AT LAST ARRIVED, FRESH FROM PARALLEL MAJOR PRESS

Amidst This Mess Are Faces

In Uncategorized on December 9, 2009 at 12:42 am
Abstract

Fran Leibovitz wrote, “As a teenager, you are at the last stage in your life when you will be happy to hear that the phone is for you.” Truer words never spoken, not even by Fran. In a College of 1800 faces, we cross the threshold from 19 to 20 under special pressure, beset by the onrush of personal responsibility in a world without privacy. For the journalist who is also a neighbor, friend, rival, lover and peer to his subjects, such close quarters give rise to an anxious accountability. The lines dividing news from gossip and image from impression suddenly become urgent questions laden with consequence. How do words written in dormitory solitude come to ring untrue in the echo of the dining halls? What must be told outright and what should be kept secret? Lilah Raptopoulos unpacks the unique quandries of collegiate journalism on the hyperpublic campus, reflecting on the first time her phone rang and she wished it were for anybody else. -Ed.

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This is a story of representation, of misplaced anger and dismissive hearsay rolling down the footpaths of a small New England liberal arts college. The story involves an interview, a depiction, and a school that struggles with a deeply imbedded love-hate relationship with its lack of privacy.

I wrote an article about a girl we’ll call Sarah Banks.

In truth, I did not set out write about her, but rather to write an article exploring why students transfer out of my college framed within Sarah Banks’s story. Banks read like this: studious girl from prestigious prep school comes to small NESCAC after many rejections, with guaranteed transfer after one year to an Ivy League.  She was meant to be a hypothetical stand-in for a culture of students that view my college as a stepping-stone; structurally, her personal anecdote would lead into the greater story of what students find unsustainable about our school.

I did not know her well personally.  Through stories overheard over Sunday Morning brunch in the dining hall, I gathered that she had a vaguely salacious reputation.  One night I was invited to dinner with her and a mutual friend.  She told a story about being drunk the night before and forcing herself into a classmate’s bed.

“I got his number from someone else and called him, like, five times.  I’m such a creep.  But my friend said he was easy to get with, and he does that weird sport professionally, so…you’ve seen his body.  God, it was such a mess.  Lilah,” she said, fingering my necklace, “This is really pretty.  Anyway, did you hear about the time I peed myself?”  The girl had no secrets.

Something about her I liked.  She was scattered and unrefined.  During the second half of dinner she told a story with equally brazen vigor about a trip she was co-planning to bring humanitarian aid to Uganda.  So in the months that followed, I never actively registered the viciousness of her reputation. I had met her and found her funny, inspired, and surprisingly sweet; I knew her a little.

Four days before my deadline, I was on my friend’s dorm room floor shuffling listlessly through my collection of notes.  These were my files: ripped out of notebooks, creased, many bordered with crusted dining hall remnants, they contained a slew of retention rates, transcript request numbers, and scripted, mundane interview transcriptions from students and deans.

“I may give up,” I told him.

“Interview Sarah Banks,” he said back.

I said that the paper was not for reintroducing the campus to people everyone already knows. And why didn’t I stop myself then?

“But if everyone knows her,” he said, “They’ll want to know what she has to say.  And if you want honest, you want Banks.”

Two days later I had my interview. Four hours and 2,000 words later, I had my story.  My writing process back then worked like this: the moment it resembled a finished product, the piece was perfect.  Naturally, hours before print its flaws surfaced like ants from between kitchen counter tiles.  I would make internal excuses and will my work’s shortcomings to die on the page, because trying to restructure a piece of writing two hours before deadline is like trying to wash a piece of paper.

Among many things I’ve learned: if the writing doesn’t speak alone for the issues it provokes, it’s not done.  If it’s not done, those issues, not dead but hidden in the grout of the kitchen counter of your mind, reproduce and resurface as an indestructible army.

I watched Banks in scene as I wrote, but never did I explain what she looked like on the evening I interviewed her: heavy eyes, long, brown, unkempt hair she flipped a lot, tiny pajama shorts, a curvy, messy, licentious girl-woman. I did not say that the way she responded was direct, decided, impressively bold, stripped of bullshit.  At one point she looked at me squarely and made a point about our school’s repute that was so unacknowledged, so hard for our students to ever consciously hear or admit, that I printed it word for word: “This college was stigmatized by my high school as being the NESCAC that rich private school kids go to when they don’t get in anywhere else,” she said. “Just because of that I was bred to believe this was a second rank school. And that’s awful, but it’s ingrained in me.”

For all the attention I gave to her comments, I assumed my version of her eccentricities was implied: she was the quasi-babe you saw running around campus on a Saturday night, throwing an arm around one suspecting male and then running off to another, her shirt riding up above her navel, the next day’s Facebook pictures sloppy reminders she was too unapologetic to untag.  I credited the College Community with knowing Sarah Banks, but unfortunately, the College Community did not know Sarah Banks in the romanticized form I held in my own mind.

