three moves ahead, what she was going to do with the ball.”

Missy raised the possibility with Erin Quinn ’86, Middlebury’s athletic director, of asking Kate to consider coming on as an assistant for a year, with the understanding that she would take over when Missy retired at the end of the 2015 season. He was supportive but also said they could do it the old-fashioned way, with Missy retiring and then starting the search for a new coach. But as he and Missy talked it over, they came up with a lot of pluses to having a carefully planned transition. If they could get Kate to agree, Erin said, instead of telling prospective students that they really didn’t know who the coach would be next year, “we’d be able to say that Missy, a hall-of-famer, was going to coach one more year and then retire, and, holy cow, the new coach would be Kate Livesay, who won a national championship at Trinity.”

Kate’s tenure at Trinity had been great, and she wasn’t looking for another job, but she and Reeves, by then the parents of two girls, Alice and Dana, were thinking a little more about the future, and where it might take them.One important reason was the diagnosis Carolyn Perine received in February 2011: she had cancer of the appendix. She had her first operation in March of that year, the start of a long series of treatments. At the time of her diagnosis, she already had four grandchildren, and all four of her children were expecting new arrivals. “Despite my losing 50 pounds from some intense chemo,” Carolyn said, “Ken and I were at the births of all four girls, two in Boston, one in Hartford, and one in Middlebury.” Six years later, their tribe of grandchildren has grown to an even dozen.

All of the issues in Middlebury made it hard for their grown children, part of such a close-knit family, not to be nearby. Jenn and her family lived in town, Chan and Kristi were down in Boston, and Hartford seemed a long way from home. So when the possibility of a return to Middlebury came up, Kate was ready to take it seriously.

“When I was at Trinity, I was happy to be there, and didn’t allow myself to daydream about what-ifs,” she said. But things changed when her mother got sick. “It’s just so hard to know what’s around the corner with an illness,” she said, “so for us, we were willing to do whatever we could to be near my mom, with our kids. That was a huge part of the decision to come back.” By the time they got to Middlebury, Kate and Reeves had a third child: Annie was born in 2014, the week before they moved north.

Missy and Kate agree that their year of coaching together could hardly have gone better. Missy was still very clearly the head coach, but Kate brought her own strengths to the job. “It was great,” Missy said. “It was like having two head coaches, on and off the field.” Erin Quinn points out that head field hockey coach Katharine DeLorenzo was also an assistant in lacrosse that season. “I was hoping that the women on that team appreciated what they had,” he said, “with those three on the sidelines, all amazing coaches, all incredible role models.”

The team had a great run through the regular season and playoffs, making it to the NCAA semifinal game. There were only two seniors on the team (though two important players)—Katie Ritter ’15 and Cat Fowler ’15—so Kate got to know well the team she would be taking over in 2016.

In 2015, the Panthers lost their regular-season game to Trinity, Kate’s former team. And they did so again last year, Kate’s first season as head coach. But in that game, Kate felt, you could see the beginning of the end of the Trinity jinx. The game was close at halftime, and the team “realized that if we played hard, we could make them uncomfortable, we could take them out of their flow,” Kate said. In the second half, they lost some draws and a few calls didn’t go their way, and they wound up losing, 13–9. Kate believed the players just hadn’t developed enough confidence in themselves. “But we learned that we needed to be more aggressive defensively,” she said, “and play as more of a unit offensively. We spent a lot of time on offensive movement from that game on.”

Turns out that was the team’s first and last loss of the season. Three weeks later, in the NESCAC final at Trinity, the Panthers built an 8–1 lead at halftime and held on for a 10–7 win that gave them an automatic NCAA berth. Trinity received an at-large bid, and it was not hard to envision the two teams meeting again in the national championship game.

“By the time we got to the NESCAC final,” Kate said, “we talked in the locker room about how this isn’t Trinity you’re playing. This is the team that’s in the way of you winning the NESCAC championship. And we played a really great first half, and even though Trinity came back in the second half, we did what we needed to do. And we won. If we’d played a perfect game, maybe we wouldn’t have had the same focus going into the NCAAs.”

The team played well and beat Gettysburg in the NCAA regional final, and then it was on to the Final Four, which included Trinity. In the semifinals, they faced Cortland State, which had been ranked first in Division III most of the season. “I wasn’t sure we were better than Cortland, and I’m still not sure,” Kate said, “but we certainly played better that Saturday.”

Middlebury won, 16–11, advancing to the championship game—against Trinity. The Panthers built a 5–0 lead at halftime, and held off a Bantam rally to win, 9–5, and take their first NCAA title since 2004.

Ken and Carolyn Perine, longtime chroniclers of their daughter’s athletic career, were celebrating, but the 2016 playoffs were different for them. They didn’t travel to Philadelphia for the games but instead spent the weekend taking care of Kate and Reeves’ three girls, so that Reeves, now a teacher and soccer coach at MUHS, could make the trip.

As for Kate—now with four national titles, two as a player, two as a coach—she’s no longer the uncertain kid who flipped that coin at Deerfield in 1999. “It’s not Kate Perine, mom’s seventh grader, or Kate Perine, the MUHS sophomore, or the Middlebury College first-year,” says Erin Quinn. “It’s Kate Perine Livesay, professional coach. And I think it’s important that she went off and found her own voice, and crafted her own messages, which are really consistent with Missy’s but are authentic to who Kate is. So when she came back she was firmly standing on her own two feet.”

Through the Looking Glass

For much of her life, sophomore Meron Benti has been seen as being different. How she views herself is another story.

Meron Benti doesn’t remember much about her early childhood in Ethiopia. What she does recall are fragments of memories: car trips to the capital city, Addis Ababa; the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices; certain rooms of her house in the mid-sized city of Shashamane. The house that she rarely left, at least during daylight hours, unless it was for another visit to some new doctor.

She doesn’t remember the rare occasions when she did venture outside with her family; she only knows about the people who would stare, the children who would follow them down the street, the hecklers who would suggest that her mother had committed adultery with a European, or, worse, that her mother was bewitched and Meron was the daughter of the devil. She only knows about these things because she heard them in stories told by her family years later.

