January 18, 2008

U of C students weather winter with frosty resolve

Back in grade school, celebrating the new year was like cutting the last corner of the Indianapolis 500. We’d hold our collective breath as the teacher chalked the four digits that would now grace the headings of our papers. Chipper phrases like “zip into 1997” or “slide into 1998” expressed the force with which we would saddle our New Year’s resolutions on choice action verbs, and ride into the temperate Florida winter with bright smiles.

I can hardly resist the dichotomy. Here in Chicago, students seem more inclined to crawl or trudge into ’08, swept up in a kind of misery that seems to sap our spirits even in advance of arrival. You could see it at the airport, as our numbers descended upon Midway and O’Hare, something that in its solemnity more closely resembled a conference of cloister-dwellers than a fleet of college students.

As we are aware, winter in Hyde Park is cold and bleak. For many of us, it’s a time of melancholy and affective torment. The days are short, the light is dim, and the wind whips up from the lake. Yet, the gloominess we suffer is not solely the province of the weather; students are unable to avail themselves of the opportunities for solidarity. As the mercury plummets, we cannot dispel the ice from our hearts to detract from the miserable aspect of the place or the season.

Accept for a moment a useful archetype that reveals our collective freezer burn: Mr. U of C, bound in long black peacoat, or cowled in a thick, fluffy North Face jacket, buried like the prize toy in a 1990s cereal box. More or less awkward, slightly callous, and proudly overworked.

You know the symptoms. Although you’ve met countless times, he still can’t remember you outside of the clique he met first year in his dorm. You pass each other on the quads, but though he scans you, bleary-eyed, he quickly shirks away in passing; or if he doesn’t, you certainly won’t catch a greeting, or glimpse a smile from his chapped face. At parties and gatherings, he and his colleagues observe the Chicago-patterned permutation of sociological space where “intimate” and “social” zones are widened, and forced proximity is an incentive for retreat, not conversation.

My portrait does not stand alone, but as one variation on a theme, commensurate with the collective self-portrait that seems at least to make its presence felt in classrooms, dorm rooms, house t-shirts, and even college admissions information. If so many students are proud of, irked by, or at least responsive to the slogan that “Hell does freeze over,” or “Chicago life—get one,” we ought to wonder just which circle of hell this is, and whether we are the tortured sinners or the tormenters.

The answer is both. Like the flagellants of the Middle Ages who flogged and raked themselves as they wept the woeful vicissitudes of the world, we lament our lot and in peculiar U of C style, seem to commit ourselves to exacerbate it.

Why are U of C students such cold ratiocinators? Why the ill humor, anomic habits, and emotional withholding, when a friendly acknowledgement or exchange could be so helpful?

Perhaps we’re caught spinning around in solipsistic circles like little Cartesian monads. Maybe our zealous studiousness has narrowed our gaze into fearing the enjoyment of qualities that might dull our incisive intellects: kindness, compassion, goodwill, etc.

Whatever the reason, it truly matters that the U of C is a less sociable, and frankly, less friendly community than its peers. We might be more introverted than some, but by no means must we be less friendly.

The frequency with which students complain of the social deficiencies and that certain frosty aspect of this place seems to indicate that we desire an improvement. Yet a feeling of invariability has left us buckling down, trying to take pride in our courage to overcome a less pleasant social reality.

What’s forgotten is how easy it is to make this campus a brighter place with the work of a casual smile here, or a few kind words there. They wouldn’t miss the target, especially during the winter. We have only to remind ourselves that, whatever the daily exigencies we face, there is always time to be pleasant to one another, and little excuse not to be.

As we descend into this season with nosebleeds and cracked skin, let’s resolve to start curing this school of its doleful reputation.