Tags » Fall 2010

 
 
 

Cue McEwan

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Even the greatest writers aren’t always the best speakers—many prefer soundless solitude to adoring crowds—so it was a welcome surprise when Ian McEwan smoothly strode to the podium in Mead Chapel on a beautiful September evening and began his talk by thanking everyone for coming when they’d “surely rather be lounging outside in that delicious dusk.”

Wooing words.

From that moment, the filled-to-capacity crowd was cued up to relax and savor an ensuing hour of the award-winning Englishman’s graceful wit, rolling metaphors, and evocative turns of phrase.
McEwan is often referred to as one of the finest living writers, and he has indeed won nearly every prize an English author can win. Nearly half of his novels have been made into films—most recently the Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed Atonement—and many remain on college and high school reading lists worldwide. He is well known for his fictional forays into the seamier side of human nature, with novels that reach uncomfortably into lost childhood, deviant sexuality, and disjointed family life. From orphans who hide their mother in a grave of concrete to the deeply perceptive horror of Nazi camps to innocent mishaps with malevolent consequences, McEwan’s characters look nothing yet everything like ourselves.

Speaking to a crowd of mostly students with a fair showing of faculty, staff, and community members, McEwan read from his latest novel, Solar. The scene he chose focused on the main character in a way that was both intensely humorous and sadly tragic. The audience laughed uproariously one minute and sat as still as stones the next. The younger faces, especially, were a mixture of awe, tension, relief, and hilarity. McEwan’s voice boomed with narrative force and then suddenly shrank to a whisper; he enlivened the space between his words on the page and true human nature unfolding, and no one wanted to miss a moment.

When finished, McEwan smiled and reached for his water, then quickly stepped down from the podium to take questions. After the typically slow start, with a few questions called out from the crowd, students soon hurried from their seats to line up behind the microphone halfway up the center aisle.
Questions ranged from the expected—“How did you first know you were a writer?”—to the more random—“Do you like salt and vinegar potato chips?”—to the technically fundamental—“How do you do your research?”—and McEwan answered each with sincerity. He discussed his diligent approach to detail, his broad experience writing for television and the stage as well as novels, and his obsession with research: he followed a neurosurgeon for an entire year before writing one word of Saturday. Overall he advised young writers to read anything and everything they could get their hands on to learn the art of using detail to make a story. Referring to the passage he had just read in Solar, he said, “You can write that he took a train home after a long day at work, or you can take 23 pages and describe every single important moment of that commute.”

Earlier in the evening, as students were filtering in from dining halls and late athletic practices—one young man rushed in still carrying a soccer ball—a brief poll revealed a range of familiarity with the author. Some had read a book or two for a class, nearly all had seen Atonement, and others didn’t have any idea at all who the speaker was. “I could tell he was someone important from the way people were talking about this,” said one wide-eyed first-year. “I knew I’d be crazy to miss it.” From behind, a prudent upperclassman chimed in to say, “We get some pretty interesting speakers here, but this is big, really big.”


Our Sense of Place

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

One of the most consistent comments we receive from judges when we submit the magazine for award consideration is that we do an admirable job of conveying a sense of place. Readers, too, frequently mention that the quarterly arrival of the magazine is almost always accompanied with a jolt of nostalgia for Middlebury, both town and College.

Of course, capturing the scenic beauty of our campus blanketed in snow or Bread Loaf on an autumn afternoon is a little bit like shooting fish in a barrel—if we’re not adequately conveying a sense of place in these pages, then we’re doing something wrong. But as I was reminded when we were putting this issue together, the very concept of a “sense of place” is more than the physical characteristics that define a landscape, but also one’s relationship—past or present—with those surroundings.

The writer Susan Orlean has published a collection of stories under the title My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere, and in these pieces, she says that where the stories unfolded was “almost as important as the story itself.” In some instances, she adds, “the place was the story.”

This is can be said about Emily Peterson’s feature in this issue, “Can the Louisiana Coast Be Saved?” And its exactly what we talk about when we discuss a story with a “strong sense of place,” precisely because her exhaustively reported narrative of a region in peril is told in a voice steeped in experience—in this case, her family’s intimate relationship with the Louisiana coast and its waterways.

