"It took me a long time to realize that there ain't much difference between winning and losing, except for how the outside world treats you. But inside you, it's about all the same. It really is. Fact of the matter is, I believe that our only curses are the ones that are self-imposed...We, all of us, dig our own holes."
-Coach Gaines, Friday Night Lights (2004)
For anyone who has ever read my column, thank you. For anyone who has ever given me constructive feedback, you have no idea how much it means. But I want to make something really clear. I’m no wiser than anyone else here. I like giving advice to freshmen and sticking up for strippers on paper, but I’m only 22 years old. I have no idea what I’m doing.
Anyway, it turns out the strippers and freshmen aren’t the ones who appreciated it. Last term, I got fan mail from sophomores, juniors, seniors and an alum. I’ve realized that it isn’t because they care more about specific issues like prostitution, but because they know that Carleton students’ worst vice is existing inside our ownheads. We talk about changing the world, but we lead small, self-absorbed lives.
In November, I went to a discussion called “Does Sexual Violence Affect Women of Color at Carleton?” I was hunting for a column idea, and I was expecting to hear sweeping social critiques. But toward the end, legendary history professor Harry Williams said something strange. How can we be happy as individuals? What can I, Hannah Watson, do to enjoy my own life?
This was very upsetting.
On one hand, it seemed to go against the entire ethos of what I’m going to call the WASP belt, the string of colleges (including Carleton) founded by Congregationalists with a core mission of service to humanity. Harvard was originally intended for creating “a learned clergy.” You got an education to give back to the world, maybe teach a savage or two about Jesus, but not to make yourself happy.
Modern academia has become its own religious community. We’re driven by a common belief that nothing is what it seems. You might get this from looking at a microorganism or a nude model, but wherever it comes from, it feels good for the same reason that drugs and bike rides feel good: It makes you free. Learning emancipates us from our boring and often dangerous preconceptions about the universe.
Unfortunately, this can sometimes be our best-kept secret, because it applies to us. We are not what we seem. As college students, we’re not necessarily better than the people the Admissions Office rejected to let us in, and on an institutional level, the school doesn’t always live up to its standards.
But behind the facts and pretenses, the value of education is indelibly personal. If a drop of pond water is not what it seems, perhaps you are not who you think you are.
Not many people know this, but my life used to revolve around sports. Even fewer people know that I’ve struggled with poor body image for most of my Carleton career.
I did soccer and track in high school, but in college I discovered I was built to row. They put me in stroke seat (look it up, proles), and within three months, I’d broken a 7:40 2k on the erg, which was a big deal for DIII women and damn near the school record.
I decided it was enough. I wanted to focus on challenging my mind. I transferred to an elite, frozen, land-locked school. But I held onto my pride, and forgot that one of the best things about crew was the respect it gave me for my body. At regattas, I’d look around and see all these tall women with thighs and shoulders and breasts and miraculously unapologetic postures, and I’d finally feel home.
I tried different activities at Carleton, but it was never the same. I couldn’t throw a frisbee for shit. What would I do with my body in this godforsaken state? What else could it do?
It could drink. And it could look good. I started to live for these things, and my health slowly fell apart.
So this question of how to be happy – it haunted me. It threatened all of my precious regret, and all the anger I’d buried about our goddamn weather and our goddamn ectomorph infestation. It threatened the whole hero/victim complex I had with Carleton, which was my best excuse for neglecting a lot of the people and things I cared about.
But I couldn’t dismiss it. Harry Williams has been here since 1989 and witnessed the struggles of thousands of students. What’s more, I’d heard the exact same thing a week earlier from someone who’s been here since 1979, legendary CAMS professor John Schott.
As we head into winter term, please remember their advice. Try to be kind to yourself. For me, this means eating regularly, sleeping, COMPSing and forgiving the teenager inside me who sneers at non-competitive exercise. She’s never written a column, or made a film, or been in love. She was beautiful, but so am I.
College is about risking who you’ve been for who you can be. Whether you have WASP-noblesse-oblige guilt about being a studio art major, or working-class guilt about not being satisfied with a $52,000-a-year experience, you can make Carleton a better place by celebrating the fact that as a human being, you have a right to be happy as well as unhappy.
“… it doesn't matter to me at all whether you like the school. It seems like you like some things, and don't like others, and that's how it should be.”
- Becky Leichtling ‘08