Opening the window

At the end of every information session, the Williams College admissions counselors offer sage (though necessarily vague) advice on how to get accepted to Williams – how to woo your reader and persuade him or her to send you that giant purple folder. Part and parcel of this advice is how to write your supplemental essay on your personal “window.” In an information session I once co-gave with former admissions counselor Derrick Robertson, he counseled prospective students to not write what they saw literally outside of their windows. I believe a direct quote was, “I don’t care about the tree you can see from your house.” Well, oopsies, ’cause I had literally written about what I saw outside of my window, and I distinctly remember the crimson blush on my face as the words tumbled out of Derrick’s mouth. Obviously, I had used some fancy and impressive SAT words to describe the craggy oak tree, the freshly paved road that still smelled of tar that summer and the aging golden retriever who somehow always ended up on our lawn. Regardless of my vocabulary, I was embarrassed of the superficiality of sentiment it expressed.

I was uncomfortable with the person who could claim that a physical entity, a tree and a road and a dog, somehow meant something, somehow defined me. I felt naïve. I go back in my mind to that information session often – though not as often as I go back to the information session where I accidentally told horrified parents that my Winter Study class titled “Beyond Hooking Up” made me a better lover. Rather, I go back to it because I’m no longer ashamed of that childish essay; I’m ashamed that I was ashamed. Embarrassment was an inadequate response. I took the feeling that made me uncomfortable, and I stored it away, I filed it deep down where no one else would detect it, but it would always nag at me.

Last night, as I was walking back from a friend’s thesis defense and as this campus was slowly learning of serious allegations against our administration, one of my best friends said to me, “It’s strange how when everything is falling apart at Williams, the outside is so calm.” We walked past Paresky lawn, where a couple of people were stargazing and there were soft lights warming up Frosh Quad, and everything was still. From the outside, it was almost as if nothing was happening. It was almost as if tragic events from last fall were not still tearing at us.

But they were. And the stillness in which the Berkshires insulated us was false; it was only skin deep. Last night, almost five years after I wrote my crappy window essay, I figured out why I was ashamed of it. It wasn’t because someone I respected had counseled 50 strangers not to do something my way. It was because I had refused to dig deeper into what made me. This week, as the ramifications of the story printed in the pages of this issue affect our campus, I have no doubt that students will still sunbathe on Chapin Beach or amble down to Lickety Split to get their purple cow fix. These images of Williams won’t change, and I’ll always remember the purple mountains and how Hopkins Gate looks covered in snow. But I’ll also remember that these images, the constructed memory we have of Williams, is false.

You can’t put this place on a postcard, drop it in a mailbox and expect it to mean something. Williams doesn’t work like that. We have to dig deeper into the things we see here. We can’t enter Paresky, grab our curly fries and move on with our day. We have to tangle with the people and the ideas that make us uncomfortable, with the things we don’t want to think about when the sun (finally) beckons us to the Green River. I don’t mean that you need to write an op-ed or publish an anonymous manifesto about what makes you uncomfortable or discontent with this place. It is, however, imperative that you think about what makes you uncomfortable or discontent with this place.

It’s not okay to shove aside what happens here as someone else’s problem or to scoff at the people who care because you think they’re overreacting. Whether you are troubled by Michael Bloomberg’s policies or Chance the Rapper’s lyrics or whether you have been affected by sexual assault is irrelevant. What is relevant is that your friends, your entrymates, your teammates and your classmates are affected by them, and as a member of their community, it’s your duty to step outside of yourself and contemplate how others are affected. I’m not sure why you wrote your personal window essay, but I wrote mine to have access to a community of students who cared – about one another, about the issues facing us and about this place. I wanted access to a community that nurtured the individual and the collective. But witty and creative as the personal window essay may be, it’s flawed because the purpose of a community – which is what Williams ultimately aspires to be – is that you share a window with 2100 other people.

Nicole Smith ’14 is a political science major from Midland, Mich. She lives in Prospect.

  • Hm

    Wow, another Nicole Smith op-ed!

  • Christine

    Very insightful, Nicole. The count 2100, though, is just a fraction of the souls that are affected by Williams decisions about what qualities are important. A window is transparent. Williams decisions, policies, and actions are often not at all open to view or discussion. This a huge loss of potential educational impact, as well as a loss of opportunity to bring about needed improvements. A more perfect Williams is a work in progress.