Student Blog: Sun Hill Horseback

It's good to be back in the saddle again

After a long summer of being away from home, I have finally returned, and Putney is exactly the way that I left it. The first day of classes arrive, and although the content has changed, there is an element of familiarity that I carry with me as I go about my daily routine. After what seemed like ages, the time for my Horseback Riding afternoon activity arrived, and I trekked down to the stable, where I’m always offered the chance to escape whatever stress or confusion I’ve faced throughout the day. When I arrived, I immediately noticed my favorite horse, Helen, in the communal pasture. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed riding until I saw her, and as I groomed her in preparation for a trail ride, it felt as if we were picking up right where we had left off in the spring.

Our class divided into the lesson group and the trail group, and we embarked on our supremely comforting and meditative journey over Sun Hill. Riding in the Vermont fall is perfect; the air is fresh and gentle, brisk but not harsh. Helen’s hooves crunch over leaves, and we rediscover our favorite parts of the trail together.

As we approached the end of the trail, I started to become glum; the worst part of horseback riding is always getting off. Thankfully, I know I’ll see Helen again the day after tomorrow.

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Student Blog: Sing — Joy, Nostalgia, Calm, Confusion, and Maybe Even Exhaustion

Sing is about so much more than singing

I returned to  campus a week ago as a Student Leader, and the first Sing wasn’t for three whole days. That may not sound like very long, but you must understand that in Putney Time, three days is almost three weeks. It was during that first, much anticipated and cherished Sing that I had an epiphany: a Putney School Sing, properly done of course, is a reflection of the Putney lifestyle. I will explain, but first, allow me to describe possibly one of the most beautiful, creative and challenging traditions here at the Putney School.

As my friend describes it, Sing is an “explosion of energy”. At one moment you may find joy, nostalgia, competition, tradition, calm, confusion or exhaustion. However, you will always find passion, union and eccentricity. At Sing respect and mockery can join in the same event, and impatience and imperturbability can reign. Sing is a unique experience to every person, and yet it is also a moment when all raise their voice in praise of the music they make and the power it seems to hold as it reverberates through the air. This is not to say every student sings on pitch or knows their part’s harmony, nor that the entirety of the school revels at every Sing. However, when they all do get their part just right, when the school rises as one for a specific song, when Cailin raises his hand to hold that moment just one second longer, and when each part settles in their discovered note and holds it: 220 some teenage students and faculty sing together on a hilltop. And that is as incredible as it sounds.

This first Sing was overflowing with energy and excitement. Looking at the faces in the room, both those of the new students and the returning leaders, you could see the passion and spirit being thrown into each song. Putney students put their heart and soul into life here. I always say that you can’t come to Putney and float along, you won’t get as much from it, you have to live it. Just as we don’t just sing a perfect tune, but instead personalize it, shouting, clapping and sometimes dancing our enthusiasm, so do we as students live and learn with vivacity. The passion in Sing is truly a moment of energetic living, sparked and exposed by music.

Sing also allows for a chance to reveal the roles we carry in our community. As a senior who loves Sing and has since her freshman year, I have challenged myself to go through my senior year Sings without a songbook. Simply because I think I know the songs that well. I am not the only one, yet every Sing we are all proved wrong at least once. Putney surprises us all, constantly, in Sing, but especially in the lives we live daily. As Albus Dumbledore said “Oh, I would never dream of assuming I know all Hogwarts’ secrets…” We seniors especially tend to dream we know it all. Though we enjoy pretending, we are ever proved wrong in that awkward moment during a verse of an old favorite when suddenly we are all just humming. In days that could seem to become repetitive or even predictable in such a close community for such long days at a time, we somehow are refreshed in energy but the unknown, however small it may be.