She doesn’t remember her first day of kindergarten, or much of kindergarten at all. Of course, she wasn’t privy to the fact that the school in her neighborhood didn’t want to take her, that the teachers didn’t want to teach her, that she was thought to be incapable of learning in a “regular” classroom, and that the school administrators felt they had no way to accommodate “her differences.” She doesn’t remember what other kids said to her or if they said anything at all. What she does recall of her year of kindergarten in Ethiopia was going home at the end of the day and staying there until it was time to go to school the next morning.

“I guess I just blocked all of this out,” Meron would tell me many years later.

When the school year was over, her parents made plans for Meron to move to Italy to live with her adult brother, Ayle. She would never live full time with her mom and dad again. She was six years old.

***

Albinism is an inherited genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in one’s body; when it affects the hair, skin, and eyes, this is known as oculocutaneous albinism, of which there are seven types. Meron doesn’t know which type she has—“It really doesn’t matter, at least not to me” she says—though it’s likely she has OCA1 or OCA2, the latter being the most common form of albinism worldwide and the most prevalent in people of African descent.

In either of these types of oculocutaneous albinism, a genetic defect disrupts the normal production of melanin, the pigment that gives human skin, hair, and eyes their color. The result for people with OCA1 or 2 is extremely fair skin, light-colored eyes, and hair coloring that ranges from white to light blonde.

Meron is the youngest of 10 children, nine of whom have dark skin. Her parents, too, are black, yet they both carry the albinism gene. Albinism is a recessive trait, which, if you recall from high school biology, means that each of her parents carries a recessive gene for the condition, but they do not manifest the condition themselves. Both parents gave Meron a copy of their chromosomes; she had a one-in-four chance of an autosomal recessive inheritance of albinism. Unlike her siblings, the odds played out differently for her.

Being different meant a move to another continent and country, to a place where her condition was better understood and medical options were more readily available. “Most people think of albinism as being ‘devoid of color,’” says Murray Brilliant, one of the world’s foremost experts on the genetics of human albinism. “And while this perception can lead to social stigma—such as what Meron experienced as a child and often resulting in even more dire consequences for patients in other regions of the world—the condition is defined, medically, by deficits in vision.” (It should be noted that Brilliant was told about Meron and her condition in an interview. He has never met her.)

Meron’s vision is severely compromised, the result of undeveloped retinas that are lacking a critical layer of pigment known as the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE). One of four distinct pigmented layers in the human eye, RPE helps maintain photoreceptor cells; with a limited (or nonexistent) RPE, there are fewer of these cells at the center of each retina. The result, says Brilliant, is a degraded field of vision.

Think of a photograph with a limited number of pixels per square inch, he explains to me. “If you enlarge the photo, the image gets pixilated, it gets blurry,” he says. People with albinism may be able to see something up close—say, 10 or 20 feet away, relatively well, but as distance increases what one sees gets more and more blurry.

Meron has told me that she is extremely nearsighted, which might not be technically true, Brilliant notes, as albinism doesn’t affect the shape of the eyeball, but the result is the same. Objects that are more than, say, 20 feet away become very blurry to her. To illustrate what this is like, she recalls standing on a street corner in Oakland, California, a few years ago. Traffic was zooming past her, and her attention was drawn to a box on the far side of the intersection. She had never seen such a contraption before, and in the middle of the box was a blurry, digitally lit hand. Then the hand disappeared and the box appeared to be empty. She stood there for about 30 seconds, just staring at the box, not even noticing that the traffic in front of her had stopped. And then the hand was back, and the rush of cars had resumed. She couldn’t see the numbers counting down the time she had to cross the street.

***

“I remember everything about Italy,” Meron says, contrasting her recollections of living in Europe with her hazy recall of events in Ethiopia.

At six years old, she and an older sister, Mimmi, settled in a small village in Tuscany, where their brother was working and playing soccer on a semipro team. (Though Mimmi was less than thrilled about moving to Italy, too, their parents felt it was essential that Meron have a female presence in her life.)

The timing was fortuitous: just a few months prior, as Meron’s parents were exploring medical options beyond Ethiopia for their daughter, her brother had struck up a conversation about his sister’s condition with a neighbor in the small Tuscan village where he lived. This neighbor wanted to help and offered both to introduce Meron to an ophthalmologist that she knew and, as an Italian citizen, to sponsor her immigration to Italy.

The ophthalmologist had a litany of eye problems to consider and treat. In addition to Meron’s retinal issues, she is extremely light sensitive, the result of a reduced layer of pigment in the iris; she also has a condition called nystagmus, which affects both vision and depth perception. This causes her hazel eyes to dart rapidly back and forth, an involuntary movement that she no longer notices, but is evident when you talk to her in person.

She thinks that her vision issues had as much to do with her Ethiopian teachers not wanting her in their classroom as her skin coloring did, a theory that Brilliant thinks is reasonable. (“There’s an assumption that one is incapable,” he says, “especially when at a young age and in places where help is less accessible.”)

In Italy, Meron does not recall her vision being a social or educational handicap, but there were new challenges. For the first time, she recalls being cognizant of looking different than her siblings, perhaps because they stood out in a predominantly white region. She recalls the sidelong glances of this “big black guy walking down the street with a little white girl.” And while she reminds me that her appearance was more stark then—“I was six or seven years old, so I wasn’t wearing makeup. My hair was white, my eyebrows and eyelashes were white, my skin extremely pale”—she says that people didn’t really pay much attention to the albinism. “What seemed to make a difference to them was my being an immigrant,” she says.

At first, she says, people assumed she was Scandinavian, but when she explained that she was Ethiopian, opinions of her grew harsher.

“I was bullied,” she says, “though I guess I didn’t know what that was then. I just thought people were being mean.” She remembers one classmate in particular, who, upon hearing she was from Ethiopia, began to sing about Mussolini invading her country. “He told me his grandmother loved Mussolini,” she says, a sense of wonder still present in her voice all these years later.

Her brother tried his best to assimilate Meron into the culture of her new home. He insisted that she learn Italian, and by the time school started in September, she was nearly fluent. And she says that while she missed her parents intensely at first, gradually she allowed her memories of them to recede. It was her way of coping with being away from them.