In Leah Koenig’s back-page essay, “The Plunge,” Thoreau’s Walden Pond is as much a character as it is a location. And while our profile of Conor Shapiro ’03 is firmly routed in rural, post-earthquake Haiti, writer Deborah Sontag includes an observation that other writers might not have made—the effect, the lure, that the country and its people had on Conor as a teenager when he first visited Haiti while a sophomore at Middlebury.

So this got me thinking (a dangerous thing, some will tell you)—does Middlebury attract students who are naturally drawn to and appreciative of a “sense of place,” or is this behavior learned, acquired by spending four years in a, well, place like Middlebury?

I recently put this question to Christopher Shaw, a visiting lecturer in English and American literatures and himself a fair chronicler of place (for years he edited Adirondack Life magazine, and he’s the author of the acclaimed Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods). Each spring, Shaw teaches a course called Writing the Journey, and he says that while place, “being one of the basic elements of literature,” is a constant in his classes, he can almost always point to particular students who carry a “regional stamp [with them] and find the way to embody it in writing by being here at Middlebury, immersed in a place that is a little bit off to the side; with a perspective, but still of it.”

“With a perspective, but still of it.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.


House of Blues

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Coming to grips with loss haunts the characters of our fall books.

What makes a story memorable? Vivid characters stay with us long after plot details fade. Every writer must fashion flesh, bone, and spirit from words. But author truly becomes alchemist when he breathes life into characters and creates people we connect with, ones we can’t seem to forget.

Model Home (Scribner, 2010), the confidently crafted first novel from Eric Puchner ’93, is an absorbing tale about a troubled suburban family. Puchner populates his fictional universe with an extraordinary array of eccentric yet believable individuals. The distinctly drawn characters have quirks and foibles aplenty. But their strangeness engages, rather than alienates, the reader. The author uses humor and a keen insight into human behavior to help us understand them from the inside.

The five members of the Ziller family often behave strangely. Since their move from Wisconsin to tony Palos Verdes, California, they seem to orbit their home more than inhabit it. The separate paths of two parents and three kids rarely intersect.

In moving, dad Warren wanted to provide them all with a better life by pursuing a classic version of the American dream: go West, and make a fortune in real estate. By the summer of 1985, however, his dream has become a nightmare. A toxic waste dump is opening next to the community of affordable homes he has just built. He has invested everything in the now worthless development.

Warren’s immediate goal is to keep his family in the dark about their impending bankruptcy. It is surprisingly easy, with wife Camille and the kids distracted by their own pursuits and problems.

Camille, an earnest public school health educator, struggles to avoid controversy while making a sex-ed film, Earth to My Body: What’s Happening? Son Dustin, 17, keeps busy with surfing, girl trouble, and his garage band, Toxic Shock Syndrome. Daughter Lyle, 16, makes lists of things she hates—CALIFORNIA merits all caps—and secretly dates the neighborhood’s security guard. Warren borrows Lyle’s old Renault when he pretends his Chrysler, repossessed by the bank, is stolen. Its decor reflects her caustic worldview: “A half-naked Barbie dangled from the mirror, twirling from a shoelace noosed around her neck.”

Baby brother Jonas, 11, seems “macabre and friendless,” even to his own father. He dresses head to toe in orange and obsesses over news of a local girl who has disappeared. “I was thinking whether it was worse to be eaten by sharks or to get picked apart by vultures,” he announces one afternoon at the beach.
The kids do vaguely notice that “something weird’s going on with Dad.” By the time the Zillers go on their annual camping trip to Joshua Tree, they’ve all had such a stressful summer that the need to confess erupts around the campfire. Warren begins to unburden himself, and “he couldn’t stop. It was like sledding down a hill.” The truth, however dire, brings them closer than they’ve been in years. But when the Zillers return home, a terrible accident proves far more devastating than financial ruin.

Model Home doesn’t have a magic happy ending. The bad things that have befallen the family can’t be undone. Because Puchner’s characters see the absurdity and irony around them, however, their wry observations keep tragedy from eclipsing the novel’s plucky tone. For example, Warren has to recite cheesy maxims while training as a door-to-door knife salesman, the only job he can find after his real estate venture collapses. He wonders “if losing your last shred of dignity in a place where no one was capable of perceiving its demise was like a tree falling in a forest.”

