When I promised my little sister that I would take her friend Sam out at Dartmouth during my freshman spring, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. As we wandered from Collis towards Webster Avenue, Sam — then a high-school junior — walked with swag, high-fiving and saying hello to everyone that we passed. People probably thought he was drunk, but he was completely sober and just trying to have fun and feel out if Dartmouth was right for him. At a fraternity, he greeted the kid on door-duty with a big “WHAT’S UP” and a full-blown handshake that turned into bro-hug. The door-duty kid shot me a confused look, and I ushered Sam towards the basement. At this point, I was pretty nervous about bringing him downstairs. He knew absolutely nothing about the delicate relationships and social norms that existed at Dartmouth, and so, in my head, he was bound to do something embarrassing. As my schmob of friends and I danced in the dimly lit basement, I saw Sam eyeing the tall blond girl at the bar talking to some of the fraternity members. I instantly recognized her — she was the senior girl on H-Croo that everybody had a crush on. Before I knew it, Sam was walking up to her. I cringed and wanted to leave as I saw him talking to her and all of the older boys. What was he saying? Did he ask if they knew me? (Obviously they didn’t.) He was totally ignorant of any social norm — I was embarrassed for him.
In retrospect, however, Sam reminds me of the Maddie that first came to Dartmouth. I was so unbelievably naïve, but at the same time, I was very confident in myself and in my actions. I smiled and waved at everyone I recognized, asked random people at Foco if they were ’16s and entered any social space without hesitation. I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to study or do with my life, so I chose classes that sounded interesting to me. I wore flair out every single night in the fall because I thought it was just so Dartmouth. I flitzed randos because I thought that, too, was just so Dartmouth. Yes, I was the most blatant freshman. But I was eager to have fun, make friends and find out what I could do with my life.
At some point, however, this self-confident Maddie started to fade a bit. I’m not saying I completely changed who I was, but I started to pick up on several of the norms associated with Dartmouth culture and became more aware of my behavior in social settings. I noticed the kinds of outfits that people wore out — not flair — and started to wear similar ones. I developed slight anxiety when entering social spaces — what if I didn’t know anybody when I walked inside? What if (insert person who I have had an awkward encounter with) is inside? I also became more aware of stereotypes associated with different Greek houses, sports teams and clubs. When someone would ask who a person was, I learned to answer things like, “Oh, Maddie? She’s a ’16 Chi-Delt from Texas,” or “He’s unaffiliated, and I think he’s on the crew team and used to date so and so.” At a small school like Dartmouth, it is easy to put people into little boxes. It’s also easy to look around, especially at the people that surround you, and assume that there’s a list of things that constitute what Dartmouth is and what Dartmouth is not.
But by discovering norms through observations, I developed unachievable ideals. I created an image of the perfect Dartmouth student — she was an athletic, straight-A student who went out a lot and made time for her friends and family. She stayed up late and woke up early. She was a hooligan dancing on elevated surfaces on a Wednesday night, but then completely poised and prepared in her 10A the next morning. She was perfect and always happy, and I wanted to be her. So I tried, and I failed.
At Dartmouth, it appears as if everyone is always okay. It’s not the norm to have a shitty term or two shitty terms or even a whole shitty year. Even in the KAF line or passing someone on the Green, people are taken aback if you honestly answer that you are “Just fine” as opposed to the “Everything’s great!” that they are expecting. Everyone seems so happy all the time. It took me a while to find out that this is not the case.
I remember the first time I wasn’t very happy with Dartmouth. I was on the coach returning to campus after a two-week mental health leave during sophomore summer, and I was absolutely terrified to come back to campus — terrified to face my friends, professors and classmates, and to admit that I had failed. Terrified to return to the seemingly toxic environment that pushed me to extremes. I didn’t want to be labeled as the not-okay one because mental illness was not something that was part of the ideal Dartmouth story. I remember fighting back tears as the coach circled the Green, myself looking down at the scene of picnicking students unaware of my absence and arrival.
It doesn’t take mental illness to become disillusioned with Dartmouth. Maybe Dartmouth is not as intellectual as you had hoped it would be. You frown as hungover students bullshit answers to prize-winning professors. The same people that you see peeing in a fraternity basement or cheating on an exam are the ones in charge of certain clubs or teams at Dartmouth. It seems like a sick joke. Or maybe it’s the moment you find yourself drifting away from friends — the moment you go from trippees to acquaintances to someone you don’t even say hello to on the Green. The moment your best friends from an FSP become a once-a-term catch up dinner or a drunken hug at Late Night Collis.
Or maybe something truly bad happens — a sexual assault, a death in the family, a racist or sexist crime — and you find yourself surrounded by a seemingly apathetic community. There comes to be a time when you really need help, but it seems as if everyone’s biggest concern is whether they got full points on question 23 or if it is going to rain on Green Key Friday. Sometimes I even find myself feeling sad for no reason. It’s the Sunday after a big weekend and all the fun has already been had. Or it wasn’t what I expected. And even if it was what I expected, I still find myself feeling inexplicably empty.
But being not okay at Dartmouth is perfectly okay. It’s actually pretty empowering to admit that you are not fine. To tell someone that you failed, you cried, you are lonely. To share the not-so-perfect side of yourself with someone and to discover that you are not the only one who feels this way. When I hear that loneliness is one of the biggest problems at our college, I paint a picture in my head of a hallway full of students within their own dorm rooms lying on their bed with the lights off and their phone screen illuminating their faces. I kind of wish there was a moment in which all the walls would just fall down and everyone would look to their left and right and see that they are not alone. That there is such a community that is ready to catch them.
I know that I am not perfect and that sometimes I am not okay. I am proud to know this. And I’m also proud to be a part of the Dartmouth community. I have learned that I can do what I want and I don’t care what others think. I actually get a strange amount of satisfaction when I am told that I am the weirdest person that someone knows.
I can fail, I can succeed, I can be proud. I can scream “WHAT’S UP” as loud as I can on top of Baker tower if I want to — I am not trying to please anyone else other than myself. I have always thought that there is something magical about Dartmouth. Something that pushes me away at times, but always seems to pull me back in. It is relentless but forgiving; heartbreaking but kind. It is perfectly imperfect, and I love it.