Striving To Be Better

by Amanda Smith | 5/22/14 5:05pm

Much of the press that has surrounded Dartmouth since I arrived here four years ago alludes to or points out that there are bad people on Dartmouth’s campus. Either that or good people who do bad things.

I want to dedicate my final senior column to celebrate the many good people who do good things who populate Dartmouth — celebrate them and challenge them to become great.

A few weeks ago, my co-columnist and I received an email from a member of the Dartmouth community, with the subject line ‘love your column!’ and a nice note in the body of the email. This was shocking for a number of reasons: one being that we couldn’t believe people other than our moms, a few devoted members of our dance group and our very tolerant editors actually read the column. Second, it was unexpected, unprompted and came from someone we didn’t even know. The email gave us a feeling I wouldn’t soon forget.

I recently attended a presentation put on by a student who I “kind of knew” but didn’t “really” know. We had met once or twice freshman year and hadn’t crossed paths since. I watched his presentation, which was creative, deeply personal, brave and thought-provoking, and when it was over, I trickled out of the theater with the mass of other audience members, letting everything I had seen, heard and been asked to consider sink in. I later sent the student a brief email thanking him for sharing and told him that I appreciated his performance and the effort behind it. I hoped that my email would spread that special feeling Seanie and I experienced to someone else.

Those are specific examples, of course, and I encourage anyone who ever has the urge to reach out to do so, since the smallest thank you can make the biggest impact. When I was younger and sassier, I was told, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But now that I am older — still pretty sassy — and on the telling end, I’d like to revise those instructions: “If you do have something nice to say, say it. Share it.” But that’s not all.

It’s likely that anyone who is reading this has at some point had a teacher or a fellow student say, ‘If you can hear my voice, clap once.’ It is likely that anyone who is reading this has, at some point, clapped. But the more complex task lies in listening. I wonder what would happen when the tough issues come up, if the person speaking were to say, ‘If you can listen to my voice, clap once.’ Universal agreement has never been a requirement at Dartmouth, but respect has never stopped being one. I encourage everyone to use their voice, and to use it constructively. But I also encourage everyone to listen.

I have a lot of faith in Dartmouth. The green light on top of Baker Tower has been assigned many symbolic meanings, but it reminds me a little bit of the green light in The Great Gatsby. Dartmouth as an institution may not be in pursuit of impossible love, but we, Dartmouth as a community, are in pursuit of improvement. Gatsby’s dream of Daisy was unattainable, but the dream to make Dartmouth a safer, more inclusive place, is not. Our green light will shine on as our collective and individual dreams evolve, and as we continue to take steps toward betterment.

I say collective, because though we may accept or reject labels of class, race, ethnicity, gender, Greek house and on and on, and though there is no one defining ‘Dartmouth experience,’ we as a group define our Dartmouth. We, together, make up what Dartmouth is now and where it is headed. Though we as individuals may not directly participate in the problems that the school faces, that does not mean the problems are not our own, that we aren’t to be held accountable for helping effect change. That we shouldn’t take the time to say thank you to those around us when they do good and offer encouragement to do better when they don’t. To take the time to listen, to self-reflect and evaluate our own areas for improvement and then actively work to transform ourselves from the good people I believe we are into great people I believe we can become. The great people who can make Dartmouth an even greater place.

Dartmouth is full of smart, thoughtful, driven, motivated, compassionate, caring and complicated people. Yes, we can be selfish, shortsighted, stubborn, immature, downright dumb, lazy and offensive. Sometimes our priorities are out of whack, sometimes we forget to call our parents back, sometimes we stay out too late and drink too much, sometimes we have to drop a class or two, sometimes we do and say things we shouldn’t. But none of those singular moments or qualities summarize who we are, what we stand for, who we’d like to be.

When I went to acting camp about a decade ago, I got the tiniest little role in the play “Annie.” Of course, I was disappointed because I wanted to be Annie — even though my hair was brown, I couldn’t actually sing all that well and I was aware of both of those things. But I took comfort in the saying, “There are no small parts, only small actors,” and I ended up doing my best as the space filler that was ‘Orphan #4.’ The quote is not exclusive to the stage, though. There are no small parts at Dartmouth, because we all have our own opportunity to make change within ourselves and within our community. It is on our shoulders to make the most of that opportunity.

My time as a Dartmouth student may be coming to a close, but I still hope to take part in Dartmouth’s growth. I am excited to stay in touch with younger friends to see how their Dartmouth changes. And I encourage everyone to take notice of and celebrate the good, say thank you even when you don’t have to, listen even when it is hard and work together to make our Dartmouth — your Dartmouth — better.