I’m sitting on a bench. This one was given by the class of 1938 with the caption “Sun down and enjoy the beautiful view! — we did.” There’s a sprinkler whose range stops just short of the bench, though the breeze brings it close enough to feel some mist on my leg. It’s spinning a small radius of wet grass. A fair amount of the water probably evaporates before even reaching the soil. I’m imagining all the men of ’38 gathered around the bench. It makes me want to sit elsewhere. This place cares so much about its grass being green that it frequently ropes off areas and unrolls a new stretch like a carpet installation. There’s probably a chart somewhere on the hard drive of some development analyst that shows the positive relationship between how verdant the grass and the funds donated by those visiting their “alma mater,” literally “nourishing mother.” I don’t think I will refer to Dartmouth in this way.
I withdrew from Dartmouth during the second or third week of the summer term in 2021. I had been on consecutively since the previous fall. A previously dull and aching sensation of burnout became urgent. My eyes ached. My campus involvement dwindled down to largely nothing. I couldn’t force my body to submit to more screen time outside of the minimum demanded by class and classwork, and the virus kept me inside. I was meditating, cooking healthy meals, and exercising, but my wellbeing continued to deteriorate. I was doing everything right: reaching out for help, going to therapy, taking my pills, and limiting alcohol.
I made the decision to withdraw after watching a professor shame a student for not reading the assignment in front the whole class—all in crackly audio and low resolution. I pressed CMD-W to leave the meeting instantly. Where was all the compassion that emails and releases from the administration promised would be coming? I emailed my dean to be considered for withdrawal.
Before I could even speak to a counselor for an evaluation, I had to provide my address and the phone number of my local police department. Is that what care looks like? The medical leave system seems to be designed to remove struggling students from every facet of life at or based around Dartmouth. To get desperately needed rest, I lost my campus job, access to college health services, Dartmouth counseling, outdoor programming, public space on campus and even my housing community. My dean and the counselor I spoke to lauded my decision to protect my mental health. They also uncomfortably explained that to medically withdraw from classes meant my literal exile from Dartmouth. Any mental health professional will tell you that community is an integral part of healing. I don’t know if it’s incompetence or malice that was the guiding principle of our leave system. Perhaps that’s a false dichotomy.
How does the college expect students to choose between healing and support? Sometimes the college chooses for you and forces you on leave. I withdrew voluntarily and luckily, I had a therapist outside of the college’s reach and I had secure, off-campus housing. I had a job outside of the college’s payroll. I don’t rely on the college for a visa. But plenty of folks rely on Dartmouth for one or more of those things.
I wish this place nourished its students the way it nourishes its grass. This train of thought makes me angry. I’m angry because I looked at a sprinkler in the daytime. I was trying to enjoy my chicken Caesar salad, sold to me at an egregious markup. Some of the lettuce on the bottom is so cold from the refrigerator case that it hurts my teeth. Some of the dressing landed on my shorts. I want to enjoy the view.
I think of the small plank of wood that memorializes Beau DuBray by mink brook. Every now and then I go to it, put my fingers on the sharpie and woodgrain. Sometimes I say something like “I hope you’re doing ok out there” and I wonder if I am saying it for me or for him. I feel the grooves on the bark and how they extend into the Earth, this tree’s roots entangled with all the others nearby in a network of fungi and electricity. I spent many years thinking of trees as individuals, but as Muriel Rukeyser says of Islands: “O for God’s sake / they are connected underneath.” I never had the fortune to meet Beau, but I feel a loyalty to him: I’ve lost several friends to suicide of the years, and I have struggled with debilitating depression while at Dartmouth. I think of that stanza of howl where Ginsberg just keeps shouting “Moloch!” Sometimes I feel like I am losing my mind but I know that it’s this place that is insane. Free ice cream sundaes. Adirondack chairs around fancy tables with propane fires. Mindfulness check-ins. So many programs and trinkets that don’t manage to keep people alive. Dartmouth is an endowment that happens to offer classes. At the risk of sounding prescriptive, I will offer this: find community. If you can’t find one that feels right, make it. Center people, not institutions. Believe what Dartmouth does, not what it says.
The Dartmouth Radical