Family (Festival) Matters

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Our suite was suddenly spotless. The dining halls began serving lox garnished with capers, onions and sliced tomatoes. Every leaf seemed to be perfectly positioned as to transform the Vermont backdrop into a computer background.  All of these signs were diagnostic of one thing – Fall Family Weekend. Every year, in the heart of the autumn season, students are encouraged to invite parents, siblings, uncles and any other possible familial relation to campus for three days of Middlebury festivities.

Formal programming hosted by the school seeks to capture our institutional ethos through a variety of talks, workshops and student panels. In addition, many of our extracurricular organizations put their passions on display, ranging from dance performances to the Solar Decathalon Open House. A particularly memorable event was an address delivered by President Ron Liebowitz. He, at length, discussed the benefits of a liberal arts system. Even the most skeptical parents couldn’t disagree with the assertion that the Middlebury academic experience “doesn’t prepare students for their first job. It prepares them for their career.” Much to the satisfaction of my mother, it was made clear that the degrees conferred by the liberal arts equip students to thrive in any path within an increasingly globalized, heterogeneous world.

For me, however, Fall Family Weekend is more than just providing parent’s the reaffirmation needed to continue to send their child here. Prior to arriving at Middlebury, the Ryan Brewster profile was relatively unchanging – I was passionate about competitive freestyle skiing, enjoyed the sciences, and my height had stabilized at an enormous 5’ 6”. My evolution was hardly perceptible to the people who had nurtured me constantly for the better part of 18 years. As far as they were concerned, the formative years of my life had long passed.

Dropping me off at college was my parent’s first exposure to “empty nesterdom.” It wouldn’t be a normal week without a whimpering call from my mom saying she missed me. Out of reach of their constant overbearing tendencies (after all, what are parent’s for?), I was left to my own devices, to my own-self discovery. Since then, every year has been marked by something new. And aside from a weekly phone call and brief home stints during vacations, who I have become at Middlebury has remained largely outside my parents’ purview. My latest stunt was travelling to Rwanda this past summer, and failing to tell me parents until I had already signed a binding agreement. Oops. But for Fall Family Weekend, the patchwork of stories they’ve compiled over the years comes together as a cohesive whole. There was some always some revelatory connection wherever we’d go on campus. “Oh, so this is where you dissect your ovaries!” “You must be Ryan’s roommate from Freshman year. He’s told me all about you!” However blush-inducing, it was always validating to see them really interacting with my niche, engaged and interested.

Playing acoustic guitar is one of those passions I’ve developed nearly exclusively at Middlebury. It was through a Winter Term introductory workshop that I picked up the instrument. The subsequent months were dedicated to mastering it. I sought out jam sessions and devoured music theory books. The first thing my parents noticed upon my return that summer was not the fact that I was wearing a dress shirt (another huge transformation in itself), but that I had a guitar case in my hand. The disbelief persisted even after filling the house with my playing. After all, how could they truly understand this new interest of mine without having any real context to attach to it? The music culture is what really drew me in, as it infused a real sense of craftsmanship and community into an otherwise very individual activity. Yet, all that my parents saw was me and my guitar, completely isolated from this identity.

Three years had elapsed, with mom and dad still stuck with the incomplete story. That looked to be the case again, until the opportunity presented itself to perform at this year’s Fall Family Festival. The origins of Playing with Arrows are rather humble, and to be brief, involve a couple Adirondack chairs, campfire songs, and some incredible vocalism from my two close friends.

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