It was six years before she returned home for a visit. She went alone, and she has a clear memory of walking off a plane in the Addis Ababa airport and becoming overwhelmed.

For six years, she had not seen another black person aside from her brother and sister, and now she appeared as the only white person in this bustling airport. And then there was the rush of people, not just her immediate family, but distant relatives and family friends. “I didn’t recognize my brothers,” she remembers. “I couldn’t tell who was my brother, who was my nephew, who was a neighbor. And then my mother . . . she seemed taller than I had remembered her, so I guess I was looking at her funny, and she burst into tears. She thought I didn’t remember her.”

But the truth was, she says, she did feel estranged from her mother. Her coping mechanism had worked. “At first, it didn’t feel like she was my mom.”

Gradually, over her two-month stay, familial ties emerged. It wasn’t exactly normal, she says (“though what counts as normal?”), but it was normalized. Being 12, though, she was also much more aware of how she was received outside of her house. She remembers walking around town with her siblings and having other kids harass her. First they would approach her asking for money (“That happens a lot in Ethiopia; people assume that if you are white then you have a lot of money”), and then when her brothers grew defensive, tipping off the others that she was with them, the remarks turned caustic.

The stories she had heard about being called a “devil child,” she says, apparently were true.

***

Meron returned to Italy, yet says that in all her time there, she never felt at home. She found herself missing Ethiopia, a feeling that intensified after another visit the following summer. “I thought about moving back for high school, but my brother told me that was a bad idea,” she says. “He was probably right.” So she began to cope the best way she knew how: by forgetting.

By this time, her brother, Ayle, had taken a job in the United States and had moved to Oakland. She and her sister remained in Italy and settled into a predictable routine: “She worked; I went to school,” Meron says. Around this time, Meron began modeling, first for fashion students at a local university, and then with an agency. Yet she also says that she began to isolate herself from the rest of her surroundings; looking back on this period, “it wasn’t that different than when I was a child in Ethiopia.” She wasn’t hiding exactly, but she wasn’t engaging with the culture (aside from her modeling), either. She went to school, a rigorous science academy, six days a week, and she studied all the time.

I ask her if she was sad, lonely: “You were a teenager,” I say, “and, sure, this can be a time filled with adolescent angst, but it’s also an age when many lifelong friendships are born.”

She shrugs. “No, I still think of myself as being pretty lucky. I mean, during that time I had Facebook friends, people with albinism, who were teenagers like me, and they needed guide dogs to get around or walked with a cane. I felt fortunate that I didn’t need any of that.”

Meron probably would have finished her studies in Italy, had she not received a phone call from her brother inviting her to come visit him in America the summer after her third year in high school.

I ask if this was her first time coming to the United States.

“Yeah—the first and last time,” she laughs. “That’s when I stayed.”

***

While researching this story, I came across a portfolio from an Italian fashion shoot in 2013 featuring Meron that currently appears on the website behance.net. Highly conceptual and stylized, the shoot is titled “Beauty and the Beast.” Meron is the “beauty” in this concept, and the images of her are striking. She’s sitting in a white chair, her pale skin and blonde hair accentuated by a pale peach-colored dress and an orange flower that she holds in two hands, close to her face.

“That was my favorite shoot,” she tells me when I ask about it a few weeks ago. “I loved the concept.”

She pauses and starts to say something, then stops.

“But . . . ?” I say.

“They were interested in having someone with very fair skin, which was fine—most of the shoots were of that nature,” she says. “But in this one, they really emphasized my whiteness. They even added white makeup on top of my pale skin and my hair! It took me two days to wash it entirely out of my hair.”

She continues: “I’ve always wanted to do something more colorful, like what we did with Brett.” (She’s speaking of the photo shoot for this story.) “Those vibrant colors feel more like me.”

I ask her if she felt that the white makeup further masked her identity in addition to accentuating her whiteness.

Again, she pauses. “I don’t know if I would have phrased it that way then, but it certainly makes sense now.”

Meron tells me that she had never thought about the concept of race until she came to the States a few years ago. “Ethnicity yes, race no,” she says. “Race is not a concept you really think about in Italy, at least not where I was,” she says, “because everyone is the same. And in Ethiopia, that’s literally true. Everybody is the same race.”

She first thought about this concept and how it applied to her when she was registering for high school in Oakland, where she was, once again, living with her brother.

We all know the question, a prompt to check off a box identifying one’s race, only Meron had never seen such a question before.

“There were all of these choices, and I was very confused,” she says. “I thought, I’m white, but my whole family is black.

“So, what did you do?” I ask.

“I checked black.”

The significance of her decision was not lost on her, especially as she spent more time in the U.S. “I may lack melanin, but I’m Black,” she says. (The capitalization of “Black” in this instance is intentional.)

During the past few months, Meron has emailed me a handful of stories to read and videos to watch. One piece she sent me was a story that appeared on National Public Radio, titled “People of Color with Albinism Ask: Where Do I Belong?”

“When I saw that story”—she first saw it online before listening to it—“I was so excited. I thought, Yes, finally someone understands me.”

What she had begun to experience in the United States was that she was Black, “but not fully, if that makes sense?” she says. What she means is that the longer she has spent time in the U.S.—first in Oakland and now at Middlebury—she has grown to understand what it means to be Black in America. “I consider myself Black, but I have white skin, so people don’t see me that way, at least superficially, and how you are seen can mean everything.”

She continues: “I go places with my Black friends; they are looked at differently. I have seen them followed by clerks in stores, and that never happens to me. Ironically, the same treatment that Black people can have in the United States is what I experienced in Ethiopia. So I can relate, but I’m not facing that situation anymore. At least not here.”

Immediately after arriving in Oakland a few years ago, she applied for asylum in the United States. The process was long—it was 18 months from the time she applied until a decision was made—but because of her personal history in Ethiopia, her application was approved. She recently applied for a green card to obtain permanent residency status, a process that took her to an immigration office in St. Albans, Vermont, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. After handing in her paperwork, a clerk summoned Meron back to her desk.

“I think you made a mistake,” she said, sliding a form across her desk to Meron, the form where Meron had indicated her race.

“No, I didn’t make a mistake,” Meron replied.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Meron said. “My whole family is black.”

“If you say so.”