Lastly, Sing connects. We have songs from Afghanistan, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, France, Mexico, South Africa and more places all over the world. Many of them are favorite songs that inspire moving moments every year. In the four years I have been at Putney I have had friends from many of the same countries. Each and every one making their mark upon the community and the school, and adding their voice to Sing. Over the summer, when my sister (class of 2008) returns home from France, we sing our favorite Sing songs. She has shared music from Putney all over the world, and it continues to connect us wherever we go. Sing inspires me, like the school it represents. The Putney lifestyle is one of learning and challenging, being loud and yet appreciating the silence. If you want to know Putney students, their community and lifestyle they lead, I suggest you come to campus on Thursday morning, and listen as you walk towards Calder Hall. See if you can name what it is that saturates the air and makes the wild adolescent calmly sing. And then see if you can get the song out of your head.

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Student Blog: Finding Home in a Cabin in the Hills

Learning isn't just in a classroom for this student who chose a small cabin instead of a dorm

I have to admit, as much as I was grateful and excited to have the opportunity to live in a cabin, I was nervous to learn I would be living in the cabin next to Gray House, the furthest dorm from the center of campus (about a 10 minute walk). I mean, I know it doesn’t sound that tough but it’s just ridiculously inconvenient compared to how much closer all the other dorms are. After a few weeks, however, I have fallen completely in love with the place, with the long walk, and with everything else that it brings.

The first morning after my first night sleeping the cabin, we (meaning me and my cabin mate Ani) woke up to this absolutely breathtaking view of blue mountains in the distance, wrapped in big white fluffs of clouds, completely stationary. We were mesmerized initially by the stunning view out of our bay window, and then by the sense of isolation and contemplation it brings. Suddenly, walking next to where the cows graze, through the morning mist, I wasn’t bothered by the distance anymore. As the weather has cooled down as suddenly as it always does in Vermont, I have gotten really excited about having a fire in our wood stove. After many aggravating, failed attempts at starting a fire that lovely Ani has patiently guided me through (she’s more of a camper than I have ever been), I have started to get a hang of it.

Autumn brings delicious harvests and beautiful afternoons of gardening. Stuffing my pockets with beets, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, and brussel sprouts, I carried them back to cabin. As soon as I got better at making my own fire, I got addicted. I found myself walking back to my cabin at around 8 every night, lighting a fire in the stove, and on it I roast the beautiful vegetables I got from the school’s gardens with olive oil and salt. They are simple, yet most delectable. On Sundays, we make avocado toasts and caprese salads. On some weekday nights, we make roasted brussel sprouts with balsamic vinegar reduction.

I still dread the winter, but the cabin life in the Fall has been more than perfect so far.

Student Blog: Dawn Wanderings

What were those misty shapes?

About two weeks ago was the annual beginning of what is commonly dubbed “The Plague”, an unspecified illness that inevitably manages to knock out half the school. Luckily, my roommate, K, and I have pretty ironclad immune systems, so we were both feeling fine. One of our friends, N, however, always seemed to be the first to succumb to whatever’s going around, so when she came into our room at 3:30 on a Tuesday morning, asking K to sub for her job –AM barn head– it wasn’t all that surprising. The only catch: N was supposed to bring in the cows from the field that morning and K had never done it before and was reluctant to do it on her own. So I offered to go with her to bring them in. That being settled, we set our alarms for 5:10 and N went back downstairs to try and sleep for a few hours. I finally managed to get back to sleep myself and then my phone went off. Time for barn.

I pull on my barn jeans which I’d kept from a year and a half ago when I had barn (you never know when you’re going to need them again) and a sweatshirt, grab my glasses and a flashlight; we’re ready in 2 minutes flat. We climb up Noyes hill and head towards the barn, the sun barely beginning to rise. “Oh nice”, I think, “at least I get to watch the sunrise.” We stop at the barn long enough to flick on the lights and grab The Stick (used to slap the cows if they won’t move) and start off towards the pastures.

The problems begin when we get to the top of the pasture and realize that we keep thinking the trees are cows. Visibility was going to be an issue. Issue two: where to look? The cows could either be down back towards Noyes or in the opposite direction near Gray House. We can’t see them from here, but for the sake of certainty, I suggest that we double-check the Noyes field before taking the longer walk to Gray House. K agrees and we jog down the path. (FYI: getting from one field to another takes a while—way longer than you would think.) No cows. Okay, fine; they must be by Gray House. We turn around and walk up the other way, straining our eyes for any movements in the distance. Nothing. At this point we’re getting a little worried. We check the time (5:35, we’ve been looking for about 15 minutes now) and keep going. A little while later, a sighting! (Wait, are you sure they aren’t bushes? No, they’re definitely breathing!)

