After last-minute cancellation, Febs swap Snow Bowl graduation for stadium celebration

By Catherine McLaughlin

Instead of skiing down the Snow Bowl, the Class of 2020.5 gathered instead at Alumni Stadium for an improvised celebration. (Catherine McLaughlin)

At their senior celebration, on-campus members of the class of 2020.5 donned beanies and parkas instead of caps and gowns. Sitting socially distanced on the sloped stands of Alumni Stadium, the Super Seniors’ celebration bore little resemblance to the traditional ski (or sled)  down the Snow Bowl. But, like many Covid-19-adapted events, their moment together was a cherished stand-in. 

After the Oct. 8 announcement that J-Term would be conducted remotely this year, a committee of students and administrators planned a November substitute ceremony for the Class of 2020.5 that was to take place on the last Saturday on campus. 

But on Friday, Nov. 13, with caps and gowns still in the mail and another week of classes on campus remaining, Gov. Phil Scott announced that social gatherings would be restricted to members of the same household. A few hours later, the college announced similar restrictions on campus.

But the Class of 2020.5 was determined to come together one last time. The restrictions would not take effect until 10 p.m. on Saturday, more than 24 hours after the announcement was made to students via email. 

Class officers Julia Sinton ’20.5 and Ben Slater ’20.5 immediately hopped on Zoom and got to work. They coordinated with school administrators, the event management department and school health officials to expedite a version of the event. 

On the afternoon of Nov. 14, members of the Class of 2020.5 gathered at Alumni Stadium to celebrate the end of their Middlebury careers. 

For Sinton, the announcement of the new restrictions was gutting. Not only was she going to miss out on the February ceremony at the Snow Bowl that she had been looking forward to for over four years, but the many hours she and the committee had spent planning an alternative November ceremony were also thwarted. 

“We had been planning every small detail to make sure it would abide by guidelines and be a safe event,” Sinton said. “I think every single college student deserves to be honored and celebrated, and to have that loss was really devastating.”

The original graduation, scheduled for the morning of Nov. 21, the final day on campus for students, would have included as many elements of a normal February graduation as possible. 

The Snowbowl had offered to blow snow and provide equipment rentals so that graduates could ski down the trail. Students were going to wear caps and gowns, receive a replica of Gamaliel Painter’s cane and eat a special meal before and after the ceremony at Proctor Dining hall. 

“I was really impressed from the start with the care and involvement the administration was willing to take in order to make some kind of celebration possible, given the circumstances,” Sinton said.

When students were informed on Thursday, Nov. 12 that a campus quarantine would begin the following day, Sinton was assured that the event would still be permitted. But on Friday, the state restricted events to only one household due to a statewide increase in Covid-19 cases, resulting in a last-minute cancellation of the event.

Sinton called her co-chair. He had not yet heard the news but immediately suggested that they “just do it tomorrow.” Sinton was skeptical, but Slater was steadfast. He believed they could — and had to — try to make it happen. 

The two began calling their contacts in the administration and the event management department. School officials were doubtful that the logistical challenges of the proposal could be overcome, but Sinton said they were also sympathetic.

“People really wanted it to happen for us,” she said. 

Mid-morning the next day, Sinton received a link to a Zoom invite. The celebration would take place.

“It was really special to know that so many people at the college had worked hard all night, trying to collaborate and make sure something could happen before the restriction set in,” she said. 

Sinton sent Facebook messages and emails to her classmates to tell people about the afternoon event, encouraging them to spread the word. 

Annie Blalock ’20.5 had been selected in October to be the class speaker. When Sinton called and asked if she still wanted to deliver her speech, Blalock at first said “definitely not.”

Class speakers are chosen based upon a speech that they write and submit ahead of time. Blalock felt she could not give her original speech because it addressed a different occasion, under different circumstances. 

“I had written the speech for chaos, but this was even more chaotic — this was a different level,” she said. 

But, after thinking it over, Blalock made a phone call to Tom Sacco ’20.5. 

Sacco had also submitted a speech. Blalock remembered Sacco’s humorous writing style, and thought that his voice might help bring joy to the occasion. 

“He wrote the speech that would have brightened people’s day,” she said.

Sacco enthusiastically agreed to work with Blalock, and the two met less than two hours before the celebration to combine their speeches and add new elements.

Though the speech was “full of typos” according to Blalock, she still felt proud of the final product.

“Our Feb essences combined and we created something beautiful,” she said. The two printed the speech at MiddXpress with just minutes to spare before the celebration began. 

The class of 2020.5 filed into Alumni Stadium, each receiving a tote bag filled with gifts including a blanket from the alumni association and a “Class of 2020.5” beanie. 

Members of the class of 2020.5 each received a tote bag, beanie, and blanket from the alumni association. (Julia Sinton)

From the turf below, President Patton greeted the students and introduced Blalock, who delivered a speech that weaved Sacco’s witticisms with the main message of her own original remarks. 

Blalock noted the tumultuous four years her class had shared — from Charles Murray to the introduction of swipe-in dining — and joked that despite these events, “we still lacked the foresight and were ignorant enough to come back this semester amidst a pandemic and thought it would go well.”

But, she continued, the community and unity of spirit among her class made it inevitable that they would join together on campus for their final term. She described the confidence, quirkiness, drive and communal love that defined their “Feb-ness” and their experience together.

The end of their Middlebury careers would be wistful, and the world they entered tense and uncertain, but Blalock encouraged her peers to “bring Feb-ness to whatever [they] do.” 

“Feb-ness will help us deal with this chaotic garbage fire,” she concluded, “and this chaotic garbage fire will be better for it.”

President Laurie Patton addresses the graduating class. (James Finn)

President Patton followed with her address, and the celebration concluded with a blessing from Dean for Spiritual and Religious life Mark Orton. 

The celebration, having lasted about 30 minutes, ended with Sean Kingston’s “Fire Burning” blasting through the stadium’s sound system. The Super Seniors began to dance. 

The music was soon shut off and the students were reminded of the importance of distanced congratulations. 

The atmosphere was not filled with sadness. Sinton, Blalock and Sacco each described the happiness and gratitude of the Feb class for being able to come together in person one last time. 

“It was really amazing to feel how grateful the class was to have any kind of anything,” Sinton said, adding that many were comforted “just to have a space to be together.” Sacco emphasized the atmosphere of celebration and cohesiveness he felt during and after the event. 

Blalock described a reluctance in the air. “No one really wanted to accept that this was it, this was the reality,” she said. 

“While I don’t see that as closure,” she said, “I don’t think I’ll have closure on the semester or Middlebury. I think that was as close to closure as I can get at this time.”

The three agreed that they did not consider the event their true graduation, hence why it was called a “celebration” instead. This was both because it did not look like what they had imagined and hoped for, but also because a week on campus, finals, theses and other milestones were still to come. 

“It was an overwhelming feeling of like, ‘wow, this is it,’” Sacco said of the end of the event. “Which quickly went away because it was like, ‘I have homework to do.’”

“This is not by any means the last event the college will hold for the class of 2020.5,” Sinton said. “But it’s a space for the class to gather together one last time and enjoy each other’s presence and remind each other of how far we’ve come and all of our accomplishments.”