***

Meron is now a sophomore at Middlebury; how she got here from Oakland Tech High School isn’t all that interesting. “Google,” she laughs (though she does credit a history teacher for encouraging her to apply to Ivies and the top liberal arts colleges, types of schools she had either never heard of or never given any serious thought to previously).

But her experience so far has been “amazing,” Meron says. An anthropology major, Meron’s focus has returned to her native Africa, though with designs that expand beyond Ethiopia. “This is strange for an Ethiopian,” she laughs. “There’s a joke that Ethiopians consider themselves apart from the rest of Africa.” In January, she took the intensive leadership and innovation course called MiddCORE, and for her class project she came up with the idea of a summer camp in Kenya for people with albinism. She chose Kenya rather than, say, Ethiopia, she says, because not only is albinism more prevalent among the populace, but the stigmatization and associated danger that comes with it is higher.

I’ve learned that as bad as Meron had it in Ethiopia, there are countries in sub-Saharan Africa where having albinism can cost you your life. A recent report by an albinism advocacy organization called Under the Sun has documented hundreds of attacks against people with albinism in countries such as Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya. (In Tanzania there were gruesome reports of killings and dismemberment.) Meron acknowledges that attempting to start her camp in Tanzania wouldn’t be safe for a college student, though she quickly says she could envision starting a nonprofit that serves people with albinism in Tanzania or Malawi in the future.

And as for now, even Kenya may be too risky. Meron applied for a fellowship with Middlebury’s Social Entrepeneurship Program in the hopes of putting her idea into action. But her application was denied, in large part because of the risk associated with the endeavor, the program’s faculty director, Nadia Horning, tells me. But to say Horning was impressed with Meron’s application would be an understatement. “This is somebody who will be an agent for social change,” Horning says. An associate professor of political science with a focus on African politics, Horning has gotten to know Meron through the African student organization Umoja. Horning is the group’s faculty advisor, and this year Meron is its copresident. Horning has learned the same thing that I have during the course of reporting this story: “All her life, Meron has taken a deficit, a handicap, and turned it into an asset,” she says.

Though Meron did not receive funding for her project, she, along with a few other applicants, were offered a nonfunded opportunity to continue researching projects under the auspices of the Center for Creativity, Innovation, and Social Entrepreneurship where they would have space to work and access to advising. Not everyone who was offered the opportunity accepted, Horning says, though Meron did immediately upon the offer.

***

Meron Benti has an elaborate tattoo on her back consisting of a constellation of symbols that form the shape of the continent of Africa. She says that because her phenotype does not contain any Black features, she wanted something on her body that “hinted to people that I am African.” A heart symbol represents Ethiopia. The image also contains native African species such as the sankofa bird and the denkyem crocodile, as well as West African Ashanti symbols.

I joke that it’s not very Ethiopian of her to be thinking so deeply about other African countries, and she laughs. She says that the symbols not only reflect her origins but also her adaptability to live in different environments. She tells me that until coming to Middlebury, she had never really met any Africans who were not Ethiopian. (The irony that she had to come to rural Vermont to do so is not lost on her, but she hastens to add that the fact that Middlebury facilitated this is one of the many reasons she loves the school.) Now these students of color from other countries, the United States included, are among her best friends.

Not too long ago, a group of students organized a Women of Color brunch, to which Meron was invited.

“I don’t think they realized how happy that invitation made me feel,” she says. “When people acknowledge me as being a person of color without me having to remind them . . .”

“It’s your identity,” I say. “

It’s more than that,” she says. “It’s belonging.”

 

What Ray Zilinskas Knows Will Terrify You

One of the world’s foremost experts on chemical and biological weaponry believes we are at the dawn of a new age of warfare.

The blurry surveillance camera footage from Kuala Lumpur’s international airport showed a woman in white approaching the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un from behind. She daubed his face with a toxic substance—which one, investigators did not yet know.

Kim Jong-nam died on February 13, en route to the hospital.

Over 8,500 miles away at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, Raymond Zilinskas watched the video on the New York Times website and followed reports on Kim Jong-nam’s death. As director of the chemical and biological nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, his office is like a mini-museum of chemical and biological weapons protection gear. Standing near the entrance is a life-sized mannequin in mud-colored, heavy rubber, full protective gear from World War II. Above his desk sits a brunette mannequin’s decapitated head, enshrouded in a gray gas mask shaped like a horse’s snout. The same masks were passed out to protect civilians during the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, Zilinskas explains during my recent visit.

Nearby, another doll head with long-lashed eyes, this one draped in blue and pink Mardi Gras beads, wears a gas mask once used by the Israelis. And in a corner, a dummy sports rubber boots and a gray apron over white protective cloth that cloaks the face, mouth, and head, with only the eyes visible under protective goggles. The Soviets used such suits in the 1940s and ’50s to catch rodents, Zilinskas says. They would take gerbils out of the traps and comb them for ectoparasites, which would fall into the pots of oil they carried. “They would take it all to the lab,” he says, looking for Yersinia pestis—an organism that causes bubonic plague.

Viruses, contagions, contaminants, and germs—he knows how they can kill you when used as weapons, which is why soon after Kim Jong-nam’s death Zilinskas began fielding questions from journalists. Malaysian authorities reported that there had been a second face-smearer, also a woman. One of the suspects appeared on the surveillance footage in a T-shirt with “LOL” on its front. The two were apparently hired assassins for the North Korean government. Of all the mysteries, one in particular burned: Which poison might have killed him?

At first, Zilinskas says, “I thought it was cyanide,” a substance once used by KGB agents. “They would squirt a cloud of cyanide, and when that happens the person who is receiving it goes ‘Huhhhh,’” Zilinskas says, sucking in air. He is 78, in gray jeans and loafers, with a tuft of white hair and white eyebrows that dip into a V-shape when he talks. “It takes a minute, maybe two minutes. Boom. Gone.”

But when Zilinskas heard how long it took for Kim Jong-nam to die—20 minutes—he knew it could not have been cyanide. Something just as potent and paralyzing was at play, and it may have offered one of the clearest affirmations yet into the extent of North Korea’s chemical weapons capabilities.

