In the second week of each new year, the Middlebury College students return for their J-term — the "J" stands for January. It's a one-month mini-semester where the students are encouraged to experiment with a class outside of their established interests and chosen majors. Archery for Russian majors, Chaucer for biochemists, that sort of thing.
The geographic placement of the college — 35 miles south of Burlington — is a boon for us local cabbies, because the majority of Middlebury students are flatlanders, and hundreds of them fly into Burlington. The planes land, they pool into groups and we drive them back to school for 15 or 20 bucks apiece.
The snow was falling steadily on the Sunday night they came in. As I drove down Route 7, it was thick enough to render the high beams counterproductive. I did try them for a minute, but it was hypnotic and made me feel like I was trapped in a snow globe. Well versed in the slippery dangers posed by these conditions, I motored along at maybe 40 mph on the inclines, 30 or slower on the downhills.
Nine students were in the van, which had been rented that day for my use by another independent cabbie. He had made Middlebury a business priority for the last few years and had, by dint of hard work and excellent customer service, developed a long list of regulars who call ahead for reservations. I'm always more than happy to help out this fellow indie; we split the money equitably — it's a classic "win-win."
"Ohmigod!" the young woman sitting shotgun blurted out, turning to face the three guys sitting behind her in the first bench seat. "Like, how weird was that being home? Yesterday night a couple of friends came over to pick me up, and my mom was, like, Okay, now be home by 12.' And I'm, like, Mom, at 12 o'clock at school, we're, like, just getting going.' I don't think she's adjusting all that well to me being a college student now."
"Give her time," one of the guys replied with a chuckle. "You're a freshman, right? She'll get used to it. They all do."
I enjoy driving the Middlebury students. In one sense, they are mostly what the French call the jeunesse dorée — the "gilded youth" — wealthy and sophisticated. It's a rare one who hasn't attended prep school, and they speak casually of expensive houses and cars, summer homes and vacations in exotic locales. What saves them from upper-crust snobbishness is their worldliness, and I mean this in the best sense of the word.
Middlebury College is all about government and diplomacy, language and literature. Its students tend to be interested and engaged in the issues of our time. Many spend a semester abroad, and some enter careers in politics, foreign trade and the like. Through the years and the many conversations I've overheard, these students have always impressed me as young adults, thinking about and preparing for lives of endeavor and challenge.
The studious nature of Middlebury students may be partially a product of location. There is no reason to enroll in a college situated in Middlebury, Vermont, if you're the big party type. Night life is virtually nonexistent in that little town. Burlington, on the other hand, home of groovy UV — well, need I say more?
"So my little sister is supposedly applying to all these Ivy League schools," the female student continued, "but she's close to flunking out of her prep school. The 'rents are totally clueless. My sister told me she's actually gotten fake grades sent to the house by hacking the school's computer!"
We had reached the outskirts of Middlebury, where the road begins its sharp descent into the village proper. The conditions were a perfect mess — icy, snowy, slushy and completely unplowed. This was my first time driving a van in quite a while, and its dubious road traction compared to my trusty sedan was a disconcerting revelation. I found myself pumping the brakes, and still the vehicle began slightly fishtailing to the left. It was nerve-wracking, but I still had basic control and knew it wouldn't get worse.
"What's happening?" a tremulous male voice came from way in the back. "What's going on?"
"That's got to be Larry," one of the front bench guys said, rotating in his seat. "Hey, Larry," he continued, "this white stuff is called snow,' and when it accumulates on the road, you tend to slide around some. Don't get your panties all in a bunch."
There was friendly laughter throughout the van, including from Larry. We were back on relatively level ground, thank goodness, and the van was behaving itself again.
The guy turned back and, leaning forward, said to me, "Larry is a freshman from Hawaii. I think this is the first time in his life he's even seen snow."
"Is that right?" I said, as the magnificent array of white-marble college buildings appeared around the bend. The snow glistened and swirled in the street lights.
"Larry, my friend," I called out to the back of the van. "This is it, buddy — the real thing. Say aloha' to Vermont."