We duck under the electric fence and find ourselves looking at about 8 cows. Where are the other 30? We get those moving and see the two milkers on their way to the barn from Gray House. They have to have passed the other cows on the way. “Have you seen the other cows?” “Nope.” At this point we’ve passed worry and have moved on to incredulousness. Where are they?! They can’t have disappeared into thin air! It’s 5:45 now and we have a quarter of the herd. We send the cows to the barn with the milkers and consider our next actions.

Shortly after we have a moment of triumph thinking we’ve found them, but it turns out to be the horses. Frustrated, we debate going back to the barn without the rest of the herd but I’m reluctant and K points out that we haven’t looked further up the field yet, they have to be over there. We climb up the path to the top of the field and look over the mountains. The sun has risen by now, but still we find nothing. Not a single living thing. It’s 6:00 and there’s nothing to do but go back to the barn and tell the Farm Manager that they must have been abducted by aliens or something. The whole walk back we go over again and again where they could possibly be. (Pete didn’t keep them in to trim their hooves, right?)

Suddenly we see the last few cows trailing into the barn, the rest already hitched up and being milked. We run through the doors, flabbergasted. Where on earth did they come from? The clock reads 6:12. We have literally been looking for them for an hour and here they are. We go through the rest of barn in a bit of a daze, looking for some sort of explanation. There was no way we had overlooked them, we had searched everywhere.

By the time we got back to the dorm for a shower, the best we could come up with was that a couple of the cow-shaped bushes right at the top of the first hill were actually about 30 cows and they just walked themselves down while we were looking near Gray House. Go figure.

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Student Blog: Ecology in the Real World

Doing real work in an outdoor classroom

Four years after taking Humans in the Natural World, I decided to jump back into studying ecology at Putney this fall through a class called “Physiological Ecology”. As it tends to do, Putney curriculum has taken us into the world of hands on experience. Most of our blocks are spent out in the woods “reading the landscape” or discussing various ecological disturbances and the marks that they leave behind on our ecosystems. However, more recently the class incorporated a community service component to these field investigations.

Recently, The Putney Mountain Association has been dealing with an ongoing issue of the invasive species Buckthorn on the Putney Mountain summit. With the intention of working to reduce the population of Buckthorn, the PMA uses sheep browsing each season. The results have been significant over the past several years, but they need to be documented. Since our ecology class is anticipating a unit on conducting transects and species documentations (through stem counts and percent coverage estimations) of our own, it makes sense that we be the ones to do the job! This way, when the time comes to conduct our individual field studies later in the term, we won’t need any introduction, allowing us to further hone our own observations.

Over the past several weeks, we have spent class periods out on the mountain collecting data through our transects and entering information into a comprehensive report. We have learned many skills commonly used by field ecologists: proper pacing techniques, compass use, and setting up transect points in the field. As a student primarily interested in Biology, I appreciate the experience that we are gaining and the real world applications that our work is serving.

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Student Blog: Finding Inspiration in a One Inch Frame

Starting small yielded big results

Inspiration is tough to find. It hides in corners behind imposing guidelines and sometimes paralyzing fear of assignments. A teacher helped me find inspiration and the urge to write in Say What You Mean, one of the English courses offered here. She told me to picture the “one inch frame” – a reference from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird – and describe what I saw. I immediately saw an image of a bowl I made in ceramics the evening prior, and as my focus converged on the top corner, out poured the description: sensations, emotions, history, and personal connection. It felt right to let loose without bound or reason, without editing or revising, and to just type and type and type.

Until recently, I was not a writer. I am still not a writer, but I am not afraid to write about myself or what’s around me. The “one inch frame” exercise helped me find inspiration and gave me permission to explore writing as a means of understanding observations and thoughts. This morphed into a college essay, and later, into an understanding of what I would like to pursue in life. I found that investing in tactile description and writing without fear can coax inspiration out if its corner.