Ten days after Kim Jong-nam’s attack, Malaysian authorities reported that the killers had used the nerve agent VX. That’s when the deluge of emails and phone calls to Zilinskas from around the world really started. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote him: “It’s a big story, and everyone’s scrambling—and you know this issue better than most.”

***

Beyond his collection of doomsday paraphernalia, Zilinskas is one of the world’s foremost experts on chemical and biological weapons. He is frequently called upon to answer questions about such topics not only by journalists, but by other academics, historians, governments, and even Hollywood writers. Zilinskas recently served as an advisor to the FX television show The Americans, helping the writers and producers grasp plot lines involving lethal pathogens.

His exhaustive research has taken him around the world to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and beyond. He spent 11 years conducting dozens of interviews with former Soviet scientists, and combing through documents and intelligence files to cowrite, along with Milton Leitenberg, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program, a stunning 921-page investigation published in 2012 by Harvard University Press.

The book uncovered a large-scale offensive biological weapons program, detailing how the Soviet Union amped up its production facilities using microbiology to weaponize bacteria and viruses, and alter pathogens to make them resistant to vaccines. The Soviets hired tens of thousands of scientists and technicians for this undertaking, despite having signed the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, which bans the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons.

Zilinskas wrote about how Soviet scientists created new strains of pathogens, genetically engineering Legionella pneumophila (which causes Legionnaires’ disease) to secrete certain peptides along with pathogens, which stimulates a host’s immune defense system—activating immune cells capable of destroying the myelin of nerve cells (destruction of myelin in the human body induces a multiple sclerosislike illness).

Zilinskas’s work also revealed how the Soviets transferred a gene that codes for the production of the diphtheria toxin (which causes diphtheria, a throat and nose infection), into a new host, which was Yersinia pestis (the plague source) to make it more virulent than strains found in nature. And his book documented how the Soviets weaponized Bacillus anthracis, which causes the disease anthrax. Indeed, in 1992, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted that an anthrax accident, which infected 94 people and killed 64 in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk in 1979, had been caused by its own military development.

“It is frightening because the idea that someone can and is willing to apply science and medicine in order to manipulate and grow microorganisms for the purpose of deliberately bringing about illness and death contravenes so much of our society’s ethics that it is beyond the pale of civilized behavior,” Zilinskas and Leitenberg write. “The possibility that virulent bacteria or viruses will be developed to arm biological weapons and, when used, threaten vast populations with disease and death is incomprehensible.”

***

Zilinskas tries not to lose sleep over threats that could occur at any time. If he knew a pandemic disease was approaching, he says, he would work to take precautions that would help the community, but he knows “the probability of me being injured while driving is much, much greater than being injured by chemical or biological weapons.”

Yet, as Zilinskas has proven, the possibility is real.

In his research, he visited anti-plague institutes from Soviet times, including one that led to the discovery of a top-secret report about a smallpox outbreak in 1971 in Kazakhstan. “There had been no smallpox in Russia and the Soviet Union since 1936,” Zilinskas thought at the time. So how did the outbreak occur? “What happened here? What was the big mystery?”

He found out there had been an accidental discharge of the variola virus, which causes smallpox, on a small island in the Aral Sea, between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The virus had drifted off and reached a marine research ship, infecting a 24-year-old fisheries expert who was sampling sea water and sea life specimen like plankton. The ship landed in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, where the infected woman developed a fever and rash. Over the next three weeks a dozen more cases turned up with similar symptoms, traced back to her, and five people died. It turned out the virus had come from open-air tests carried out on Vozrozhdeniye Island—a leak from a Soviet chemical weapons lab.

“I was so upset when I learned that the Soviets had weaponized smallpox virus,” Zilinskas says, leaning back in his office chair. “Smallpox had been wiped out by the world in 1977 . . . so the whole world was susceptible. People weren’t being vaccinated anymore.”

A framed photo behind him shows a version of him from a time when his hair was not white. In it, he wears a short-sleeved button-down with a pocket protector, standing in front of an airplane marked “UN” in blue. It was taken in 1994, when he served as a United Nations biological weapons inspector in Iraq, participating in two expeditions encompassing 84 facilities that were researching, developing, or producing microbial products. “We had to go out to these fields to look at the agricultural helicopters to see if they’d been converted to use chemicals of biological weapons,” he remembers. “That was the hottest I’ve ever been,” estimating it was about 125 degrees at times. The inspectors were followed everywhere by Iraqi minders who monitored and videotaped their visits.

On his desktop computer, Zilinskas pulls up a file with the words Iraq’s BW Facilities Map in neon green. He points the cursor on a map to a desert area where the Iraqis developed and produced chemical and biological weapons in bunkers. He notes Salman Park, a main research laboratory, and Al Hakam-main, a development lab and plant with large fermenters, as well as a foot-and-mouth disease vaccine plant that had some production of botulinum toxin and Bacillus anthracis. “It was exciting,” says Zilinskas, who is still a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense.

His interest in politics and war began when he was a boy. His parents were from Lithuania, and his mother was pregnant with him when the Soviets invaded. She fled Red Army soldiers and while en route in November 1938 ended up giving birth to him in Tallinn, Estonia. With infant in arms she managed to get onto a fishing boat and make it to Sweden, where Zilinskas was raised speaking Swedish. His English carries faint traces of the accent. He was seven when World War II ended, and he holds onto a vivid memory from a year later when the Soviets sent a ship to the Stockholm harbor intending to cart Lithuanians back. The soldiers stood on the harbor with menacing looks, holding machine guns, waiting to round up and load people. “My family was deathly afraid of being deported to the Soviet Union,” he remembers. “Stalin was not a very nice guy. . . . We all were wondering, ‘Are we going to be shipped out?’”

They did not get sent back. At age 12, he immigrated to the United States, first to Chicago, then to Los Angeles, where he attended high school in San Fernando and joined the Army Reserve after graduation. He was sent to Fort Ord in Monterey for eight weeks, then to Fort Gordon in Georgia to be trained as a military police officer. He was assigned to a U.S. Army Reserve division in Los Angeles as a medic, and spent time training at a military hospital in Fort Ord during the Vietnam War. The experience sparked his interest in pathology in patients. He says he encountered “parasites I’ve never seen. We would have different types of malaria. We would have fecal stuff. People who would have ringworm.”

