And who can blame us? The Amherst campus is primed and primped to a degree of fairytale-ness on a daily basis. Our bathrooms and common spaces and hallways are cleaned, vacuumed and polished to a regular shine. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided every day of the week, and as much as we might complain, Val is so much better than a lot of other dining halls out there. In our daily routine, we take for granted everything that is provided. We create an illusion that this is the whole world (though granted, for a few of us, it actually is), and that all of those horrible things we discuss in class are a virtual, figurative part of our studies. No matter what our background is, living the Amherst life sucks us in. We begin to think of these problems as actually existing only in theory, providing fodder for our intellectual debates.
It usually takes something shocking to snap us back to reality, and for many of us, that means service work over Interterm, summer vacation or a semester abroad. For me, it was a summer teaching underprivileged Latino kids in upstate New York. With the Face to Face Buddies program, I got the chance to work with some great, normal kids, whose only deviations from the “Amherst student” norm were their socioeconomic and political statuses. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that this made all the difference in the world. The not-for-profit program struggled with a lot of resistance from the community and a dearth of active support from local organizations, all of whom disagreed with the mission of the program: to provide educational enrichment and emotional support to children of immigrant parents and children who are immigrants themselves. The parents of these children are hotel housekeepers, nannies, janitors-all of whom play essential roles in American society.
In the least melodramatic way that I can put this, it was a very disillusioning introduction to the callousness of the world. I had gotten so used to the basic assumptions behind the Amherst student body-the tacitly understood agreement on human rights for all, common respect for every individual and support for those less fortunate. And in a very self-centered manner, I began to wish that everywhere were Amherst. My narrow perspective still revered Amherst as the most open and liberal center of the universe.
Some time this summer, however, it hit me that Amherst students are the kind of people who will one day grow up and get high-end careers and eventually move to places like upstate New York. And one day, the lovely alumni folk of Amherst College could very potentially be the same ones oppressing programs like Buddies. The tacit understanding that I have always taken for granted might in fact not exist as ubiquitously as I thought. At Amherst, it is so easy to lull ourselves into believing that the real world consists of self-cleaning residences, self-prepared food and self-created ice rinks that we forget to open our eyes and take a closer look at what surrounds us. To take it a step further, we forget to think a little deeper about who actually plants, fries, scrubs, sweeps, paints and shovels everything that comes together for us every day. As we grow older, it might become even easier to get so wrapped up in our own lives that we increasingly turn a blind eye to all the little things around us and cease to appreciate the people who gave them to us. More importantly, we could steel and condition ourselves against giving back to them. I hate to think that the people with whom I am enjoying Amherst, and even I, myself, may turn out to be some of those who forget about the fundamentals: human rights for all, common respect for every individual and support for those less fortunate.
The people who make our lives so pleasant at Amherst, indirectly (the truck driver in Wisconsin) and directly (the omnipotent janitor in North College), do indeed have their own lives and families. They live to live, not to serve, and we need to be more conscious of this fact as we go about our own lives. Everywhere that we go, there is always someone out there who made it possible, and it’s usually someone we don’t think of.
The upper class in the area where I worked this summer seems either to be unaware of or actively chooses to ignore this fact, and as a result, lives and works in hypocritical circumstances. They live at the peak of a mountain but don’t think of its foundation. They consider themselves more important than those who are holding them up-the people who keep their daily lives running smoothly. What I witnessed this summer was not common appreciation but hostility, and I only saw the tiniest corner of the country. The upper socioeconomic class that is so blind and deaf and ignorant of its surrounding lower socioeconomic class consists of educated people, much like us, who forgot from an early age that humans are of an interdependent nature. They learned to dehumanize the blue-collar work that goes on without their noticing, and are consequently leaving their “foundation” to crumble.
Where does this leave me? It leaves me with writing a newspaper article that I hope will be read and taken to heart by some, and at least read by others. Compared to the big issues I tried to bring up, I can only think of a few small things to do about them. I know that I will never look at Amherst so naively again. I won’t let myself sweep past the people who work here as if they are plastered against the walls, and I will show respect and appreciation, in any way that I can find. I won’t assume that everyone here is as conscious as I’d like to believe, but I will humbly hope that Amherst students will find ways to escape the Bubble once in a while, just to ground themselves and to put things into perspective.
For new students (and old ones!), there are many ways to contribute to the world outside of the College. The Campus Organizations Fair on Sept. 5 will introduce a plethora of community service opportunities available in Amherst, Holyoke, Springfield and other towns within the Pioneer Valley. It’s the perfect place and time to gather lots of information about all of the activities out there, to ask questions and to learn how to get involved.
Chau can be reached at [email protected]