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Student Blog: The Women’s March

More than 100 Putneyites attended

Standing in a massive sea of people decked out in pink hats and wielding creative signs, I immediately thought back to around three month ago when I first approached Emily Jones, the head of school, and asked if we could take a school trip to the Women’s March on Washington. When Emily said yes, I never imaged that we would be joining a global chain of marches with over five million participants, all fiercely advocating for women’s rights. As a school, we filled up two giant coach buses with over 100 students and faculty, and hit the road early Friday morning. After eleven hours, we arrived at the elementary school gym where we would camp out for the night.

During my sophomore year I attended the Climate March in New York City, but this endeavor was on a whole new scale. We installed tracking apps, gathered phone numbers, assigned meeting places, painted t-shirts, and printed maps of Washington D.C., the whole deal!

Admittedly, at first I was quite nervous to march. But after complete strangers offered me granola bars and three people helped lift me onto a wall so I could get a better view, I realized what a compassionate environment we had created. Over 700,000 people attended without a single arrest. Small children sat on their parents shoulders, proudly holding up their hand drawn signs and chanting boldly.

At school, we continue to talk about the march and what our next steps should be. We are discussing intersectionality: how some participants of the march emphasized white feminism or trans exclusionary slogans and imagery, and how different marginalized communities felt that their voices were underrepresented. While the march was not perfect, I am really glad that Putney made the effort to attend, representing our viewpoints and taking place in this crucial facet of democracy.

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Student Blog: Do the Scary Thing First

This student found her voice

Before I came to Putney I was really shy. I was afraid of public speaking, even just thinking about it. The first time I gave a speech was during the project week last winter. I conducted an independent research on social psychology and wanted to share my results about how the behavior of wasting food and appreciating kitchen work reflects people’s self-esteem. There was one year I studied about people’s misunderstandings about poverty in America, and I wrote a research paper about it. However, I felt only writing a paper was not enough, I wanted to let more people hear my voice. So, I decided to give a speech. And I knew that for more people to hear my voice, it was necessary to overcome my fear.

I remembered a quote from the art building, written by a Putney student, that said, “Do the scary thing first, then get scared later.” I followed their advice to do the scary thing first, and I found out, surprisingly, that I was very comfortable on stage – and even enjoyed it! After I did my speech, many people from the audience found me during lunch and told me that they became more aware of wasting food and showing appreciation to the workers because of my speech. This successful experience made me want to do another psychology project during the next project week and give another public speech. I realized that if I do the scary thing first, then there are many valuable opportunities and some fun facts about myself to discover.

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Student Blog: Combining Art and Science

The results can be beautiful

As a four year senior at The Putney School, I have had a lot of time to experiment with what interests me. As a younger student, I focused primarily on art. I took drawing classes and worked in Putney’s studios often. However, during my time here, my focus gravitated towards the sciences, and later, I realized that I could combine the two.

During project week this past fall, I created structures, both artistic and environmentally productive, made with a combination of mycelium (the network-like organism of a mushroom), sawdust from Elm Lea Farm and rye grain. I began my project by creating bags of substrate that I inoculated with liquid cultures that contained mushroom spores (that would later germinate into a mycelium). The first round of bags was just a test, but in the spring, I will cut them open once the substrate is colonized, and cut and shape the colonized substrate into the sculpture that I have in mind. My intention was for this first project week to act as a “test trial” for my spring project where I will actually create my sculpture. I used different substrates in my project to see which one yielded the most mycelial growth after a two-week period. The rye grain proved to be the most successful, and I am planning on continuing to grow mycelium throughout the winter so that once spring comes, I will have plenty of material ready!

My hope is that during the spring, I will be able to time the process so that the sculpture will actually fruit mushrooms towards the end of project week. The shape of the sculpture will take on a form that the fruiting mushrooms will complement, allowing for it to be partially under my control, and partially under the control of the natural inclination of the mushrooms themselves.