Zilinskas got his medical technologist license from the state of California, working part time at a hospital where he immersed himself in everything from hematology to blood banking to clinical chemistry and microbiology. He then returned to California and went on to work as a clinical microbiologist for 16 years before entering graduate studies at the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California.

It was the early 1970s, and the first genetic engineering studies were emerging. Zilinskas wrote his dissertation on policy issues generated by recombinant DNA research, and genetic engineering techniques for biological weapons development. While in graduate school, he also remembers taking a European history course and writing a paper on Swedish politics, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union after World War II—inspired in part by that moment from his childhood in Sweden, watching Soviet soldiers with guns looking to deport Lithuanians.

The ascent of his career has run parallel to a period of proliferating questions and concerns over biological and chemical weapons development and control. Even since the Biological Weapons Convention, there has been reason to believe that offensive bioweapons programs have made strides in China, Syria, and Russia, not to mention that deadly agents may be making their way into the hands of terrorist groups.

These perils are evolving, which is what makes Zilinskas’s role on the world stage so important, says Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation. Colwell also previously served as president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, where she recruited Zilinskas in 1987 to launch its center on bioethics, microbiology, and biotechnology. He came to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in 1998. “He’s keenly interested in ethical processes, how one does medicine, how one does science,” she says. “And he cares deeply about policy issues associated with national security and intelligence.”

***

After the reports linking VX to the Kim Jong-nam attack became public, inquiries to Zilinskas about the nerve agent multiplied. A journalist from the AFP news agency asked him in an email: “How did the attackers avoid coming to serious harm when they appeared to handle it without any form of protection?” and “How was Kim able to walk and get help given how quickly VX is supposed to work?”

As with other nerve agents, Zilinskas explains, VX inhibits the acetyl cholinesterase enzyme, which under normal circumstances breaks down the chemical acetylcholine. When receiving a signal from the neurological system, acetylcholine stimulates muscles to do their normal work. But if acetyl cholinesterase is destroyed by VX or other kinds of nerve agents, acetylcholine does not break down, and muscles go into involuntary contractions.

“Your eye pupils turn to pinpricks,” Zilinskas says. “You start drooling. Your sweat glands start going. You defecate. You urinate. And in the end your breathing is not efficient anymore. You die of asphyxiation.”

As with cyanide, however, pure VX would have taken out Kim Jong-nam in far less than 20 minutes. A single drop can kill. And anyone who came close to it or had the substance on their hands could have died too. “I immediately thought about binaries,” Zilinskas says, explaining that when VX is divided into two separate compounds, each is harmless on its own, and each can work in a slower release form. But when mixed together, the chemical result becomes a deadly weapon. This would explain the involvement of two suspected face-smearing women: “One has the precursor, the other comes and smears it,” Zilinskas says. “Now there is VX.”

There were news reports that one of the women involved ran to the bathroom after the attack, which also fits with Zilinskas’s suspicions, because the effects of VX can be mitigated if quickly washed off. “It seems to me at least one of them must have had training in how to do this,” he says.

North Korea is not a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, but it is part of the Geneva Protocol, which forbids chemical and biological weapons in warfare. “We have known they have a big chemical industry, so they certainly have the capabilities to produce any chemical they want to,” Zilinskas says. “We’ve been thinking for a long time that yes, they have chemical weapons. . . . Now, if it’s really the North Koreans behind this, it’s proof.”

***

On Zilinskas’s desk, alongside a copy of the Monterey County Weekly, which features a full front-page photo of Kim Jong-un and the headline “Going Nuclear,” there is a thick stack of printer paper with handwritten markings in the margins of the text. It is Zilinskas’s latest manuscript. The book, cowritten with Philippe Mauger, examines biosecurity and biotechnology in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“It’s going to go to the publisher this coming week,” Zilinskas says, looking relieved and satisfied. The spark for this newest project came in 2012, when the Russian government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta published an essay by then Prime Minister Putin, in which he stated: “What is the future preparing for us? . . . In the more distant future, weapons systems based on new physical principles (beam, geophysical, wave, genetic, psychophysical and other technology) will be developed. All this will, in addition to nuclear weapons, provide entirely new instruments for achieving political and strategic goals.”

Soon after, then Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov promised to implement “the development of weapons based on new physical principles: radiation, geophysical wave, genetic, psychophysical, etc.” In August 2012, the U.S. Department of State noted that Russia has remained engaged in biological activities.

Their production of any kind of bioweapons would violate the Biological Weapons Convention, but as Zilinskas points out and as outlined in his previous book, Russia inherited the past Soviet program of offensive biological research and development. The microbial strains for potentially murderous manufactured bacteria could be reactivated for a “third generation” of biological weapons. Russia’s recent behavior, he says, indicates that such a program could already be under way.

A future with “genetic weapons” would include powerfully emergent methods, including gene editing technologies—which has shown immense promise for treating disease and strengthening the human species, but which in the wrong hands could also wipe out an entire population. This technological ability to alter organisms is progressing so rapidly that government regulators can’t keep up, and the idea of containing such research globally is an impossible goal. It is frightening to consider what would happen if terrorists used gene editing tools—which can be obtained relatively easily and at a low cost—to unleash highly lethal modified pathogens upon enemies. Zilinskas brings up a Pakistani scientist, Abdur Rauf, who had a degree in microbiology and was working to set up a bioweapons lab for al-Qaeda. Rauf had found a way to produce Bacillus anthracis.

“His notebooks fell into the hands of the CIA when the Americans came in in 2001,” Zilinskas says. “If there is a person who knows about microbiology, if he gets a colony of Bacillus anthracis, has a fermenter, is able to dry the spores . . .”

Take the Tokyo subway massacre of 1995, when the Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed the odorless chemical weapon sarin, killing 12 people. “Anybody with good chemistry, chemists, and chemical equipment could do it,” Zilinskas says. Aum Shinrikyo “bought the precursors and they made the sarin used in the Tokyo subway, but they did also produce VX.”

If they could do it, so could other terrorists, so could North Korea, so could any smart extremist, radical, insurgent, enemy, or incendiary with the right tools.

