Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Beautiful Things: Change

My 10-year-old daughter developed a love for gymnastics this year: She has spent the past six months taking back-to-back sessions of the gymnastics classes taught by the unfailingly patient Terri Phelps at the Middlebury Rec Center. 

Last month I sat down at my laptop to register my daughter for her spring gymnastics class. I logged in to our family’s Middlebury Parks and Rec account 15 minutes after the registration had opened. Much to my surprise, the class I’d planned to register for was full already, but thankfully there was another option. With the click of a few buttons, my daughter was all signed up.

This rather unremarkable experience sent me spinning back in time to the way gymnastics registration used to be, when we moved to Vermont 13 years ago. 

My three older children also took gymnastics at various points during their youth. Back in the “good ol’ days,” Middlebury sports registration happened in person. As I recall, it was always around 5 pm on a weeknight — a totally inconvenient time for any parent getting off work/wrangling children/preparing for dinner. Registration took place at the old gym and town offices, which were housed in a crumbling brick building that had been the first floor of the old Middlebury High School: When the top floor of the high school burned in the 1950s, a new high school was built across town and the town administration settled into the remnants.   

A line began forming at least 30 minutes before registration opened, beginning at the folding table where the arbiters of our fates would sit and snaking down the dim tiled hallway. There was a lovely community aspect to this system: You’d see everybody you knew. On the other hand, everybody you knew was under extreme stress: We were all attempting to keep our tired, hungry children under control while haunted by the question, What if we reached the folding table only to find that there were NO SPOTS LEFT for our child in their desired activity? The disappointment of our children and our failure as parents would be on public display. 

I don’t recall ever failing to sign my children up for gymnastics under the old, in-person registration system. Nor do I recall exactly when the system changed, although I suspect it was around 2016, when the old town offices and gym were torn down. 

That was eight years ago, and I’m ashamed to admit that it took me almost that long to appreciate the beauty of the change. People tend to resist change, even when it brings about improvements. Most of us prefer the comfort of what’s inferior but known, to the adjustment required by a potentially superior but new situation. As Woodrow Wilson once said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

I am no different. I’d like to say that I heralded Middlebury Parks and Rec’s online registration system of a fine example of the benefits of technology and a welcome change to the in-person system, but I’ll admit that, at first, a part of me mourned the awful and inconvenient old way. 

“Sure it was stressful,” I thought, “but it was just so homey and small-town. Now we’re just like every other town in America, where all you need is a laptop and internet. We’ve made everything so easy.”

I grumbled about the new town offices, now housed in a sleek brick building that had replaced an historic house next to the library. (Middlebury College moved the original house down the street.) The new building was too modern, too soulless. I grumbled about the gorgeous and spacious new rec center, which was now located just outside of town and therefore involved a couple more minutes of travel for my family. 

I grumbled most of all about the new park that Middlebury College built on the land where the old high school building had been torn down at last: I didn’t think it was attractive, and why didn’t anybody think to include a playground for my children? What were they supposed to do with a handful of large cement balls and all that open space? Plus, those modern picnic tables might be sleek, but they provided woefully inadequate seating for a family of seven. 

It’s taken nearly a decade for me to realize how stupid all this grumbling sounds. 

I am now so grateful that I’m able to register my children for activities with the touch of a button. The old system was stressful and unfair, rewarding those who were able to show up earliest due to proximity, childcare support, and flexible jobs. I’m grateful for those two new buildings, which are far superior to the dingy remnants of the old high school; it just took a while to get used to them, but now they’re part of the scenery. And my children love the park on College Street, which provides unrestricted green space to run around. (They especially love those cement balls.) 

The bottom line is, I’m grateful to live in an area that still values open spaces, agriculture, and a small-town culture, but that also isn’t afraid to acknowledge and act upon the need for change. 

In the 13 years that we’ve lived in Middlebury, there have been many changes. The rail bridge project reconfigured Merchants Row and gave us the wonderfully expanded Triangle Park. The landscaping along Otter Creek by the Marbleworks has been updated. The Congregational Church built an addition. The Stone Mill became a revamped commercial and work space. Businesses have come and gone, and we still mourn some (rest in peace Ben Franklin, The Storm Café, Green Mountain Shoe and Apparel, Wild Mountain Thyme, the diner) even as we welcome new ones. 

New change is always on the horizon: The Town Hall Theater is building an addition, and in May we’ll vote on the bond for the proposed renovation and expansion of Ilsley Public Library. Predictably, these changes send nervous tremors through our community. 

Not all change is good change, of course. There are many innovations that I’d like to stuff back into Pandora’s box: social media, crop tops, and weapons of mass destruction come to mind. But as I enter the second half of my life, I’m determined to give change a chance, rather than have a reflexive desire for the “good ‘ol days.” 

It takes practice, though. When I drive across the Cross Street Bridge into Middlebury, I often feel grateful that this bridge was opened just before we moved to Vermont; before it was built, I can’t imagine how torturous the traffic must have been through town. But the other day, I was driving with my daughter down Route 116 from Bristol, and we crossed a bridge that used to be a one-lane bridge when we moved here. “You’d have to wait at the stoplight for the traffic on the other side to cross before you could go,” I told her as we zipped across the newer, two-lane bridge. “It took FOREVER.”

And I felt that old familiar pang of nostalgia. It was kind of awful, but it was back then so it was BETTER.

That makes no sense, does it? It takes time to change our aversion to change. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and two quirky dogs. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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