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The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hiram College Reflections: Less is More

Hiram College was one of the few places where Mayberry still existed. You could run off with your friends for a late-night adventure through the woods, leaving your books and tape player on a table in a public building. You come back hours later, and everything would be just as you left it. If something were missing, it would be more likely that your friends were playing a trick on you than an opportunist looking for free stuff.

When you walk by people on campus, you would wave and smile. It wasn't to get something, but just to be friendly. Folks raised in the city would be shocked, because avoiding acknowledgement of strangers had been a survival mechanism for them.

My friends brought their spouses to visit campus for our reunion, and many were aghast. There are virtually no stores in town. There is virtually no town. How could you enjoy yourself at a place where even a midnight run to Taco Bell required a 30-minute drive to Kent, OH? The answer to this concern is actually self-evident, if you sit and think on it a bit. The massive campaign to work this out is one of college's greatest phenomena: The Road Trip--finding someone with a car, jamming as many people into it as possible, scrounging for dimes under vending machines, screaming and laughing out of car windows, getting lost on the way. If you don't see the fun in this, you are spending too much time thinking about your taco and not enough on the journey.

Hiram is as quaint as you can imagine--a perfect blend of Midwestern and New England charm. However, some of the most attractive features of Hiram were barely underway when I was a student: an tasteful chapel with gardens, a road that was eliminated and another re-routed to make way for a stone walkway, fancy new buildings, and an old dormitory restored.

Hiram has committed some sins in preserving its heritage, too. You hear about a gorgeous century building demolished to make way for a 1960s pale substitute (although by the time I went to school, those 60s amenities had taken on a retro charm). I like the replacement but appreciate what they’re saying. I would often bemoan the attention the college was paying to science and athletics, seeming to disregard its profound liberal arts tradition. Yet, it is clear that someone in Hiram has been fighting the good fight, as the Hiram I know seems as alive and well as it was then. Much has been done to maintain the charm of the place, and overall they have gone a great job.

All this is possible, because it really wasn't about the buildings.

Like all good things, Hiram is mystery. It is really tough to crack the secret of Hiram, but I will venture this: There was nothing to do. You would hear students endlessly complain about this. But when you and your neighbors learn to have fun with salt & pepper shakers while staying late in the dining hall on a snowy night, because there’s nowhere else to go (but truly no place else you’d rather be), then you have learned a lesson you can carry your entire life. Independence and personal choice are not all they are cracked up to be. Getting stuck with people and making the best of it . . . that is what life is about!

No, I’m not advocating for oppression here, only saying that dependence is the true seed of community. Sometimes being thrown into situations and having limitations brings out the best in all of us, stressful though it may be. The best gifts in life are living with a roommate, learning how to share things, finding clever ways to have fun rather than simply writing a check for it, and yes, having to put up with (and enjoy) the folks you’re with. It is learning to use your own muse as entertainment, rather than relying on your environment to provide you with the stimulus. We all have it within us, but at Hiram you nurture it.

Technology does much to isolate people, and I worry because Hiram has felt the pull of modernity, too. Doors seem to be locked more often than they used to be (and harder to jimmy, I hear). Individual dorm rooms are now wired for cable and internet. I even saw a TV set up in the hallway of a class building (to entertain commuter students??) My peers and I were caught in the middle of this transition. We heard about the infamous one phone that was available on each floor of a dorm building not long before us, and students had to work out a system for using it. Movie night was not where you invited your friends into your room to play VHS tapes, but it was a community-wide event where everyone turned out to see the film projected in the theater or on the side of a building in warmer days.

How many people made new friends because there was only one ride going to Taco Bell, and if you wanted in you would have to spend time with folks you didn’t know? I worry about all the shy students who find it easy to lock themselves into their room with private internet, cable TV and cell phones shielding them from ever participating in the community around them. I do hope that whatever makes Hiram great is still available to them.

There are many who wonder why they are unable to reclaim the joy of college in their later years. The answer is so obvious—the refuse to do the very things that made their college joy possible. They refuse to share their living space, refuse to share their possessions, and don't circulate in areas where other folks congregate. They long ago quit learning and wound down their exploring. They don't need to beg and borrow for food and rides. They drive alone in their car with their windows rolled up, wondering why they are lonely, irritated with anyone who gets in their way. A carload of giggling college kids passes them by, and they shake their head in annoyance. We all need people, but some folks don't act like it. We convince ourselves that we have matured to a new phase in life that is about paying bills and not bumming rides with your buddies, but the quiet depression we carry should be evidence that something is not right. It often takes necessity to coax us out of our shell. Blessed are the needy.

Hiram College has fewer students than some high schools. But again, the paradox holds true: While there are fewer people to know, odds are you will know more of them and in a deeper way than if you were on a bristling campus with tens of thousands of people streaming by you every day. Water, water everywhere—but not a drop to drink, as my grandmother used to say.

Hiram is certainly the Eclectic Institute it was christened to be. You have East Coast students of an upper-class background. There were also blue collar folks from about a 200 mile radius to keep everyone honest. You might even happen upon a few true local yokels. Hiram also attracts a large LGBT population, has a significant presence of international students and some playing sports. Many students are pre-med, drawn to the strong science program. I once did some calculations and realized that 1 out of every 5 males was a member of the football team (I did mention high school, right?) Its hard to believe.

Students often claim that "everyone knows everyone", but I have found that to be an overstatement. There were many I barely knew. There were times I was interested in a girl and could not figure out a way for our paths to cross no matter how hard I strategized. I had many lonely days and nights. Despite the proximity of everyone, you still had to get involved in activities in order to meet people. It was not always easy, but it always seemed within reach. I say this not to downplay Hiram or the people I scuffled with, only to point out that it wasn’t some kind of perfect life on the clouds. People were living on top of each other, and it was at times gossipy and rude--like all community.

As a final clarification, Hiram College offers a first class education. It works hard to make up for its small size and isolation by making available numerous study abroad opportunities (which are now common, but weren’t always so), excursions to local areas and by hosting worthy speakers and other programs. The claim that “there is nothing to do!” is not a reflection on the educational quality at all.

I could drop into a professor's office or see them walking on campus, and spontaneously spend the afternoon talking with them. They would accompany us frequently on excursions. It was the perfect environment for an inquisitive person like me who would often wander around looking for good conversation. Those whose only contact with professors was in class were missing at least half the show. The much-touted admissions line that "you'll have dinner at your professors houses" is a bit of an overstatement, but it did happen--But the notion that you'll have plenty of contact with professors if you choose to soak it up is absolutely true. By contrast, my sister (who went to a large state university) once called a professor at her home. The professor was horrified that their number could be so easily found and probably thought my sister was out to get her somehow. The prof quickly and anxiously got off the phone.

Hiram was a welcoming, safe stage on which to play out your life, low on stimulation but full of props. We were stranded together in a little place. A lot of people focus on the word "stranded", but those who get it understand the key word is "together."

5 comments:

  1. Hey, you could have wrote this and got into Hiram, USA too!! =)

    I have always told people when they ask me how I coped with a college stuck between dairy farms and nothingness, "If you couldn't find anything to do in Hiram, you had no imagination."

    How else did my hair end up "blue black" one bored Friday night?? =)

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  2. Ahhh... I missed the bus on that one.

    By the way, did you know that it is extraordinarily hard to get a copy of Hiram, USA?

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  3. Figures. My only piece ever published and no one can get a copy... =) (Probably because it's self-published by Hiram or something.)

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  4. They need a little link-y thing on their website, which I was not able to find.

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  5. You captured it perfectly Frank! Love the word "scuffling" - there's no better word for what hanging out at Hiram was like.

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