Less than two months after the murder of Kim Jong-nam, Zilinskas began fielding messages again—this time in response to the reports of 86 people, including 28 children, who were killed in a chemical weapons attack in Syria. Hundreds more were injured, and horrific images of dying children being hosed down, and parents cradling their dead kids flooded news reports. Authorities suspected sarin gas unleashed by the Assad regime, despite its denial of involvement and joining into the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Zilinskas saw the photos, which reminded him of Damascus in August 2014, Halabja in March 1988, victims in Auschwitz, and the Stalin purges of 1930s. Today the images are pervasive. With the Syrian attack, unlike past generations of chemical warfare, “Now you have hundreds of people with cell phones taking videos and photos,” Zilinskas says.

Before the two most recent nerve gas attacks, concerns over chemical weapons seemed to have taken a momentary back seat to nuclear weapons in the public eye. Zilinskas agrees that nuclear weapons remain of highest concern for the world’s population. But, he adds, “We probably will see more uses of chemicals by well-organized terrorist groups such as ISIS and, perhaps, Taliban, and who knows what North Korea might do beyond assassination.”

Road Taken: Unfinished Business

 

I was in the second week of my German class in Dresden. Hasan and I presented a skit. I played a hotel receptionist. Hasan played my customer, disgruntled because his Internet service wasn’t working. Translated from German to English, the skit ended like this: 

Hasan: “So, are you going to fix the service?”

Me: “Nope. I’m only the receptionist.”

“Well, who can do something about it?”

“Maybe my boss.”

“Then call him! I want a refund!”

Phoning my manager.

“We have a man who is very angry about our Internet service. He wants a refund. Yes, we should give him one. I’m afraid of this customer. He is angry, and bigger than I am.” Stage whisper. “Besides, I think he’s a Syrian!”

This last line was an ad lib, and, like all ethnic humor, not without risk. But my classmates roared with laughter. I got away with my bad joke because my classmates were Syrian refugees. They had arrived in 2015 and were among the 5,500 refugees living in Dresden.

I had taken my last German class at Middlebury in 1974. By graduation, my skill had reached the same level as my downhill skiing: sloppy intermediate. I now had the opportunity to complete the unfinished business of learning German to the point of conversational fluency. My classmates had a more pressing reason for learning the language. Their university educations had been interrupted by civil war. To continue their studies, they needed to be proficient in German.

No country has been more welcoming to Syrian refugees than Germany, which has provided them with language education, apartments, and living expenses. But Dresden, the center of Germany’s anti-Islamic and neo-Nazi movements, is its least welcoming city. During my stay, a mosque was firebombed, four refugees were attacked by thugs, and two Syrians were attacked by a man wielding a sword. Weekly anti-immigrant demonstrations attracted thousands of protesters.

The American presidential election was around the corner. My classmates’ interest was purely academic. To them, America became irrelevant in 2011, when the U.S. refused military aid to the rebels even after the Syrian government had crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons. Moutez, a doctoral candidate in international business, theorized that the Americans’ decision to stay on the sidelines was part of a deliberate strategy to tilt the Middle East balance of power away from Saudi Arabia toward Iran. I told Moutez that he was giving our government too much credit for actually thinking things through.

Hasan, my dialogue partner, was expecting his first child, a son. He once asked if I had experienced racism as a child. Sure, I said. In my small Wisconsin hometown, I was frequently teased about being Japanese. But, I said, it was no big deal. Every kid gets picked on at some point. Hasan responded: “The other day, I saw some German kids on the playground call a black child a ‘neger.’ If my child plays with other children and learns such words from them, I would want to make sure he doesn’t use them against another child.”

My answer had missed his point. Hasan was less afraid of his child being picked on than he was of him picking on someone else.

On my last night in Dresden, Hasan and his wife had me over for tea. Hasan told me that he was glad that I had gotten to know the Syrians. “You could have stayed at your apartment and not gotten to know us,” he said, “but this way, you know that we are normal people. We’re not terrorists or criminals.”

Editor’s Note: Selfie Nation

On a damp, overcast March morning, I went in search of the American face.

My quest took me to Middlebury’s Museum of Art, where Richard Saunders, the museum’s director, has curated a brilliant exhibit of portraits—nearly 100 in total drawn from more than 20 collections—that, taken together, reveal a fascinating portrait all its own: this country’s cultural obsession with self.

The exhibit, American Faces: A Cultural History of Portraiture and Identity, is staged in seven sections that essentially serve as chapters of a story (it was preceded by Saunders’s most recent book bearing the same title). The self-guided tour of American identity encompasses such themes as “The Rich,” “Portraits for Everyone,” and “Fame.” The chronology of the work traces the interests and media of the age—exquisite 18th-century oil paintings (only the wealthy could afford such portraits), a daguerreotype and hollow-cut silhouettes from the 19th century, a mammoth Chuck Close self-portrait from our last century—affording the visitor an acute sense of how we have seen ourselves and how we have expressed these visions during the past three centuries.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Saunders’s work is his expanded definition of the portrait itself. “One goal of mine,” Saunders says, “has been to broaden the definition of portraiture to include many images, such as snapshots, which are often ignored by scholars primarily because they are by anonymous amateurs. In so doing, I hope to enable viewers to make better sense of the more common types of portraits that routinely pass before our eyes—in the media, in public places, and in the home.”

So sharing space with the masterful works by Warhol and Close and the painter Charles Wilson Peale are items such as a giant LeBron James wall decal (the likes of which would be perfectly at home in my son’s bedroom), a looped video of the first televised presidential debate, Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope poster, and the visage of Osama bin Laden as presented on the FBI’s Most Wanted poster.  

I would love to see this exhibit again in 20 years. What new ways will we have discovered to express our collective identity? And how will we see ourselves?

Old Chapel: A Robust Public Sphere

In early April, I spoke to the Middlebury faculty about free speech and the public sphere. My remarks were prompted by the events of March 2, in which a scheduled talk by political scientist Charles Murray was disrupted by demonstrations. The events of that day and the ensuing debate about the value of public discourse made national news. And while I told the faculty that I would not have asked for a national platform to discuss in an urgent fashion the paramount importance of creating a robust public sphere at Middlebury, I am proud that we are having this discussion. I see it as a sign of our vitality, and I would like to share with you what I said to our faculty. 