Puchner paints the Zillers as survivors. They don’t escape unscathed, but they maintain enough wit and perspective to hang on. And they gain a little more understanding and forgiveness—for each other, and for themselves.

*

Shakespeare knew four centuries ago that “everyone can master a grief but he that has it.” In the Bard’s time, childbirth often imperiled a woman’s life, something mercifully uncommon in modern America. Losing Charlotte (Knopf, 2010), the debut novel from Heather Clay ’93, brilliantly captures a family’s anguish when a new mother dies from a rare complication shortly after having twins. Husband, parents, siblings—each processes grief in idiosyncratic, unpredictable ways. “No one’s normal,” admits Robbie a few weeks after his sister’s death.

Losing the vibrant, quirky Charlotte launches the moving, well-told story. However the death itself doesn’t take place until almost halfway through the novel, and the first 100-plus pages contain many detours and digressions. Lengthy anecdotes from the sisters’ Kentucky childhood and the young couple’s New York City courtship and marriage greatly slow the initial storytelling and risk losing readers before they reach the ultimately compelling tale that follows.

Clay focuses heavily on the relationship between Charlotte and her younger sister, Knox, documenting how the sisters were opposites, in personality and behavior, as they grew up together on their parents’ horse farm. But chunky paragraphs of description and analysis interrupt the narrative flow.

The story springs to life, however, with Charlotte’s shocking death. Clay’s writing gains pace and poignancy as her characters reveal themselves through action—or inaction. Knox and Robbie numb themselves watching mindless reality TV programs they “can’t quite understand the purpose of.” Their father rarely leaves his room, “stay[ing] in bed for most of the time . . . a prone shape in the half dark.”

Charlotte’s widower Bruce, who has instantly become the single father of two boys, has no choice but to take action. In the hospital, he does briefly consider that “his previously unlimited choices had narrowed to two: either he could force one of the nonoperating windows here open and let himself fall through space toward the barges on the silent, beautiful river, or go through the rest of life this way.”

Clay’s matter-of-fact, affecting chronicle of Bruce’s predicament quickly gives the novel page-turning momentum. In the Manhattan neonatal intensive care unit, Bruce finds himself “an emissary from the VIP section of the obstetrics wing, closed off to the plebes with a velvet rope fashioned out of everybody’s worst nightmare.” He gains an unexpected ally in Knox. She has firmly declared herself “not a baby person,” yet arrives to help him care for the twins when they are released from the NICU.

Bruce and Knox hardly know each other—the sisters were virtually estranged before Charlotte’s death—yet, they become a surprising, seamless team as they spend unfathomably grueling, incredibly intimate time tending to the motherless preemies. Taking care of the babies’ relentless needs becomes Bruce’s anesthetic, Knox’s penance, and their unspoken joint process of grieving for Charlotte.

The second half of the tale is beautifully told and leaves the reader wanting more. The process of grief is unique, solitary, painful, and rarely discussed. And it is difficult to understand, let alone describe. In Losing Charlotte, Clay eloquently illuminates the darkness.

Recently Published
Reviewing the Skull (WordTech Editions, 2010) by Judy Rowe Michaels ’66

Artist Against All Odds: The Story of Robert Strong Woodward (Paideia Publishers, 2009) by Janet Gerry ’77

To Join the Lost (Antrim House, 2010) by Seth Steinzor ’74

The Lawns of Lobstermen: Poems from the Maine Coast and Belgrade Lakes (Moon Pie Press, 2010) by Douglas Woodsum ’82

1809 Thunder on the Danube (Frontline/Pen&Sword, 2008–10) by John Gill ’77


Child’s Play

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Jessica Riley ’98 binds together children, art, and a good cause with Kiba Kiba Books.

With all due respect to the artists exhibiting work at Middlebury’s Mahaney Center for the Arts, the most electrifying stuff here on a recent afternoon isn’t hung on the walls, tinkling from the pianos, or even gleaming from Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture outside. It’s a collection of paperback books strewn across a coffee table in the lounge.

