Fishbein: Don't Get Burned

Dartmouth, stop playing with fire and approach Homecoming with intention.

by Daniel Fishbein | 10/25/18 2:20am

 The destruction wrecked upon the home of a girl named Sally and her brother as a red-and-white hat wearing anthropomorphic cat and his two “Thing” henchmen balance on umbrellas, fly kites indoors and knock pictures off walls requires a magical cleaning machine to ameliorate. Dr. Seuss’s 1957 book may have succeeded in stimulating childhood imagination, but unfortunately (in case you didn’t realize it) we don’t live in “Cat in the Hat” universe, and the Dartmouth alumnus couldn’t succeed in bringing about a way to go back in time and reverse the damage we’ve done.

Out of the myriad of options, I’d list my experience reading Dr. Seuss on Freshman Trips as perhaps my favorite Dartmouth tradition. Sitting around in a circle with my other trippees took me back to my elementary school days, undoing for a moment the pretense of maturity I had assumed to mask my adolescent anxiety and serving as a starting point for growing alongside my classmates over the past four years. I was at Dartmouth — collegiate, academic — so reading felt like an appropriate group activity, but Seuss’ witty lyricism in Green Eggs and Ham created a much more informal environment than the heavily-footnoted history articles that have dominated my student reading diet. In short, I appreciated the Dr. Seuss reading because it felt both intentional and accessible. It laid the foundation for a community during First Year Trips that anyone could enter. It did not require a magical clean up machine.

Reading Dr. Seuss on Trips was not the sort of activity, in other words, that would inspire the town of Hanover to threaten to revoke the proper permits from the College. Intentional and accessible traditions do not create an impulse in brains that have granite (and perhaps a solid dose of Keystone Light) in them but that lack developed prefrontal cortexes to stick bodily appendages in a 1000 degree three-story structure. First years, if you touch the fire, you will get burned. It will hurt — probably a lot — but it won’t just hurt you. With the ultimatum from Hanover to have a safer fire, the possibility of this Dartmouth Homecoming tradition failing looms large. And no magical cat has any elaborate contraption that could rectify that situation.

Furthermore, if intentional and accessible traditions constitute key elements of the type of healthy and nurturing communities that I have learned in my time here make Dartmouth strong, a tradition in which peers pressure each other to get injured seems like it does the opposite. From hazing in the Greek system to an epidemic of sexual assault, certain elements of Dartmouth’s culture clearly lack an understanding of the concept of consent. Perhaps some people enjoy destroying the nerve endings in their epidermis — more power to them. For everyone else, though, the tradition of fire-touching must be seen for what it is: a toxic representation of the sort of unintentional cultures that can plague campus.

With all my criticism of this negative component of Homecoming tradition, I do enjoy the fire itself. Running my 19 laps, I felt in touch with my primordial spirit, as though I were participating in some sort of ritualistic welcoming of the Prometheus a.k.a. Phil Hanlon’s coming to save me from the cold (admittedly, that may have been the Keystone in my brain thinking those thoughts). That year, with my sister then a senior at the College, my grandparents came to celebrate Homecoming with the most recent Dartmouth generation in the family. Watching the blaze with my grandfather, Class of ‘55, connected me to my family’s history at Dartmouth in a way I don’t think a less spectacular event could.

That’s not to say, though, that Homecoming does not need a rehabilitation. As times change, some traditions deserve to be done away with. When my grandfather walked down Webster Avenue more than 60 years ago, as a Jew, he could not enter most fraternities (there were no sororities then, or women for that matter).

Maybe Dartmouth could learn from the Abenaki people it stole its land from and find a respectful way to honor the power and importance of a fire. According to the website of the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe of northern New Hampshire, all fire is sacred. “The elders say that you have to watch fire like you would a child; if it gets a chance it will go over and burn something,” a contributor to the website writes. “We don’t want it to [burn] something we hadn’t planned.” It is time for Dartmouth to be intentional about its traditions, and use its fire as a way to welcome everyone into its community.