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Student Blog: Women in Male-Dominated Industries

From films to farms, this student has lots of questions

In the spring of senior year, Putney students are given the opportunity to drop two of their classes and pursue a large independent project. Known as exhibitions, these projects are usually deeper investigations of topics or disciplines a student has already studied at Putney that simultaneously bring a new lens or idea to the table.

I emerge from the depths of my exhibition to write this blog post, so I can definitely say first hand how engaging and rigorous they can be!

For my project, I decided to expand upon a topic I became interested in after making a linoleum block print on gender inequality in the Academy Awards, specifically the experience of women in male dominated industries. But instead of printmaking or creating a zine (which I did for my fall project week), I decided to produce a documentary film. In retrospect, it was a slightly crazy idea to direct, edit, film, and conduct interviews all by myself. From about the halfway point now, I can say that I am somehow making it work and developing helpful techniques along the way.

Living in Vermont, many of the women I have talked to work in agricultural or manual labor based industries such as logging, farming, stonemasonry, carpentry, etc… It has been amazing traveling around New England to meet people and hear their stories. I think that too often we focus on statistics and not the real people who live within the ramifications of those statistics every day. I hope that in the end my film can provide some sorely lacking representation and help young women see that certain industries don’t have to be considered a “man’s job”.

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Student Blog: Leadership at Putney

Students are up for the challenge

Living in Putney for three years, I know that Putney is a unique place where students can embrace diverse voices and different cultures. In this small community, it’s always amazing that you can get close to people who come from different cultural and educational backgrounds. What’s more extraordinary is that Putney is extremely open toward involvement of the student body. Most students, more or less, take on some form of responsibility or leadership at Putney. As student heads of school, Charlie and I, luckily, get chances to take the lead of different student leadership groups and work along with them to serve this community.

Charlie and I have been working together for over a year. We both served on the Standards Committee and continued our cooperation afterwards with curating the LitMag. Charlie and I come from very different places. He comes from New York City and now lives in Denver, while I spent my life in Shanghai, China before I came to Putney. Charlie has more opportunities to listen to American students, whereas I work closely with international students. We are totally different as individuals, but we are excited to work together to represent the diversity of this community. Aside from our weekly jobs, which include holding Monday assembly and Wednesday school councils, we also want to create better format of presenting weekly events as well as continuing student leadership slides.

Putney is a small community with more than 200 students, but Charlie and I are eager to create a place where the extent of perspectives is broad and includes voices from everyone, ranging from freshmen to seniors. Undoubtedly, being student heads of school is a challenging task for both of us, but we are excited to take on this responsibility and make change in this community.

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Student Blog: Milk with Dignity

Exploring the role of migrant workers in the dairy industry

On May Day, eight Putney students marched in Burlington for Milk with Dignity. It was organized by Migrant Justice, a group fighting for migrant dairy worker rights in Vermont. Around 250 people marched in solidarity with the workers, who were in front leading the parade. The protesters all chanted with enthusiasm: “Get up, get down, milk with dignity has come to town”.

Click here to see a video of the march.

I have been researching issues around migrant workers in Vermont’s dairy industry for almost a year. Putney has supported and allowed me to find various ways I could continue exploring the topic. With a senior exhibition, three project weeks and one independent course dedicated to my research, I continue to pursue my goal of raising awareness in the community and learning about a topic I am passionate about. I have worked at two dairy farms which allowed me to have an in-depth experience and see first-hand some of the issues migrant dairy workers are fighting for. I have also investigated where the school’s dairy products come from and how they influence our local community.

This experience has taught me how complex the issue is. We don’t realize how vulnerable migrant workers are and how essential they are to our economy. I’m organizing a panel this summer with people from all sides of the issue. I hope to raise awareness and start meaningful conversation, and hopefully see change, for these workers.

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Student Blog: Weaving a Community Rug

The fabric of life ...

One of the most popular arts at Putney is fiber arts, where students learn to work with textiles, doing everything from weaving fabric to sewing their own clothing to felting miniature sculptures. I’ve been working in the fiber arts studio since my junior winter, and since I started I have been interested in creating a piece that many people could work on.