But these are no ordinary paperbacks. Slim and popping with color, they beg to be picked up and opened—to worlds where perfectly imperfect sea dragons slither through oceans, cosmic creatures spin in circles, and impish spirits slide down mountains on blocks of ice. Small enough for small hands and with such titles as Fearless Fifi and Silly Jack, the books are for children, yes. But what makes them extraordinary is the fact that these volumes are also illustrated by children.

“It’s a new business model that I really think the world could use,” says Jessica Riley ’98, the founder and owner of Kiba Kiba Books LLC, as she glances across her collection of publications. “I’m hopeful that it does take off and that people get it. It’s such a beautiful thing when you realize how it’s connected and how the pieces fit together.”

Riley never intended to be a book publisher. As a kid growing up in Saratoga, New York, she wanted to be on a TV show; later, she wanted to be a screenwriter. But from an early age, Riley had a knack for art. “I think I was four or five, and somebody bought me a paint set that was intended for an older kid, with really small brushes and really small tubes of paint,” she recalls. “When my parents were in another room, I opened it up and painted in a picture that came with the set. I remember my mom coming back into my room in shock because all the little spaces were filled in perfectly with different colors. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why am I getting so praised for something that was so easy for me to do?’”

Riley found that she was also pretty good at making life more joyful for other kids. On a youth speed-skating team, she was appointed “games coordinator,” whose job it was to get everyone else to play and have fun. Flash forward several years to Riley’s time at Middlebury, where, as an English and film major, she took a “body and earth” dance class with Professor Andrea Olsen. “She taught me the creative process,” says Riley. “After I graduated, I said to Andrea, ‘Whatever it is you taught in the class, that’s what I want to do, but I don’t know how to get there.’”

It would be a colorful journey. Riley spent two years designing handbags in Park City, Utah, and four more working for PBS. “But people my whole life always told me, children’s books, children’s books,” says Riley, who had, in fact, been compiling a list of children’s books she wanted to do eventually.

Then, in 2005, while Riley was volunteering back in Saratoga, she held a workshop for local kids, reading them a story she’d written about the endangered Karner blue butterfly. The kids illustrated it and the result was Blue Blew (now out of print). After searching for a publisher, Riley decided to start her own publishing company. She called it Kiba Kiba, which, in the language of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, means peace. The word was one of several Riley had stumbled across and written down over the years, along with the number 72—for how many books she’d like to publish. Why 72? The number just came to her, says Riley.

The pieces started coming together—literally. At another workshop, Riley showed up with snippets of fabric she had cut into various shapes, and she read aloud such phrases as “I dream trees grow tall enough to reach the sky.” The children began creating images for Riley’s words with the fabric, and the result was The Dream of the New Earth. “It’s amazing,” says Riley. “When you give children abstract ways to paste and beautiful fabric or beautiful materials, then it’s really easy to come up with a beautiful thing and art.”

The Dream of the New Earth has now been translated into six languages and has been followed by five more stories. All but one are illustrated by kids, ages four to 13, who’ve enrolled in one of Riley’s weeklong workshops. “It’s so cool,” says Riley of witnessing the children at work. “You have no control over what the kids are going to do, and it always works out. By the end of the week, we’re all like, ‘Wow!’”

Five of the Kiba Kiba books may be purchased with their original artwork or as a “companion art book,” with space for young readers to paste, paint, or draw their own creations. The exception is Kiba Kiba’s newest book, OMG! One Million Giraffes, which features drawings from all ages and from all over the world.

But that’s not all. Because every Kiba Kiba book has its own special vision of cleaner water, a healthier Earth, etc.—Riley has dedicated a “pod” to each project, detailed on the Kiba Kiba Web site, whereby children can send in artwork and songs; teachers can create lesson plans; and artists, musicians, and community organizers can help build grassroots campaigns.

Kiba Kiba is preserving the magic of the printed page, but is also embracing the connectivity of the digital age. In the process, this small company is making books fluid. Soon, The London Frogs will be republished with a foreword by Chad Urmston ’98 of the band State Radio; Riley hopes this will help inspire new songs for the pod.

“Together we can change the world,” she promises readers on the Web site. And she may be right. The nonprofit Water.org, cofounded by Gary White and Matt Damon, has agreed to partner with Kiba Kiba to share its Global Water Supply Curriculum as part of The London Frogs pod. “Everyone benefits,” explains Riley of her pod concept. “My books are being utilized, nonprofits are getting a campaign, and the schools and the children involved feel good about what they’re doing.”

