October 20, 2014

Little Details

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Start here, go anywhere
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Motivated young people are like those baby spiders in E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” They are born, linger among us for a while, and then take off with the wind.

As Champlain Valley Union High School prepares to graduate its Class of 2010, I am reminded of two young Willistonians featured in this column several years ago. As members of CVU’s Class of 2005, Mairead Harris enrolled in Middlebury College while Emily Bickford packed up for New York City to study at Barnard College. It was clear these ambitious women were going places. Both have since earned undergraduate degrees. I offer this update.

Mairead is living in Hangzhou, China, teaching English at a private language school. Hangzhou is a large city about one hour south of Shanghai. Her colleagues hail from England, Australia and the United States. Average class size is about 18 students, a welcome change from the 60 she encountered on an earlier teaching assignment in Hunan Province.

“China may well be the number one destination in the world if you are looking for cultural differences,” Mairead writes. “I am constantly confronted with new challenges to my world view. The Chinese education system is set up completely differently from ours. In the US, we try to teach students to think critically and analytically about any topic, and we encourage them to pursue their interests. In other words, we try to ‘give them tools’ to be successful in their own way. In China, a country with over a billion people, this type of education is seen as frivolous and a waste of time and money. Students don’t need to be equipped to think critically about anything, but rather, they need to have a specific skill or major that will directly translate to a job when they graduate university. People here scratch their heads in confusion when I explain that my father majored in biology but is now an attorney.”

I invited Mairead to reflect on what, if anything, she carries with her from Vermont as she pursues her travels.

“I carry with me a snobbery towards fake maple syrup and a terrible sensitivity to air pollution. What can I say? I was spoiled,” Mairead observes. “I am coming to appreciate more and more the beauty, the stillness, the lack of crowds, and the central heating that Vermont offers. I also miss being around people who are so ready to try new things. Vermont is full of people who are always thinking and, for its small population, is a very alive place.”

Mairead comments that her stint in China — she returns to the United States in the spring of 2011 — has its ups and downs but it is certainly never boring. Applying an American mindset to a communist — albeit with capitalist tendencies — system surely raises many “aha” moments. She is grateful for the experience and the wonderful friends she’s made.

Emily Bickford recently returned from a six-month gig in Birmingham, England. She rented a “flat” across the road from a cricket field, enjoying the convenience of being able to hop a bus to get to the “city centre” (downtown) for shops and museums.

Emily, a dance major at Barnard, was afforded the opportunity to choreograph Columbia University’s 114th Annual Varsity Show — kind of like Harvard’s “Hasty Pudding.” This follows her experience choreographing shows at Williston Central School and CVU. The student-run performance involves creating a full-length musical satire. Oscar Hammerstein ranks among alumni who’ve worked on the production.

While tapping into England’s dance scene — attending classes and even some auditions — Emily launched her own business. EmmyBo Originals (www.emmybooriginals.co.uk) features greeting cards designed by hand. Creating product, marketing and processing orders kept her busy amid endless cups of tea. It seems that the British really do drink tea all the time.

Asked about cultural differences, Emily offers the following:

“As a dancer, I was really interested to see all of the similarities straight away between dance in England and America. It’s brought to my attention the wonderful universality of dance — an aspect of the art that I’ve always found particularly intriguing, and have often focused on as a choreographer.”

Emily notes that the global spread of American culture results in fewer cultural distinctions. Re-runs of the popular show “Friends” appeared on the “telly” most evenings and yet, according to Emily, “Cars are smaller, homes are smaller, food portions are smaller, it’s commonplace to bring reusable bags when grocery shopping ….” She points out that the notion of paying (directly) for a doctor visit is “unfathomable and even laughable” to some of her British friends. Emily moves to New York City in August, where she’s accepted a teaching position at Brearley, an all-girls private school.

Time will tell where Mairead and Emily land. Endless noodles, cups of tea, foreign political systems, iconic monarchs, the streets of Manhattan — these experiences meld with homegrown Vermont roots to guide these women on a path they define.

It’s my wish that each member of the Class of 2010 recognizes that starting here, you can go anywhere.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

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