The “Amherst Agency”


(Elaine Vilorio)– I am fascinated by people. It’s unsurprising, then, that my favorite poem is about and titled “People.” In it, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko writes the most genuine and poignant line I’ve ever come across: “Not people die but worlds die in them.” Essentially, there is no such thing as a typical human being. Yevtushenko goes beyond the “Everyone is unique” cliché. He acknowledges that every person has a story—a rich and complicated story—that contributes to the absolutely un-boring makeup of mankind. He acknowledges that people are people, linked by common threads, but that when a person goes away, something goes away with them. Expanding upon the imagery of “common threads,” I think of a quilt. The quilt is infinitely increasing and decreasing in size. Each patch on the quilt is different. Sometimes, it’s difficult to find distinctions between patches; we take people for granted and group them, erasing their individual identities. But, if one looks hard enough, the differences are there. And, differences come and differences depart. And, isn’t that absolutely grand? Isn’t it grand that we are all microcosms, albeit temporary ones, within this macrocosm of a society? Ultimately, Yevtushenko urges you to consistently be conscious and appreciative of the “worlds” or, using my metaphor, “patches” that are each and every one of your peers.

For all of our lamenting about Amherst’s social culture, ours is a community that respects (although imperfectly) Yevtushenko’s earnest request. Let me explain.

Amherst College is always abuzz, whether outwardly or subtly, with the talk of human interaction and the conveniently labeled “Amherst Awkward.”As of late, the buzz has been overt. Just a couple of days ago, Janita wrote about the discomfort that comes with greeting a person you met during Orientation and never befriended afterwards. Another student wrote about similar sentiments on Twitter: “What happened to that ‘I wanna meet new people’ vibe from Orientation? People started showing their true colors. That’s what.” Recently, Amherst Confidant posted the video of “The Hello Song” from Dragon Tales with the caption, “I think this is great advice for Amherst…” It seems Amherst students are hesitant to genuinely interact, not just with each other, but with faculty, general staff, townspeople, everyone. And, this isn’t a new phenomenon. In a world where everything is moving so fast, we draw into ourselves. We fiddle with our phones to avoid looking at actual human faces while we walk on the street. We’re taking our peers for granted, ignoring the marvelous truth that “worlds” exist in them. But, upon closer scrutiny, are we really totally doing that?

All claims about the “Amherst Awkward” are true, but only to a certain unexaggerated extent. If anything, Amherst is the place where exploring the “worlds” around us is more plausible than anywhere else. If we took the chance to see this, we wouldn’t be so quick to make silly alliterations.

I could never fully implement my fascination with people during my years in high school and at home. I felt too boxed in. I felt that, were I to be open with people, I would be judged too harshly. I felt comments would go along the lines of “Why is this girl attempting to have a conversation with me? Why is she saying hello to me in the hallways? Why is she making eye contact with me? Weird.” And perhaps, this is what some people feel here. I can’t rightly tell you why, but when I arrived on campus, I instantly felt more comfortable being myself. Maybe this is due to the fact college is a new step in my life, a chance to be me without the judgment of people who have seen my sometimes unflattering stages of development. Maybe it’s due to the intellectual tolerance, where you aren’t a “geek” or a “nerd” because, in hindsight, everyone is. Whatever it was that made me open up, I can tell you that, in the short span of time I’ve been here, I’ve had some of the most rewarding human interactions of my entire life thus far. I, along with people I’m learning to call friends, am exploring the “worlds” around me with little inhibition.

I never stopped introducing myself to strangers after Orientation. Neither did some of my peers. We initially get odd looks, but the walls come down when the friendliness is so forthright. I’ve met a lot of incredible people that way, people I wouldn’t have otherwise met had I chosen to look the other way while strolling on the Quad. And, that’s not it. I keep saying “hi” to these people! That process in particular is socially painful, and I can’t quite pinpoint why. Regardless, I try. Today I apologized to someone who I stopped greeting after introducing myself to him at the beginning of the year. For all of my efforts, I inevitably make mistakes. And, I can’t even really tell you why I stopped greeting him in particular when I continued doing so to others. I got caught up in the same school of thought I am rejecting now. For this reason, I had to apologize, whether he cared to hear it or not. Oftentimes, these interactions go beyond a greeting. To provide an example, I had a great conversation about the psychology of relationships with a person I only knew through a mutual friend. It was as simple as running into each other and sitting down on a couch in Keefe and talking for a good hour and a half. And, I could enthusiastically go on. One on-campus experience in particular resounds with me. Last week, a group of friends and I walked into Professor Sarat’s office. We weren’t his students, nor had we ever spoken to him before. We simply walked in, introduced ourselves, and ended up having a 50-minute conversation about topics ranging from educational policy to on-campus drinking culture (we would have continued had he not had to get ready to go to his son’s play). He told us something remarkable: “In all of my 40 years of teaching, I’ve never had random students just show up to talk.” At a place like Amherst, I could hardly believe that. And yet, it is because we are at a place like Amherst that our interaction with Professor Sarat was possible.

At Amherst, I’ve actually been learning to be less awkward. I even put my newfound skills to the test off-campus (read: the “real world”). I was eating sushi in town the other day when my ears perked up. I was hearing a woman behind me talking in Caribbean Spanish, a dialect I hadn’t heard since leaving my very Dominican neighborhood. My friend and I introduced ourselves. It turned out she was a graduate student studying Latino/a Studies at UMass, particularly the sub-discipline of Latino/a Studies I’m primarily interested in. She shared advice and experience I would have never heard had I chosen to keep to myself. But, at the simplest level, I got to meet a person with perspectives that were new to me.

The “Amherst Awkward” is what you make of it. It’s noteworthy to mention that, for all of my appreciation of people, I’m an introvert. I enjoy being by myself, and sometimes being around people is exhausting. But, at the end of the day, I attempt to forge meaningful and honest intercommunication. It’s important to do so in a world that’s slowly overlooking that societal component. Plus, people are just too damn interesting. And, since we love alliterations so much, I propose the “Amherst Agency.” Amherst is giving me the agency to execute Yevtushenko’s assertion. It’s giving all of us this agency. Let’s not waste it.