This is the new business model of which Riley speaks. And while it may not be the most lucrative one—she is hardly the first to admit that there’s not a lot of money in children’s books (Harry Potter excluded)—the fluidity of Kiba Kiba books and the flexibility of Riley’s life point to the power of possibility.

Take, for example, The Play Spirits’ Playground, one of Kiba Kiba’s latest projects, whose vision is free play and movement in nature. Co-written by Hedda Bernsten ’99, Riley calls the book her “great work” and “meant to be.” The pair wrote the story just days before Bernsten won an Olympic silver medal in Vancouver, where children from the St. George’s School illustrated the book. Now they are focusing on creating the Play Spirits concept into a TV show and are pitching it to various children’s television networks.

Riley says she gets goose bumps when she thinks about how The Play Spirits’ Playground came to be and how she came to be not a book publisher but a “creative project facilitator.” Looking around the Middlebury arts facility, Riley says she wishes Olsen would appear. “I’d be like, ‘I did it!’” says Riley. “I came full circle, and I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do 10 years ago. It’s just being in the moment, and whatever comes next is what I do next. In the process you can see the greater work.”

Sarah Tuff ’95 is a freelance writer in Burlington, Vermont.  Jessica Riley’s Web site can be found at www.kibakiba.com.


The Plunge

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

When an accidental pilgrimage becomes a voyage of discovery.

Together, Alyssa and I had learned about the mikvah —a natural body of water used for the ancient Jewish practice of ritual immersion. And together, we had confessed that the idea appealed to our growing curiosity about the religion we had ignored as teenagers. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when, on the drive from Vermont to her family’s house near Boston, my college friend suggested a sunrise mikvah dip in Walden Pond.

We were seniors on break for Rosh Hashanah. As environmental studies nerds, we agreed that a detour to Thoreau’s old stomping grounds would provide a much-needed diversion from the holiday’s “pray, eat, sleep” routine. But Alyssa’s plot twist, casually mentioned as we merged onto I-89, represented something more. What better way, she reasoned, to usher in the Jewish New Year (not to mention our imminent entry into the uncertain world of post-college life) than with a skinny-dip in the environmentalist’s equivalent of the Ganges? The remainder of the drive passed in a spell of giddy plotting. The next morning, we awoke in Alyssa’s childhood bedroom, pulled on wool sweaters and sturdy boots, and set out for the woods.

Walden greeted us in its typical way: all pomp and pastoral charm, with the maple trees casting giant shadow puppets across the ground. But as Alyssa and I crunched over pebbles towards the water, I barely registered the scene around me. We weren’t there to leaf peep, after all. Before long, the first minivans would rumble in, depositing a flurry of camera flashes and picnic baskets into the stillness. In the meantime, we had more mischievous goals in mind. We could only hope that pristine woods would not take offense to the more spiritual peep show about to take place.

Alyssa and I had lingered over many dining hall meals, puzzling over the yearning towards Judaism that was taking shape deep within us. Religion had never been a defining part of my identity, but, as I edged towards the precipice of adulthood, I longed for something solid to wind my fingers into. This dip in Walden Pond, then, was something of a belated hazing initiation, the chance to do something completely outside of the college playbook to express my connection to tradition. I had heard that dunking in a mikvah feels like jumping into a swimming pool filled with holy water—an open palm to the soul’s reset button. Now at the water, there was no turning back.

I looked over at Alyssa who flashed me a thumbs-up. With our clothing scattered on rocks, we waded into the pond. Our skin reeled against the September chill. Then, with deep breaths, we plunged. I stretched out my limbs to allow water to flow across every pore. I imagined Thoreau’s bare legs skimming under the pond’s surface on one of his regular morning swims. What would he think if he awoke one day to find two nice Jewish girls splashing like rapturous fish in his waters? Hallelujah, no doubt.

Surfacing, I rejoined Alyssa on shore where we stumbled through a Hebrew blessing we’d practiced on the ride over:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who kept us alive and preserved us, and enabled us to reach this moment.

