In her Chapel talk this morning, Mrs. Veronica Zawie told students and faculty about her experience participating in a pre-orientation trip as a freshman at Dartmouth College. A trip that happened to begin on September 11, 2001.
Read Mrs. Zawie's Chapel talk:
Mrs. Veronica Zawie
September 12, 2017
Raise your hand if you remember Welcome Week.
Ok, thank you. You can put your hands down now, but I want you to think back on that time and try to remember how you were feeling. Maybe you were nervous about trying a new sport. Maybe you were anxious about upcoming classes at a new school – particularly if you are new to Saint James. Maybe you were excited to meet new people, or excited to be boarding for the first time, or excited to reunite with your friends after a long summer. Even if, for some reason, you did not attend Welcome Week, you probably had a number of those feelings as you stepped on campus for the start of this school year.
I experienced those same emotions when I stepped onto Dartmouth's campus for the start of my freshmen year of college. I was excited about a new adventure, nervous about making friends, really nervous about classes, and slightly scared about a new activity I was about to try that I had never done before.
You see, Dartmouth has a unique opportunity that it provides to all its incoming freshmen. Incoming freshmen can apply to participate in what is called a Dartmouth Outing Club trip or DOC trip for short. DOC trips are student run pre-orientation trips to help ease the transition to Dartmouth - so the optional trip happens before the buying of books, before the setting up of computers, before the learning of all the rules. Again, the trips are voluntary. They last five days, and because they are run by the Outing Club, students on the trips either camp outside or stay in cabins. As I said, DOC trips are student-run and student organized. In fact, upperclassmen apply and register and train to be DOC trip leaders. It's a rather large production and impressively executed every year.
When I applied to participate in my DOC trip, I had a variety of outdoor activities to choose from. I could canoe or hike or rock climb or mountain bike or horseback ride or "psycho hike" – how they referred to the trip meant for extremely experienced hikers. For some reason, I guess I was feeling adventurous, I signed up to whitewater kayak. I had never kayaked before. I had canoed once or twice during a summer day camp when I was 7 or 8, and I had certainly never camped overnight outside before – as would be required for the whitewater-kayaking trip. The only sleeping bag I ever owned had New Kids on the Block on it and was certainly not made for sleeping outside.
So, when I arrived on Dartmouth's campus for the start of my DOC trip, I was feeling extremely nervous. I had a number of questions: what happens if I flip over in my kayak? What happens if I have to go to the bathroom while in the kayak? How do I even paddle one of those things? And those were questions on top of all of my other anxieties about college and classes and a new roommate and making friends.
When my Dad dropped me off at the designated spot, though, I can't say that all my fears melted away, but I certainly felt more excitement and less anxiety. My Dad, on the other hand, wondered what in the world was going on. You see, part of the upperclassmen volunteers – the ones who were welcoming us to Hanover – were dressed in bizarre clothes – like a combination of a clown's wardrobe with leftover Halloween costumes. And their hair was dyed crazy colors – greens and pinks and blues and purples and yellows. They had music blaring, and they were doing a choreographed line dance, of sorts, that I found out later is called the Salty Dog Rag – and I even learned all the steps. I quickly said goodbye to my Dad and rushed to join the fun.
Later that afternoon, I met my fellow whitewater kayakers – there was Lindsey from Wyoming and Mike from Delaware and Josh from New Hampshire and Rachel from Illinois and others. And our leaders were George from Texas who was only a year older and Gaby from New Hampshire who was a senior.
After a dinner with my fellow kayakers, we returned to the student center where we were dropped off earlier, and we surrendered our phones, our keys, our wallets, and our IDs, and then the Hanover welcome crew sat us down in a big empty room to teach us some basic rules, like how to leave no trace when camping and how to treat your drinking water so that you could actually drink it. They didn't just talk at us, though; they reworked the lyrics to familiar songs. What happens when your new hiking boots are giving you a blister? Here's one for the classic rockers out there – You pour some moleskin on it. They somehow reworked the lyrics to "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" from the Lion King to a lesson on why you don't need to talk about your SAT scores as you're trying to make new friends.
At 5 the next morning, the Hanover support crew woke us by banging on pots and pans and in our faces. It didn't really matter, though; I was already awake. I barely slept that night – I was too excited and too nervous. After a breakfast of warm oatmeal and coffee, all of the freshmen boarded charter buses to travel to their designated trip spots. The buses stopped along the way to drop off the various trips. The whitewater-kayaking trip traveled the farthest north. We were near the border of Maine by Errol, New Hampshire. For those of you familiar with the geography, our route had us travel the Magalloway River near Lake Umbagog.
After a bus ride of 3 hours, we were greeted by more upperclassmen volunteers who camped in the area and who were in change of taking care of the whitewater kayakers and canoers. The barged their way on the bus – again wearing crazy clothes and with crazy hair. In fact, Kristina, the sole female volunteer of the group, was wearing a bikini, and it was 40-something degrees Fahrenheit. They sang lyrics from "Welcome to the Jungle," and like the support staff from Hanover, they also had rules to teach us about camping in the area known as the Second College Grant. They told us how the school acquired the land and how various locals were not thrilled with the trips coming through, so we had to be careful if we came in contact with locals. They also warned us about moose. They told us that moose are big and dumb and most of them in the area are diseased and unable to recognize prey or predator. They told us the only natural predator of a moose is a wolf, and because there are no wolves in the area, the best way to defend ourselves from an attacking moose is to get on our hands and knees and bark like a dog.
We filed out of the bus, had a lunch on the side of a river, and finally began to learn the basics of kayaking. How to hold a paddle, how to save yourself if you flip over, how to maneuver through whitewater. In the middle of our lesson, one of the crew members announced triumphantly that he had found a river fruit by the banks of the river. He held up a fruit that looked suspiciously like a pineapple. He said he was surprised to see a river fruit so ripe so late in the season, and he asked us if we wanted to try it. No one turned him down. Not only did it look like a pineapple, but it also tasted like a pineapple.
As we finished our lunch and filled our Nalgene bottles with potable water, we saw a set of canoers who had left the day before us floating by on the water. We waved to them, but oddly, Kristina, the same volunteer who was wearing a bikini earlier, flagged them down and made them come ashore. It seemed strange that she would stop them in the middle of their trip.
Kristina, Rusty, and Andy (the other two volunteers) gathered the group of kayakers and canoers. Kristina then told us that two planes leaving from Logan Airport in Boston were hijacked and flown into the two towers of the World Trade Center.
I'm pretty sure we all just started at her. She had dyed hair and was part of a group of people who tried to convince us that a pineapple was a river fruit. They also tried to get us to bark like dogs at moose. We couldn't imagine that she was actually telling the truth.
But then she started to cry. And not just sniffles. She had tears streaming down her face – in front of strangers. That seemed to be all we needed to see to understand that she was telling us the truth.
We had no phones. No way of communicating with others. Our chartered bus left, not to return for days. I think we all stood there in shock for a few minutes not sure of what to say or do.
Then Morgan from Texas said "We should pray. We need to pray."
And no one questioned him. And no one questioned anyone else. No one asked, "Are you a Christian? Do you even believe in God? Do you go to a church? Do you believe in anything?"
Instead, we gathered as a circle, and we pulled in tightly so that our shoulders touched. We needed to be that close to each other. And I found myself standing next to Madeline, who is actually from Houston, TX. She looked at me and said, "My parents were flying out of Logan today."
And she held out her hand for me to hold it.