I believe that a true commitment to education must embrace an uncompromising commitment to free and open dialogue that expands understanding, challenges our assumptions, and ultimately creates a more inclusive public sphere.

Controversial speech, or speech by a controversial speaker, can be challenging in a time when the very idea of a public sphere seems fragile. Controversial speech is also more difficult in a time when issues that should be contested and addressed become exclusively owned by “the left” or “the right.” In our current state, deep educational commitments, such as exploring the history of oppression and freedom, may be difficult to share as common public goods. But they should be understood as such, and it is our responsibility to teach them and to discuss them with candor. That is the only way we can reach the truth.

There are many struggles playing themselves out on our college campuses: how does one acknowledge the discomfort that a true liberal education must entail, while at the same time recognizing and respecting the often difficult and unfair experiences of our students who have walked in the American margins? Acknowledging and honoring those margins as real spaces is essential. Honoring the study and articulation of those experiences is crucial to our well-being as a society. And in honoring those margins, we must pay attention to hurt, to offense, to accumulated injury. So, how do we relate these two fundamental values—the necessary discomfort of a liberal education, and an honoring of the difficult experiences of our students who have walked in the margins? And how do we do so in the context of free speech debates?

Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago Law School professor and First Amendment scholar, has cautioned that if we are permitted to silence distasteful views, we risk becoming silenced ourselves. And once censorship becomes acceptable, those most likely to be silenced are our citizens who find themselves in the minority—be they religious, racial, or political minorities.

With this in mind, I believe that if there ever was a time for Americans to take on arguments that offend us, it is now. If there ever was a time for us to challenge influential public views with better reason, better research, better logic, and better data, it is now. If there ever was a time when we needed to risk being offended, to argue back even while we are feeling afraid, to declare ourselves committed to arguing for a better society, it is now. 

The questions that we encounter strike at the very heart of who we are as an institution, and we should take our time to learn, to debate, to understand, and to reflect.

In its tradition as an institution of excellence and of courageous engagement, Middlebury must find a way to connect the principles of free speech and the creation of a robust public sphere. I believe we all can agree that education is about exposing students to different ideas and giving them the skills and courage to choose between them. And I believe we all can agree that education should give students the skills and courage to make this a better world. These values are usually not in conflict. However, in our most painful moments, such as the one we experienced in early March, they were indeed conflicting.

In my view, the first of these commitments is a necessary precondition of the second. Education must be free enough to expose students to a wide range of conflicting and even disturbing ideas, for only then will we be able to give our students the wisdom, the resilience, and the courage to make this a better world. 

I will work tirelessly for both inclusivity and freedom of speech. There are no more important projects than these. But this is possible only if academic freedom and freedom of speech are defended on all sides. It is only through this principle that we will enable our students to discover truth and achieve the work of making society more just, and it is only in this way that we will in the long run ensure a public sphere that is more inclusive, more vibrant, and more engaging. That is, after all, what we are most fundamentally about. 

 

Pursuits: The Shopkeeper

Millennials have a reputational rap sheet a mile long. They speak in emojis. They still live with their parents. They’d rather marry their start-up company than a soul mate, and they disdain conformity.

For instance: “I was never interested in a standard nine-to-five job,” says Cade Schreger ’15. “I always wanted to create my own thing, to design my own content and schedule. Not that there’s anything wrong with working for a boss, I just knew I’d be happier working for myself, developing a business plan I was passionate about.”

Schreger is the co-owner of Brooklyn’s newest comic book shop, Mama Says Comics Rock, and if the idea of a millennial comic-book-shop owner—in Brooklyn—seems to confirm every negative stereotype you’ve ever held about the millennial generation, you’d be forgiven. And quite possibly wrong.

While Schreger may be an alum of Brooklyn Heights’s arts-oriented St. Ann’s School—where grades aren’t distributed and creativity is highly rewarded—his off-the-beaten-path sensibilities have always had a grounding in reality. Which is why his father, a well-known lawyer and Brooklyn native, first chuckled at his son’s entrepreneurial notion and then quickly started talking business strategy.

“Our conversations went from ‘Oh, wouldn’t this be nice,’ to ‘Here’s how this actually could work,’ and eventually ‘Here’s how this will work,’” says Schreger of his discussions with his father. (One of the biggest factors, both Schregers say, was the closing of Bergen Comics in nearby Park Slope. The store’s owners plied Schreger and his business partner with advice—and delivered a community hungry for a new store.) Just six months later, Mama Says Comics Rock—adorned with DIY urban decor, bright white walls, and hundreds of comics—opened.

Perfectly at home among the mom-and-pop shops in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, Mama Says has received a warm welcome. “The community has been nothing but kind,” says Schreger, who is focused on catering to the area’s dense population of young families. Growing up in Brooklyn Heights, Schreger frequented local comic shops, drawn to both the amicable comic crowd and the supply of books that nurtured his obsession with Batman. Aware of the “nerd-in-the-basement” stereotype, Schreger also appreciates how comics unite readers across genders, ethnicities, and social classes.“What I’ve always admired about comics is the culture and community, especially from the readers,” says Schreger. “I’ve been amazed that almost everyone who walks into our store is not only nice and approachable, but genuinely loves the world of comics, and how it can be this bridge between prose and artistic expression.”

To succeed, Schreger knows that his store must be community oriented, which is why Mama Says features the work of local artists along with your standard Marvel and DC Comics fare and also holds regular events. (In September, the shop hosted the 10th anniversary celebration for a graphic novel imprint, First Second Publishing, which is a subsidiary of Macmillan.) “Our goal is to create a place where people know they can go to find comics, hang out, and bring their kids, or meet up with other people inside the community,” says Schreger. “If we can provide a little break in somebody’s day, even if it’s just five minutes of relaxing conversation, it’s worth it.”

A neuroscience major, Schreger is fascinated by the psychology of human behavior, and he says that his interest in human interaction has made retail a natural fit. As for running a business, he says that Mama Says is meeting his early financial goals, though he declines to say what those are. The shop had a very good holiday season, and as Mama Says approaches its one-year anniversary, Schreger is cautiously optimistic about its future. Which is a rather conventional thought—for a millenial.