Don't be put off by the headline. Kenyon students love the place, that's a given. We all do. But after we've been here long enough to become true inhabitants -- say, three weeks -- we learn to express our love the Kenyon way. That is, we gripe. Complaining is one of life's pleasures, and, like so many other things, it seems to be sweeter and more intense on top of this far-away Ohio hill.
Perhaps it's the syndrome of Kenyonesque smallness magnifying everythig, from local legends to local landmarks...to local aggravations. One could argue that in Kenyonesque isolation, legendary landmarks are bound to aggravate us at times.
Perhaps it's just February: not just the real February of black-morning sleet storms turning Middle Path into a death march, but the metaphorical February of reality-bruising mythology -- as when Ascension Hall, one of Kenyon's dream castles, loses some of its allure during a semester of 8:00 a.m. climbs up the endless staircases to face another Latin quiz.
We who fell in love with lovely Gambier Hill feel betrayed when she reveals her blemishes. And she inevitably does, especially when we're stressed out. No wonder why we end up imagining a Kenyon Golden Age besides which our own Kenyon falls short. And so, just as inevitably, our Kenyon chauvinism takes on a tinge of the curmudgeon.
Here are a few things that prove we are real Kenyonites, because we love to grumble about them.
Location, Location, Location
Generation after generation, the wide-eyed innocents come up the Hill and are smitten. Then at some point they realize that when Philander Chase looked out over the rustic expanses where he chose to hide his school, he said not, “It's fabulous, I love it!” but “This will do.”
So the founder blessed us all. And doomed the young scholars to spend their peak hormone years in a place where nightlife means that the skunks come out from under the porches to swagger on the sidewalks. Yes, Ohio isolation can rankle. No place to shop. No place to eat. No place to carouse in the style to which they would like to become accustomed.
They can console themselves, at least, with the knowledge that deprivation builds character. Kenyon kids learn to make do. While their peers in cosmopolitan America are organizing munchie runs to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, Kenyon veterans know that everything they really need in life is available close at hand, in two rough-hewn heartland syllables: Kroger.
The administration insists on calling them “residence halls,” but “reside” is a prim word for the nature of existence in these seldom-tranquil haunts that the students do their best to both domesticate and destroy.
Kenyon students make their dearest friends and funniest memories in the dorms. But they take a special pleasure in chanting a litany of the dorms' creature discomforts. The dorms are too hot. Or too cold. The windows leak, the linoleum is chipped. The College's secret system of boilers and steam tunnels somehow fails to produce hot water in the showers during the five minutes between when Bob or Dick rolls out of bed and the start of English 103. (Caitlin and Meredith somehow manage to plan ahead.) The rooms are never big enough. And everything seems to, um, smell. That couldn't be the aroma of youth?
Now we are entering the era of sumptuous “townhouses.” Everybody wants to live in one of these pleasure palaces. But somehow fate in its unfairness always assigns the high-end real estate to somebody else. (See “Housing Lottery.”) So: more grumbling. In any case, give the townhouses time. With use, they'll take on the eternal student patina of grunge.
The leaves are spectacular on one of those perfect October days. But, to be honest, it takes a big heart and a blind eye to love Middle Path all the time. Into each life a little rain must fall. That comforting philosophy comes alive on Middle Path in the form of mud that oozes, spreads, and reaches up to caress. Shoes crud over. Sneakers soak through. Even the girls' brightly colored wellies fade.
When the slush, snow, and ice season gets under way, Middle Path shows its vengeful side—not just messy but also treacherous. For students, there's some cheer in the knowledge that, if they slip and break a leg, Security will give them a golf cart, so that they can bump along, hogging the whole pathway and annoying everyone else.
It's hard to imagine Middle Path without its untidy gravel and the satisfying crunch of pebbles lodging in the soles of Reeboks. But sometimes gravel is easier to love in the abstract. Ask women what gravel does to heels. The solution, perhaps, is for the students who have bad-Path days to suck it up (and muck it out) for four years, after which they become alumni—for whom all of Kenyon is forever a lovable abstraction. Did Middle Path ruin all of your socks? Sure. That was part of the magic.
The Housing Lottery
It's not fair. It can't be fair. If it were, the students wouldn't bitch so much about their bad luck.
Students are addicted to the high drama of the housing lottery, partly because everything else is more or less predictable in Gambier but mainly because the stakes are so high: their vision of luxury. For the same reason, they find the lottery appalling. How can their quality of life depend on the luck of the draw? The idea of chance controlling their fate: that's supposed to happen to other people, out in the cruel real world of real-life realities, not at Kenyon.
They resent the housing lottery because it reduces them to helpless children hoping, hoping, hoping for a lollipop. They're wary, because, even after they think they've understood the latest sub-bylaws, they suspect that Res Life has introduced new sub-sub-bylaws at the last minute. They have a feeling, too, that somebody else has figured out how to game the system. And they know that the lottery will always give off a whiff of deep mystery, because it's entangled with the ancient rites and blood feuds at the heart of Kenyon's tribal system: division housing.
On the other hand, when they luck out, all is right with the world. Geez, what's to complain about?
The case against the bookstore is that it committed the most egregious of Kenyon sins: it changed.
Once upon a time, it was a paradise of books and bagels. We sat, we chatted, we spent a quiet moment with a novel. The College in its wisdom created it—then, in its stupidity, changed it. That's the foul-weather wisdom, anyway.
