Ending Amherst Apathy

(Marie Lambert)– When I was looking at colleges during my senior year, one of the qualities I had on my list of criteria was “politically active campus.” That was until a high school counselor told me to remove it, saying that every college campus was a politically active campus. Overwhelmed at the number of institutions before me, I was glad to eliminate one factor from the difficult choice before me.

As someone who’d been fairly active in social justice and community outreach during high school, I couldn’t wait to attend a college where these topics would be a part of daily dialogue, where people read the paper and knew more about the presidential election than what was being parodied on SNL. A high level of political awareness and activity wasn’t high on my list of requirements for a college, but still, it was an aspect of life that I expected to participate in at Amherst.

Before my first year began, I went on CEOT, the Community Engagement Orientation Trip, jumping at my first chance to explore this part of campus life. But due to effects from the unprecedented Hurricane Irene, several of our planned activities were canceled. Instead of spending time with the youth of El Arco Iris, we ended up handing out fliers and playing icebreaker games in a parking lot. We still engaged the community but in different ways. When I look back fondly on my CEOT experience, first I remember the friends that I made and the inside jokes that we had, and only second that I remember the community members we met with and the things that we learned. This is not a critique of the CCE or CEOT, but the first thing about Amherst that I did was different than I expected.

A month later, the full force of the Amherst workload had hit. I had never been so busy in my life balancing academics and two extra-curricular activities. It was during this time that I completely succumbed to the “Amherst bubble.” I no longer had time to read the newspaper or listen to public radio. I made a little country for myself whose borders were Routes 9 and 116, and Northampton was the farthest I stretched myself.

Returning home over winter break, I suddenly realized that the Iowa Caucuses were quickly approaching. I was finally eighteen and able to participate in the political process for the first time, something I’d longed for throughout all of high school. But now, strangely, I didn’t really care. Who was even running for president? I had a feeling that the person I’d been a year ago would hate the apathy of the person I was today. But I still wasn’t bothered by it too much. Why worry about the outside world when everything I needed and cared about was back at Amherst?

And it was a pretty idyllic world—at least for the first one and a half semesters. Yes, there was a lot of work, and yes, I was often running low on sleep and high on caffeine, but that’s what college was supposed to be, right? Besides exhaustion, the occasional bad exam, and the “soy sauce” that stained the ground and assailed my nostrils from November to March, nothing bad ever seemed to touch Amherst.

That was until the election fraud. Until people started talking about the role of frats on campus. Until the day Angie Epifano brought her photography project into my Photo I class for a critique. Angie had been working in the dark room alongside all of us for the whole semester. She helped us with our prints, gave advice on exposure times, and generally just chatted with us during the long hours under the red glow of the safety lights.

I didn’t know her well, and had only had a few brief but friendly conversations with her. We knew she was working with our professor on an independent studies course, and when she came to our critique, I was curious to see what she’d spent the whole semester working on. She stood next to the neat rows of self-portraits she’d mounted on the wall. We took in the mass of images: Angie on her bed, standing up, lying down, posing, looking uncomfortable, smiling but not smiling. The photographs were powerful, unsettling, and almost painful to look at. Angie quietly explained that she was exploring the theme of trauma, but I didn’t think it needed to be said.

However, others in my class didn’t feel the same. They didn’t seem to understand what Angie meant by “trauma.” I remember wincing at the questions they asked her, questions that she quoted exactly in her article: “You look funny…I don’t get it, why are you so upset?” She didn’t seem to know how to answer. I wanted to say something, to make them see what they were doing. But I didn’t know what to say, or how to explain what seemed so obvious to me. So I just sat there, silent.

“Silence has the rusty taste of shame.”

On Friday afternoon, I participated in the Rally to End the Culture of Silence. As I stood in the rain and listened Amherst and Five College students tell stories of sorrow and survival, I thought about the silence and the apathy that had slowly pervaded my life. I was silent when my friends at home used “gay” as a synonym for stupid. I was silent when people told jokes where sexual assault was the punch line.

As the rally continued, I noticed one of the windows opening on the second floor of the Lord Jeffrey Inn. A small boy stuck his head out, naturally curious about a large crowd shouting into a megaphone. He listened for a while, and then disappeared, only to return a minute later with a man, presumably his father. He tilted his head upward at the much taller man, maybe asking a question about what we were doing. They stood there and listened together for a moment, and then the man shut the window and led the boy away.

Let us not shut our windows from what is difficult to hear. It’s time to speak up, take action, and make a change in our world.