I silently said a second prayer of thanks as an unfamiliar sensation of warmth and electricity spread throughout my body. How strange, I thought, that after a lifetime of being Jewish, it took this accidental pilgrimage to understand what religion actually feels like.


Emily’s List

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

With the temperature on its way up to 105 degrees, Army Cadet Emily Núñez ’12 is sprinting down the road in combat boots with 60 pounds of parachute gear strapped to her back.

It’s four in the morning at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Soon Núñez will board a C-130 transport plane for her first jump. The sergeant running alongside her spits out a few choice expletives, barking that his dead grandmother could run faster than she does.

“So that was motivational,” Núñez says later, laughing about it back at Middlebury. “I just kept telling myself that I’ve made it this far. You can’t give up now.”

Emily Núñez was born at West Point. Her father, an Army colonel (now retired), currently serves as a provincial action officer for the U.S. Department of State, in Iraq, and her uncle was an astronaut who made three NASA shuttle flights during his career as a Marine Corps colonel. She has lived on Army bases (Fort Drum, Fort Leavenworth) her whole life and now considers Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the site of the U.S. Army War College, her home.

Núñez is fluent in Spanish and French, and she just started her third foreign language, Portuguese, this fall. Though slight of frame—she stands just five foot three—Núñez can do 85 push-ups in two minutes and shouts commands like a drill sergeant.

Each week, during the academic year, the international studies major changes into an Army combat uniform and drives to Burlington for a 300-level military science class, Leading and Training Small Organizations, part of her commitment to the Green Mountain Battalion, the Army ROTC unit based at the University of Vermont.

It’s a short walk from her room in Munford to her car parked behind the Mahaney Center for the Arts, but last year she lived in Pearsons Hall and started her ROTC commute by trekking across campus before driving up to Burlington. In uniform with her hair in a bun and an Army patrol cap on her head, she got some unusual looks from her fellow students. “I was usually in a hurry,” Núñez recalls, “so most people wouldn’t stop to ask what’s this woman in an Army uniform doing here, but I am sure that some of them thought I was going to the CFA to audition for a play.”

It was hardly acting this summer when Núñez reported to Jump School at Fort Benning. She was one of only 30 women among the original cadre of 600 soldiers in Bravo Company, which consisted of cadets, enlisted personnel, and officers from all four branches of the military. Their common goal: to complete the Army’s basic airborne course, earn their silver wings, and become “airborne qualified.” Only 480 soldiers in Núñez’s company got their wings. Some were sent home for failing to keep up with the physical demands. Others were eliminated for seemingly minor infractions, such as having Skittles in their pockets. As Núñez wrote in an e-mail after the first week, “The environment here is very structured, and it is easy to get kicked out. Out of the 600 students that started, only 520 remain.”

During the first week of Jump School, students are taught how to wear the parachute harness and how to use training apparatus, such as the mock door (for learning how to exit an aircraft), the parachute-landing-fall platform, and the 34-foot tower that helps simulate the physical sensation of an actual jump. The second week reinforces the safety measures learned during the first week (feet and knees together; tuck your chin) and culminates in parachute jumps from Fort Benning’s famed 250-foot tower.

During week three, students make five qualifying jumps from a C-130, at 1,250 feet. For Núñez, this meant three Hollywood jumps, so called because they are taken with a parachute and reserve chute, but no combat gear; one night jump; and one jump wearing 90 pounds of combat gear. The school concludes with a graduation ceremony during which the airborne-qualified men and women—buck privates and full-bird colonels alike—receive their wings.

“We exchanged long goodbyes and telephone numbers,” Núñez mused. “You develop a special bond with people when you jump out of an airplane together, and some members of Bravo Company would soon be deployed to Afghanistan.”

*

Prior to Jump School, Núñez attended the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC. Núñez was assigned to a platoon of cadets from the Dominican Republic and the U.S. and spent her days immersed in courses—all taught in Spanish by faculty from Latin America—about human rights, international law, ethics, democracy, and peacekeeping.

During the first week of the three-week school, a male Dominican cadet served as platoon sergeant for the unit of 25 Dominican and 15 American cadets. Núñez was placed in charge the second week. Immediately there was a change in behavior.

