My Education at Dartmouth

by Gonzalo Lira | 2/8/95 6:00am

Next June, I will graduate from Dartmouth College. I used to think that classrooms were where I would learn and grow, but the closer I get to Commencement Day, the more I realize that my fellow students are the ones who have provided me with my real education. And it's an education I never expected -- an education in hypocrisy.

My freshman fall, I was accused of sexual assault and harassment by another freshman. I was brought before the Committee on Standards (COS), and though there was proof that I did not harass the woman in question and more than a reasonable doubt as to whether I assaulted her, I was suspended for three terms by the COS, having been found innocent of harassment but guilty of assault.

The issue of guilt or innocence is immaterial now. All of this happened over three years ago, and nothing will change the fact that I was suspended and missed out on my freshman year. The effects of that suspension, however, are something interesting to think about. My relationships with students, professors and administrators have inevitably been shaded by my suspension -- what they think about me, how they react to me, how they treat me and what they say about me.

I'm about to graduate. Yes, even though I was suspended for three terms, I will still manage to graduate with the class I matriculated with, the Class of 1995. Now that my graduation is so near, I've been thinking long and hard about what it has all meant, trying to come up with an understanding of the events of my college career. And more than anything else, the one thing that's become glaringly apparent is the hypocrisy of so many of the people here at Dartmouth.

People always say that convicted criminals should be given a second chance, once they have "paid their debt to society." The more compassionate members of the Dartmouth community are wont to say this when, for instance, a murderer in some faraway place finishes his prison term and goes free. But how genuine is this sentiment? How real is this belief?

Not very. I was suspended, and whether or not I did what I am accused of having done is not important -- I served out my punishment, I did my three terms. I paid my debt to the Dartmouth society. Was I accepted back into the fold?

In a word, no.

Fairly ugly rumors about me were spread around. People could never quite make it to lunch with me -- busy with exams, papers, sports, anything. Somehow, my name never quite made it to the party Blitz lists, and for a long time my phone sat mostly idle; when I did get a call, I could bet that it was a wrong number before I picked it up.

But that's life. To paraphrase Faulkner (and not incidentally to show off my Ivy League education), I endured. I went to classes, studied (somewhat), and generally did what I had wanted to do when I came here: I got an education.

But now that I look back on my Dartmouth career, I realize that the education I received was fuller than I had anticipated. It was lonely, yes, but I can take loneliness. But what I could never take is hypocrisy.

Dartmouth taught me plenty about hypocrisy. The people of this campus who show the most compassion were, curiously enough, the ones least likely to listen to me, or to accept me in any way. Many of them actively avoided me, though I'd never spoken to them. These people with good liberal arts values would look at me askance, aloof, their eyes wondering when I would crawl back under the rock I'd come out from under. Some of them even questioned the people who had the nerve to hang out with me.

But that's okay. This sounds weird, I'm sure, but you get to a point where you don't care much about being despised. You get to a point where you don't mind that people avoid you on the street. You get to the point where you think it's the natural state of affairs, and in fact it is. I am ostracized, and I find, surprisingly, that it doesn't hurt that much. Not only can I take it, but I can live and work and study and not really feel hurt by the ostracism I encounter. I don't even feel it.

But what does hurt me is that, though the fact of my suspension is nearly common knowledge, in over three years at Dartmouth only one student asked me to my face about my suspension. Only one. And that student was a transfer student.

Everywhere, all day, I hear calls to listen to what someone has to say. I hear calls to reach out, to try to understand others, to try to empathize with their problems. But no one reached out to me, except for that one transfer.

When someone says one thing and does another, they call that hypocrisy. That's what I've seen here at Dartmouth. I see everyone reaching out to romantic causes. It's easy to reach out to someone with AIDS, or to some sculptor who is under attack for having exhibited a picture of Christ submerged in a pool of urine.

It's easy -- and let's be honest here -- it's fun to support causes where everyone agrees, where everyone is showing support. Homophobes? Racists? Sexists? Elitists? Let's get 'em! Yes, it's fun and easy to be a part of Peter Pan's gang, flinging your slings and arrows at some bad old, distant, maybe even illusory Captain Hook.

But when they come face to face with someone they say they ought to reach out to and at least try to understand, the people of the Dartmouth community run away.

I met a woman once. We met in a tube room, we talked, we had a good time. We hung out a couple of times after that, we had a lot in common. She seemed like a decent, cool person, someone I'd like as a friend. Then I stopped hearing from her. I blitzed her a couple of times, inviting her to lunch, to hang out, whatever, but I got no answer.

I assumed she'd heard about my suspension, and I was right. I happened to see her on the street one day, and this is what she did: she studiously went around me, crossing the street to avoid me and then crossing back again, looking at the sidewalk, not approaching me, furtively glancing at me to make sure I hadn't spotted her, looking relieved when she was out of range, safely past me.

That's the image of Dartmouth that I'll carry with me to the end of my days: A coward, who didn't have the courage of her convictions. She had the courage to reach out to nameless others she'd never seen, but not so much courage as to reach out to someone she knew. She didn't even have the courage to at least ask.

"Vox clamantis in deserto" indeed. My education at Dartmouth is nearly complete.