Sandlund: Candid Obscura

Parsing through a junior existence with greater understanding.

by William Sandlund | 4/11/17 12:30am

The experience of returning to Dartmouth as a junior is somewhat jarring. Most ’18s have realized, hopefully, that we will be leaving soon, and many will have gotten a taste of what will come next — probably through an internship where they brushed up against the previously inviolable Adult World. Part of what makes this experience more poignant than past work is the understanding that college will end soon.

We now better understand what awaits us on the other end of a commencement speech and an embossed piece of paper. In many ways, we know what to expect from the rest of school. Our social universe is mostly mapped, along with our classes. But amidst all this certainty, there is an unnameable feeling, especially pronounced in that first week back. Even as we fall into old routines and friendships, there is the sense that something has changed. Perhaps it is simply the tenuous creep of maturity, but I think that oversimplifies the feeling. I believe we possess a growing understanding of how we compartmentalize our college existence.

After being away for so long, I am more aware that I am a different person at school. There are subtle shifts to my psyche when I arrive on campus. We all undergo mental metamorphoses to adapt to a given environment and returning to Dartmouth is no different.

The “Dartmouth Shift,” as I’m going to christen it, starts on the journey to school. An ongoing area of interest in academia is ideology, which entails the analysis of how external structures like culture and society shape individuals’ perception of reality, including how we perceive ourselves. The Dartmouth Shift is a case study in how environments seep into our souls like water in soil. The result? A change so minuscule and varied across individuals it is easy to brush aside, but one that is no less fantastical because it is small and unacknowledged.

There is something undeniably satisfying about the journey to Dartmouth. Strangely enough, the purest embodiment of my misplaced romanticism about the rural idyll of our college is the Dartmouth Coach, which functions as our relatively drab Hogwarts Express. The experience of traveling on the coach is important because it acts as a netherworld for Dartmouth. All the ingredients are there, but we must hurtle through space for a couple hours to realize the subtle yet profound shift that occurs in our mindsets once we arrive on campus.

What makes traveling so evocative and what lends airports around the world a singular feeling is anonymity. These spaces represent a strange compromise between our nomadic past and settled present. They are fixed locations robbed of any meaning by virtue of the fact that no one lives there. This is what makes it easy to enter that travel reverie, a state where you can simply listen to music or not quite fall asleep for hours that pass by formless, unshaped by any association. In an environment so completely anonymous, we start to reorient our brains for a new way of living, one we already know but that is nonetheless different.

My travel time to Dartmouth is around 12 hours, and during the journey I subconsciously start rearranging my psyche in an attempt to ready myself for a momentous circadian rhythmic shift. I get excited to see friends who will revel with me in irresponsibility. Learning in an academic setting again is also a comforting thought. So I wait, and I travel, listening to all the music I meant to discover weeks ago. If I see some familiar Dartmouth shirt or face, I get a slight thrill, which is odd because in a day’s time I really won’t care.

Once we arrive in Boston or New York, the shade of green that tints our reality grows deeper:

Huddles of us form

In grim waiting rooms —

These green puddles tired, forlorn.

You make small talk with someone you sort of know for longer than you expected, and they’re actually really nice! Or you find your best friend and sit with the unforced cool of companionship. Sometimes you meet someone completely new and hit it off, knowing you will not talk like this again once you are fully “There.” Because at this moment, in spite of the mental shift your mind is making, Dartmouth is still There. The “T” gets slowly erased on the drive north.

You wait along with the rest of the herd, sharing a quiet anxiety about getting a decent seat. When the coach comes, everyone starts to jostle, and the modicum of relaxation becomes one of unspoken frenzy. And then the bus is here.

By the time you arrive in Hanover, you feel different than when you started the journey. There may be excitement, anti-climax, apprehension. But all of these are contained in a slightly faster heartbeat: the feeling you get — positive or negative — as you look around at snow-bound buildings and realize that, on some profound physical level, “nothing has changed Here.” When you step off the coach, Dartmouth is instantly in you once more.

Moving through college, I find the expression, “the people make the place,” has taken on new meanings. Each person contains the place they inhabit, in slight variations of a shared environment and culture. Some sliver of our physical surroundings dissolves into us. We each contain Dartmouth, as strange as that sounds. And as containers we inevitably have limits on what we may experience of others, of the place, of ourselves. We are delineated by our senses and limited by the social norms and personal inhibitions that replace other inhibitions and norms, ones we internalized from a different time and place.

It’s not that we don’t have control over how we feel. On some level, we do. What’s strange is being confronted with the knowledge that the way we control how we feel is fundamentally shaped by where we are and who we are there with. If this muddled realization is growing up, then it is harder to accept than I thought.