“We had to be at formation every morning at 6 a.m., and no one had been late up to this point,” Núñez relates. “Everyone had been doing what they were supposed to do. But on my first morning in charge, it was 6 a.m., and we were missing 10 male Dominicans. Finally, at 6:10 they started arriving, and so I asked them in Spanish, ‘Where were you?’ and they gave me some excuses.”

When Núñez gets to this part of the story, her shoulders square and her voice stiffens. “So I told them, ‘Just because I am a female doesn’t mean that you can disrespect me and disrespect the rest of the platoon by showing up late.’ But they didn’t really seem to care, especially this one Dominican whose father was pretty high up in the military, so I told them all to get down and give me 30 push-ups. They looked at me like I was crazy because in their culture no woman has ever given them an order like that before.

“After that, I could see a bit of a change among the Dominicans. But I saw that dynamic more than once. . . . I was called la mujer, the woman, instead of Cadet Núñez. That was really offensive to me as a woman in the United States Army. You just don’t do that to your fellow soldier. So I pulled him aside and explained it to him.

I really think he got the point.”

Núñez originally thought she might pursue a career in military intelligence, but now she’s looking into law school and the Army’s Judge Advocate Generals Corps.

“Lots of people have the wrong perception of the Army. They think it’s all about the infantry . . . But to me, the Army is a group of really smart people committed to working together to achieve a goal.”

To illustrate her point, the 20-year-old tells this story: Last spring she was nominated for a Public Service Leadership Award at Middlebury. Her commanding officer, Lt. Col. Michael Palaza, came down from Burlington to attend the reception with her. They were sitting together, both in dress uniform, as the achievements of some of the other students were read aloud. One was helping refugees in Africa. Another was rebuilding homes in New Orleans. Some were raising awareness about global health. That’s when Palaza turned to Núñez and whispered, “That’s what we do in the Army, too.”


When the Earth Shook

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Conor Shapiro’s life as a community organizer and hospital administrator in rural Haiti had always been a challenge.

And then the earthquake struck.

Late on the afternoon of January 12, 2010, Conor Shapiro ’03, the 28-year-old director general of the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation, sat in his office on the second floor of a 60-bed hospital in a remote Haitian town with one streetlamp. He was speaking by telephone to his mother in Massachusetts when the earth quaked.

The phone went dead, oxygen tanks toppled, medical records flew. Conor Shapiro, a compact man with an athletic solidity, braced himself as his world rocked violently and then eerily, deceivingly, steadied.

Nothing would be the same again—for Haiti, for St. Boniface, or for Shapiro. But at that moment, in the southwestern mountain town of Fond des Blancs, the upheaval did not feel lasting. Soon after the shaking stopped, Ellen Boldon, a nutritionist, was able to access the Internet. “It’s unbelievable!” she cried. “There has been a 7.0 earthquake in Port-au-Prince.”

Shapiro’s Haitian wife had been staying in the country’s capital city with their six-year-old adopted daughter. His heart in his throat, Shapiro gathered three men whose families also lived in Port-au-Prince, and they drove toward the epicenter of the disaster. Along the rutted dirt road leading to the highway, people were sprinting down hills, waving their arms, terrified of what would come next.

Thirty-six hours later, after the rockslides had stopped and the highway was finally navigable, Shapiro arrived at the nightmarish scene whose images were flashing around the world. He saw a familiar landscape turned hellish, with roads buckled, neighborhoods flattened, and corpses strewn in the streets.

Thankfully, Shapiro’s wife and daughter were safe, huddled in a backyard with relatives. Within days, he had secured seats for them on a medical charter plane returning to the United States. They fled to his country; he stayed in theirs, his work—providing health care to Haiti’s poor—was suddenly more urgent than ever.

“I’m divided,” Shapiro said early one Sunday morning in March, sitting on a terrace at the St. Boniface Hospital, with badly injured earthquake victims filling a ward beneath him. “My wife, daughter, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and nephew have set up our own little refugee camp in the Boston area. And I’m here.”

Shapiro described his personal mobilization after the earthquake as a kind of humanitarian call to arms. “You feel like you’re at war almost,” he said. “All I know is that I feel very attached to this place, and I’m not going to leave it.”

Eventually he would reconsider.