From my seat here in Mason Hall, I can hear the constant clicking open and closing of the doors, the sounds of hundreds of fellow students filing in and out. I can see these students ignoring their peers’ efforts to try to get them to acknowledge their work on campus, with, at most, a donation, but more likely, about 15 seconds of time — but the sacrifice is too great for these students. I acknowledge my guilt in these situations as well. Rushing to class, how dare anybody try to stop me?
Sitting here, though, hearing and watching all of this happen, I notice this guy next to me who is eating a banana while plugged into his computer screen, watching a YouTube video of some man talking. Every now and then, the fellow to my right chuckles to himself; alas, he has just scarfed down the last of the ripe banana that he has been caressing in his right hand for some time now — but instead of feeling the all-too-familiar loss-of-banana blues, our man produces the most ferocious of chuckles yet (still silent, totally to himself, but as a witness sitting just a few feet away from him, I see the extraordinary passion in his eyes; this chuckle is like no other), his eyes still glued to the screen. Suddenly, his face turns serious, and his hand lowers onto the control pad of his laptop — perhaps he will now be changing videos, moving on from this moment that has provided him with an intimate session of joy that no one, besides me, has noticed.
I wonder how he would react to knowing that this laughter was not actually private, that it has all been observed by me. Who am I to this person? Nobody — a student, a random student, and sure, he and I go to the same school, but that does not actually feel like it means all that much, does it? This shared affiliation of ours does not provide enough information for me to confidently guess anything about this person — his background, his beliefs, anything. So, in effect, I am nothing to this person. I don’t mean anything to him.
And this happens thousands of times, every day — passing by students on the Diag or sitting next to them in the Undergraduate Library. These are students whom I have never seen before and may as well never see again. Sometimes, I might even have a nice exchange with one of them — earlier today, sitting here, a girl offered part of her table for the endless school supplies billowing out of my backpack. “No,” I said. “It’s fine. But thank you!” And we shared a smile, but then it was immediately back to business; she focused once again on her computer, and me on mine. But I want more! I thought. You seem gentle and kind! Can we be friends?
This question of intimacy, then, becomes very important to my Michigan experience: where to find it, how to properly test its validity.
I have found that this phenomenon of passing strangers, of having no reliably informative link between me and my peers, can often make attending this university very difficult. It can feel like I am not making up any ground, like my experience here is becoming no more personalized or intimate or regulated by me. It instead feels like this stream of strangers will continue endlessly, regardless of the friends I make, and that I will always feel tiny here, I will always struggle to believe my presence here changes anything, at all.
The challenge becomes, then, to make friends whom you trust and care about enough; friends who will make the experience here feel sufficiently used; friends who provide ample space for me to feel socially relaxed. But this creates perhaps the most destructive element of the Michigan social scene: Since the school is so huge and the feeling of isolation so scary, everybody (myself included) finds their friends and then clings to that group tightly, holding on for dear life, knowing no other option. In the end, the campus feels colder, because while people have formed bonds within their respective social groups, hardly anyone is invested in the larger community. Hardly anyone is invested in making new friends, friends beyond the group you already know, because to do this is to take a risk. We greet those people who do try to engage “strangers,” to begin a conversation across the all-too-rigid boundary, with silence.
This is what often makes it impossible, as I walk alone through our campus’s halls, for me to feel comfortable enough to be myself. And this lack of comfort makes me not want to stop for peers whom I do not know, even if those peers are trying to stop me for a valiant and worthy cause. Since I do not know you, since I have never seen you before and will never see you again, I have no reason to do you a favor. Sure, we go to the same school, but you are not a part of the group about which I care, the only group that matters to me.
And this has affected my experience here deeply, to the point that I have daily conversations with friends where we explicitly judge our peers based on shallow attributes — how they are dressed, whether they are in Greek life or not — and I find myself making these judgments about people before I even speak to them. Before coming to Michigan, I never did this — at least not as consciously and deliberately as I do now. My logic goes something like this: Because you are not what I know, because you share some things that I associate with groups on this campus with which I am not familiar, we cannot be friends.
And my hunch is, from hearing students who have never set foot in co-ops deride them for their “weird dirtiness” to others describing Greek life as entirely full of bad people, that I am not alone, that so many of us are complicit.
The identity question that divides this campus most, I think, pertains to Greek life: Are you in or out? But, for our purposes here, I think we can set aside our differences. I do not wish to make the point that this isolating and judgmental treatment of each other pertains only to one side of the social spectrum on campus. I have been kicked out of a frat party because of my non-Greek affiliation, even though I was just trying to hang out with a dear friend of mine from home, a freshman, during Welcome Week. Likewise, at a co-op, I was explicitly called out for wearing a specific brand of fleece. Two girls came up to me and sarcastically said, “Nice brand, man. How much did that cost?” Silently, dejectedly, I turned around and walked to the corner of the party where my friends were hanging out.
In our classes — conglomerations of students throughout the University’s social spectrum — we have 10 minutes set aside, often before the professor has arrived, before class has “begun.” And how do we use this time? We take out our phones or our laptops: achingly, urgently trying to reconnect with the familiar, because the world in front of us, inhabited by “strangers,” is too much to confront. Imagine a world without these gadgets, these crutches upon which we can rest any fear of having to interact with each other. Our colloquial nickname for these 10 minutes, “Michigan Time,” makes perfect sense, for this time serves as a microcosm of the entire university, of how we all treat each other all the time.
And it is not only students who are complicit in this problematic social environment. Throughout my time here, it has been rare to come across an instructor who cared enough about the class’s well-being to enforce conversation between students. Professors only learn their students’ names by the middle of the term, and that’s only if the class is small enough. This fosters an environment of apathy toward one another: I only care about the work you do here, and nothing more. I only care about what is relevant to me.
And every time it has happened that a professor comes into a classroom and enforces student-to-student, casual interaction, the entire class erupts with joy, and conversations flow, even if their content is shallow and benign. The burst is palpable: We can do this? This is allowed?
There was a time, earlier this year, when I was set on transferring from the University, largely because of these phenomena. I felt disenchanted and silenced on this huge campus. In one of several conversations I had with my father around this time, he told me the story of when he moved to New York City, and how initially, he felt similarly — that the millions of people whom he saw on a daily basis all seemed so rushed, so set on their own paths, that nobody had time to look around and check in on the greater community. But then, he said something that has guided me ever since: “But the answer was not to give up on the city, or to leave.” He did not leave, and has lived there since 1970.
In other words, I am still here because I believe this challenge is worth confronting. I believe that I ought not to run away from this instinct of mine to judge and to codify and to hold grudges with people whom I have never met. Instead, I, and we as a community, should face it as our shared reality, and try, as a community, to overcome it.
Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.