Of course, the world changed, too, replacing the rustle of pages with a new, seductive paradise that streams 24/7 into our ear-buds and onto our screens. In Gambier, where the bookstore was once the place to hang out—because it was the only place to hang out—now we can lounge anywhere because the whole campus is wireless. As long as the laptop or cell phone battery hasn't run down, we can light up and let the digitalia wash over us. Even in the athletic center . . . while eating sushi.
Which is why we may yet see nostalgia doubling back and returning the bookstore to our fond bosom. The Kenyon way is to fundamentally distrust the new-fangled. And to want to feel different. So, even as we slurp the gourmet delights of cyberspace, we will now and then seek a refuge from electrons and sushi (and, hey, anybody can find sushi, anyway, in a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike).
We will look for a place with real tables and chairs, where we can sit, converse, or turn actual pages . . . while munching on a cookie. And we will find this refuge in the bookstore. It won't be Eden anymore, and we'll complain about the price of the cookie. But it will feel cozily like Kenyon.
Kenyon has planted great art around the campus, but at some point each and every one of us has grumped about an artwork's aesthetic worth or its location, or we've simply taken out our frustrations with other stuff by mocking the art.
One explanation is that art gets in your face. Students can zone out during introductory chemistry, but they can't quite ignore Henry Moore's Large Spindle Piece lifting its abstract angles in the middle of the science quad. And while there's no way on a chemistry test to escape objective judgment—i.e., there are many definitively wrong answers to each question—with art they're allowed to think whatever they please. When it comes to taste, all answers are right, right? Which is liberating, especially when you're in a bad mood.
So art makes for a convenient target when we want to rail or bicker. One day we're fond of the Rosse Hall angels; the next, we argue that they're a desecration of sacred ground. We marvel at Indian and Pronghorn Antelope behind Peirce, except for when we'd rather enjoy the view unobstructed. And then there's Renaissance Man and Woman, to which generations of Kenyon students have paid the ultimate compliment, dressing Man in a jockstrap and Woman in a bra.
Say what you want, you can't get a bra onto Large Spindle Piece.
The problem is anxiety, the evil twin of hope. For students, each semester brings with it the renewal of hope that the stars will align, producing a perfect schedule—all of their first-choice classes, none of which meets before noon. The only thing standing in the way is the registration process. If both afternoon sections of Baby Drama are already full, the whole plan falls apart.
To address the fears and ensure some fairness, Kenyon developed a quaint, hand-crafted registration procedure. The elves in the Registrar's Office actually went through all the scribbled enrollment sheets, individually, fixing it so that each student supposedly got at least one first choice. Then they went through all the paper forms again, looking at second choices.
Antiquated, incredibly labor-intensive, and sweet. Did some people get screwed? Well, there were always stories. But the point is that, whatever the merits of the hand-scooped method, stress still stalked the campus.
And still does, even with a new, improved all-online system that the College, in a spasm of modernity, introduced last fall. It's kind of nice to edge into the twenty-first century. If there's one thing students are comfortable with, after all, it's onscreen menus. But stress-free? The algorithm hasn't yet been invented that can soothe the worrywart.
At least the chaos of the drop-add period survives. So, of course, does the age-old option of begging a professor to open another seat even though the course is over-enrolled. It's reassuring to know that, even in the age of entitlement, supplication hasn't gone out of style.
...And Some Other Things
Things we just hate
The Gambier Tornado Siren. Does it have to be so deafening? And do they have to test it so often? And exactly at the moment we've stepped out of the post office?
Boil-Water Advisories. They always make us feel like Gambier exists either in the Middle Ages or the Third World.
Power Outages. Occasionally an adventure. But every time the wind blows? Please.
Parking. Somehow, in this tiny burg, there's never a spot when we need it, when we want it.
Skunks. THey nest under every porch in Gambier, have no natural enemies, and stink for days even when they're roadkill.
Gambier's "Roofed" Trash Cans. They force you to stick your hand in toward the garbage when you're throwing something away. Disgusting, and extremely dangerous in yellow jacket season.
Things we're embarassed to hate
The Great Hall. It's like hating Harry Potter. But the fact is, you can't hear yourself speak, the benches are all a throwback to a Dickensian orphanage, and the stained-glass windows don't include any foreign or postcolonial literature. Can't we just replace "The One-Horse Shay" with, say, Things Fall Apart?
Ascension Hall. Another architectural treasure -- but with flights of stairs that never end and a heating system that either never works or works too well.
Things we hate, depending on who we are
The Fraternities. Everyone hates 'em, except for those who love 'em.
The "Shock Your Mama" Party. Hated by the faculty and administration (who have such fusty notions of good taste and alcohol limits).
First-Year Sing. Actually, emotions are complicated here. The administration hates how the upperclassmen torment the freshman. The upperclassmen hate that Professor Locke seems to be making progress in civilizing the ritual. And the first-years are just befuddled.
Things we use to hate
Cell phones. Upperclassmen considered them "unKenyon" and persecuted anyone using one on Middle Path.
Lack of cell phone coverage. After we all got addicted to cell phones, we discovred that in Gambier they were useless. Bummer.
Things we stopped hating
Cell phones. Now that there's coverage and we can't imagine life without them, we've dropped them from the hate list.
The KAC. People ralied that it was a monstrosity. But somehow they can't stay away.
Getting to the Olin Gallery. You could see it, but you couldn't get there without a weird detour. The new Gund Gallery has made Olin just an ugly library again.
Things we hate to love
Gossip. It's a social poison, condemned by both Scripture and Dear Abby. But in the buzzing mini-world of Gambier, gossip is our nectar. Impossible not to indulge.