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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

Looking Beneath the Smiles, and Thawing Cold Fear

— On the eve of battle, Shakespeare tells us, King Henry put on a cloak and went in disguise among his soldiers to judge their morale and to learn what they were really thinking—things they would never say in the presence of their officers nor certainly in the presence of the king. But he also, later, went openly among the men after dark, offering greetings and reassurance. The first act refined his judgment, and the second strengthened their resolve. You can and should do both in your residential college as the time of new student arrival approaches.

You may not exactly be able to go in disguise among your students, but one thing you can do to judge the state of mind of some of your new members is to browse the abundance of weblogs (“blogs”) that are now everywhere on the net. I’m not suggesting that you try to track down your own students’ diaries, but there are so many out there written by students of high school and college age that almost any collection will reveal something to you.

In a random search this week, I found the following weblog entry from a young woman who is about to leave home for her first semester of college. I don’t know her name, I don’t know where she lives, and I don’t know where she will be going to school. She may turn up in a few days on your campus or on mine. But even if she herself doesn’t, others like her will. When you see her, she will be smiling and friendly. But if you put on the king’s cloak you can discover what is beneath the surface.

This whole school thing is really eating away at me. Literally. I haven’t been eating. I haven’t been sleeping. I haven’t paid attention to anyone. Everyone who has been around me is so frustrated. I’m so fucking withdrawn, and everything anyone says just goes over my head, because I’m too wrapped up in worrying to pay attention.

I have 9 days left. Not even. Friday is all dedicated to leaving, so 8 days. I’m so afraid. My roommate and I are going to be so incompatible. She’s a cheerleader/sorority chick. I can deal with that if she doesn’t come back to the room drunk or with a different guy each night. I don’t know. I only spoke with her once, when she called a week ago. I guess I should have called her, but I’m too scared. And I don’t know what else to say. I’m useless.

My mother refuses to come up to help move me in. So, it’s just myself and my father. I’m going to hate it there. I’ll go to class, and do my work, and spend the rest of the time counting down the days until I can return home. They’re all going to hate me, and think I’m some mutant creature. Some anti-social, shy, quiet, ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly loser.

And all I did today was prepare. I laundered clothes, and ironed, and packed. I sorted through books, and packed. I looked through all sentimental objects, and figured out which ones were absolutely necessary to have with me. So far, I’m taking a Van Gogh book, a dried rose, a couple movie ticket stubs, some photos, a few cards, letters, little notes and such. I have to buy a little box of some sort to keep all that stuff in.

I don’t want to go. Oh gosh. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to be all alone. I don’t want to be hated. I don’t want to feel like even more of an outsider than I already do. I’m so not ready for this. I can’t talk to people. I can’t do this.

How can we relieve the terrible anxiety shown above? In part, by following King Henry’s example again. On the evening of move-in day for your freshmen, after dark, the master and the dean of a residential college should walk every corridor and staircase and pause for a minute or two at every open door—and most will be open with the chaos of unpacking and arranging furniture. A minute or two of greeting—a story about moving in, a comment about a special picture or favorite object, a word of welcome—if offered on the night of arrival, after dinner and after dark, but not so late that they won’t have time to talk about you afterwards, will strengthen your society wonderfully, as Shakespeare knew:

For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour
Unto the weary and all-watched night:
But freshly looks and overbears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal, like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear. Then mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016