When I was editor of my high school newspaper I wrote a piece about cyber-bullying.  It was framed around a group of popular students who started a Facebook group attacking a Native American girl we’ll call Alicia Miles. Miles had complained about racist representations of our mascot, the Warrior, and on the group site they slandered her with phrases as rough as “Ugly Sasquatch bitch” and “Native American cunt.”  I printed it.  No censors, no transparent shift-key letter replacements.  I thought the harshness of the language would speak for itself, but spent the Day of Print with “cunt” pounding in my head, over and over.  In the library, cunt-cunt- at lunch, cunt- passing the social elite targeters themselves, cunt-cunt-cunt-

When you write about a sensitive subject, that day you see it, stacked in public places, your full name constantly grabbing at your peripheral vision, consists simply of a rush of impending. Being unable to pinpoint an adverb to follow “impending” is what’s most exhausting.  You know your peers and educators will come across it blindly, almost coincidentally, and once their eyes fix, you as the writer have no control.  When a reader attaches to a piece of writing, she starts a dialogue with the piece that the writer is no longer active in.  The writing must be prepared for that moment – its job is to be sure of its point, expound on that point, and defend it all at once.

When my writing feels unsuccessful, the last thought on that Day of Print is always, “Why didn’t I just mind my own business?”

Like others, this Day of Print elicited The Wrong Response. I wanted praise for my article on student transfers, hoped its audience would recognize my in-depth research and witty implications.  I reread the piece several times that day, each time glazing over its wobbly potholes and basking in its strengths.  Each time I finished tickled by its conclusions: students shouldn’t blame personal unhappiness on a solid institution; the decision to transfer has underlying complexities; our deans have a secret priority to retain potential student leaders. The point of the piece seemed strikingly clear. But outside my own biased thoughts, all I heard were snips of Banks’s name from passersby, harsh little jabs that spiked out of mumbled conversations.

The dining hall was buzzing with gossip about my subject.

“Did you read the article about Sarah?”

“I can’t believe she called this a second rank school.”

“She ruined it for herself.”

I was told that “everyone’s talking about your article, you know.  No, no, it was really well written. We just can’t get over what she said.”

There’s that ‘she’.

Those conversations often ended with, “But I haven’t finished it yet.”

My phone was subsequently buzzing with voicemail messages from my protagonist, now enraged and frantic, pointing fingers at my misconstructions and complaining of harassment from her peers.

I ignored the steady vibration coming from my book bag as I sat through my classes.  They were short, harsh.

Cunt-cunt-cunt.

The social units that combine to make up my small liberal arts college comingle in integral places, our interactions dictated or at least impelled by our physical surroundings.  Our campus is shaped like an oval, the buildings a sisterhood of white, stone, scholarly structures that sit on its periphery facing in.  The center hosts our three most preferred points of watching and being watched: the student center on weekend nights, the library on weekdays, and an enormous, clear, rolling green, which, on warmer days, is populated by Ultimate Frisbee practice, Varsity Soccer players, Ralph Lauren bikini-donned bodies tanning, homework doers, pot smokers, groups posing with digital cameras.  This often self-defined “bubble” is surrounded by gates, all of which lock up come nightfall.  And so despite attempts to hide within defined spheres, as is possible in a university, students at our college cannot simply confine themselves to their sorority, or their hockey team, or their debate club.  They are forced to interact; information leaks, spreads and skews wildly.

Just like in TV high school, the social stereotypes we sustain end up attributed to specific faces to make for easy identification.  Each other’s 2,000 faces the only ones that surround us from morning pee to nightly shower, essentially following the same schedule – studious quiet breakfasts, individual 4:30 workouts, boisterous 6:30 dinners, social 9:30 library study sessions.  We share the same space, and so we watch the same people.  Picture trying to fit dots into a five point star: each point allows for one dot, the ringleader or caricature ­of a given stereotype, while everyone else fits into a space somewhere in the middle.  The old-money, Nantucket Red-wearing, Exeter-alum sons and daughters assume a crosspoint to the coffee shop dwelling, Queer and Questioning singer songwriters, who stand beyond the drug-infatuated subculture of Dungeons and Dragons instigators, alongside the urban-suburban blasé  Hipsters, adjacent to our generically-dressed local and national Activists, across from our Boston accented, weight-shifting recruited athletes, beside our international constituency.  In truth, these five points may as well be fifteen or twenty, with overlaps among some and little to no interaction between others.  It’s like trying to map an incestuous family tree: lines get crossed.

But amidst this mess are faces that stand out as widely known.  These caricatures include our opinionated student leaders, ostentatious G-Class Benz drivers, overwhelmingly attractive men, overwhelmingly promiscuous women, and drug dealers.  This is why I found my poor protagonist, a female who speaks openly about her casual and frequent inebriated encounters, to be vilified.  Not because of her personality, but because she has become the public symbol of that particular culture of College Girl. She was an easy stand-in for something more than a group: she stood for the idea of unacceptable looseness.

Nothing I wrote about my interview with Sarah Banks was untrue.  I did not misquote her or misrepresent her point of view. I did, however, know my audience, and I allowed them to indulge in judging my subject based on their petty preconceived notion of her, just as I knew the ninth graders at Brookline High would giggle and point at a dirty word.  My internal defense, in both cases, said, “There will always be people who misinterpret what you say.  This is not for them.”

But the audience is never the specific few I decide I want as my audience.  It’s every person my piece of writing will potentially reach, in this case the entire student body of my academic institution. And Sarah Banks was not a hypothetical example of a student who wanted to transfer; she was the poster child for a decidedly “unrespectable” girl.  In a world of 1,900, the weird mix of forced interaction and dissolved privacy gives rise to caricatures that become spokespeople for their stereotypes; people reduced in the public eye to lightning rods for gossip. By ignoring my audience, I lost my message in the muddle of a gossip chain I had inadvertently helped to reinforce.

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