Through The Looking Glass: Learning How to Remember

by Madeline Killen | 5/30/18 2:35am


Last week, when I learned that Philip Roth had died, I searched my Notes app for the line from “American Pastoral” that I’d copied down last spring: “And since we don’t just forget things because they don’t matter but also forget things because they matter too much ­... each of us remembers and forgets in a pattern whose labyrinthine windings are an identification mark no less distinctive than a fingerprint...”

I was sitting on the grass outside of the River apartments on one of those first warm days of spring when being anywhere except in the sun felt like a sin, and I remember reading that line and thinking that it put into words something that I’d always known without knowing. Now, with all the nostalgia I’d put on hold until my thesis was finished finally rushing in, Roth’s words won’t stop running through my head.

I know a couple of things about memory from my two terms as a psychology major and from the pop psych books that, unlike my textbooks, I actually did read. First, I know that our memories can depend on our current mood; if we’re depressed, we can only recall times when things didn’t go our way, and if everything is going great, we feel like everything has always been going great. Second, we reassemble our memories self-defensively. Apparently, people with young children rate their baseline happiness as lower than people without children do, but once their children are grown up, they look back on the time that their children were young as the happiest time of their lives. That way, they can tell themselves that having kids was not, in fact, a very expensive and time-consuming mistake but actually the best thing that ever happened to them. Tricky. I suspect I’m going to do the same thing with my thesis.

I also, sometimes and cynically, suspect that I’m going to do that with all four years here at Dartmouth. I do love Dartmouth, don’t get me wrong, and I think that this journey of extreme highs and lows that is “My Dartmouth Experience” has ultimately balanced out to a net positive. (Sort of unrelated, but I recently read an article about how contestants on “The Bachelor” franchise have to re-tape their on-camera confessions if they accidentally say “this process” or “this show” instead of “this journey,” and now I can’t stop thinking about that every time I hear, say or see the phrase “Dartmouth experience.” Okay, carry on.) Have you ever noticed how almost all alumni seem to be so gung-ho about Dartmouth that listening to them, you almost feel like they went to a completely different school but with eerily similar traditions? One of my ’16 friends has made multiple comments to me this year about how nice Dartmouth people are, which is something that I don’t think anyone who is currently a student here would ever say. I’d literally think you were on drugs if you said that “All Dartmouth students are SO nice.” You would have to put probably six qualifiers in that sentence to get me to agree with you. “All Dartmouth students who aren’t writing a thesis and are only taking two classes this term and who are graduating this year and who were raised right are SO nice at 4 p.m. on Green Key Friday if the weather is nice.” Okay, fine.

I — hopelessly, futilely — want to remember Dartmouth just how it was, with some boring classes and unsavory characters and terms when I just felt sad all the time and couldn’t put my finger on why. I want to remember Dartmouth with the things I don’t like making up a significant portion of the labyrinthine fingerprint, too, because I think learning that I didn’t like those things was as important as anything that I learned in my classes. I grew up in a tiny town in North Carolina in a county ranked in the bottom fifth percentile for public school funding in the state. I never imagined confronting the kind of privilege that is so common at Dartmouth, the kind of privilege that makes boys think they can grab you in a fraternity and hold you tighter when you try to get away, the kind of privilege that keeps them behind you in the KAF line, two rows in front of you in a class over sophomore summer, right beside you at the Green Key concert. I’m really proud of the kind of balance that I’ve achieved in my relationship with Dartmouth, feeling happy somewhere, loving something that I know isn’t perfect. I don’t want to water that down by editing the bad bits out of the story.

I do think that part of the reason why I’m so scared to look back on my time at Dartmouth with rose-colored glasses, though, is that I’m scared of missing it. But I don’t think that’s avoidable. I’m going to miss Dartmouth — flaws, bad bits, low grades, mean people, sad terms and all.