For project week I decided to set up a loom on which anyone who wanted to could come and weave part of a rug. I really enjoy collaborative art pieces, mostly because it gives observers the opportunity to get a glimpse of everyones’ artistic minds as influenced by those who worked before them.

This rug has truly been a passion project for me. With every person who works on the project with me, I get to see patterns and color combinations that I would never have thought to put together, but that blend flawlessly with the work of the artists that wove previously.

For me, this rug represents something that I love about Putney – the community. It always amazes me how many of the people at this school, no matter their background, are able to come together for one common theme, like working in the barn, performing in the theater, or weaving a rug together. This project has no doubt been my favorite so far, and I feel so honored to be able to immortalize this sense of community in a 4 foot by 6 foot piece of art.

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Student Blog: The Rewards of Hard Work

Row, row, row your boat

I started rowing my sophomore year of high school, which was also my first year at The Putney School. I joined the team as an ex-swimmer from Hong Kong, nervous about trying a new sport at a new school; however, I soon fell in love with rowing and the team at Putney. I made some of my closest friends on the rowing team, and I’ve rowed every year since. Looking back as a senior I’m so grateful for all of the experiences I’ve had and lessons being on the rowing team has taught me.

Rowing is a competitive sport, so the team practices for an hour and a half Monday through Friday, and often travels for regattas on the weekend. This commitment taught me how to manage my time well at Putney.  I wrote papers on our bus rides, and did my Shakespeare homework in hotel rooms. However, all of my everyday stress was left behind when I got onto the water. Rowing has taught me about determination, dedication, and the rewards of hard work. These are all lessons that I’m grateful for, and will take with me when I leave Putney.

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Student Blog: Learning to Create a Documentary

Lights, camera, and lots of mistakes to learn from

This past project week I decided to apply for an off-campus project, in order to film a documentary at my uncle’s antique shop in New York City. Once my application was accepted to spend a week away from the Putney campus, I came to the realization that I was being given quite a bit of freedom. Once I made it to New York, I was giddy with my new independence. I was now able to create the film that I had envisioned; a documentary about the life of my Iranian, antique-dealing uncle.

The first two days were a mess of bad planning and logistical organization. What else could one expect for two amateur filmmakers in New York making a movie by themselves? We traveled around the city hunting down equipment for our obsolete HDV film camera from 2004. We took shaky footage with horribly mixed audio. We scuffed valuable antiques with our camera equipment. There was a lot of trial and error. In the end we were able to make a messy but truthful movie which we were both proud of. We spent hours in a dusty antique shop collecting video of my uncle in all of his eccentricity. We learned that you should not purchase standard definition tapes for an HD camera. We learned that you should listen to audio levels before recording. We learned to ask the questions that provoke interesting answers. All in all, I think it was the most I’ve ever learned in a project week. The response I received to my film was really reassuring, and I am now considering making my 20 minute short into a full feature.

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Student Blog: Learning to Make Sushi

This student is on a roll

My first project week I wanted to do two things: write a short film and make sushi. Of course making sushi didn’t seem feasible. I didn’t know who would sponsor a project like that, and back then you had to connect your projects with one of your activities, and sadly we do not offer a sushi making class (yet). I then remembered talking to one of my Long Fall leaders back in the beginning of the year about how her husband also likes making sushi. He was my creative writing teacher at the time, so I approached him about the project. He told me he would be happy to sponsor me and that I should just write that it connects to creative writing and not to worry about it.

Sure enough, my project got approved and for two weeks we made sushi every night over at his faculty apartment, learning and practicing for a whopping six course sushi meal we were planning for six attendees. Courses included a special roll we made up and lemon sorbet with beet glass. In retrospect, the dessert was the hardest thing to make, even though it had zero connections to sushi.

Fast forward a bit over two years, and we just had our fourth sushi dinner this past fall. We now upgraded to over twelve courses, but kept the six person limitation. Now we have more than one special rolls and more than one overly complicated desserts that take up way too much time. I wouldn’t have thought this was possible back then and I’m still not sure how it all worked out now.

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