The View from South Campus: Our First Fall Break

It seems to me, in my infinite wisdom (the wisdom of froshpeople, the only true wisdom), that few things in this world are more enigmatic than Fall Break. The awkward child of the late summer holidays and the as-yet unrealized Thanksgiving vacation, Fall Break seeks to present itself as a welcome escape from the burgeoning midterm workload, an administratively-constructed days-long siesta resplendent with opportunity and potential. When you spend the bulk of your weary hours scrambling around the one square mile afforded by the 5C bubble, rushing to and from guest lectures and mentor sessions and wondering if blinking more frequently might count toward relieving your chronic sleep debt, the promise of four gloriously unscheduled days seems enough to merit a hallelujah chorus. The fact that precious few of your friends from high school seem free at this calendrical juncture only serves to bolster your conviction that those plebs from other schools will never be able to fathom all they’re missing, and it also sort of makes up for the fiasco of Labor and Columbus Days. The enigma, then, lies mainly not in the structure or intended purpose of the break itself, but rather in the silence left behind by the dearly departed.

You might think that there’s no such thing as a quiet college campus, but I can attest otherwise. The final Friday rolls around, the masses muddle through their midterms, raucous revelry reverberates throughout the dorms and refectories, and then—they’re gone. This year, I found myself among the left-behinds, a motley crew of athletes and internationals, RHS-persons and researchers, those whose plans had fallen through, those whose plans pretty much involved sleeping and only that. My own reason for staying put was straightforward: I like the quiet. Being here these past six weeks has been a non-stop barrage of chaotic stimulation, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way, but I was ready—hungry, more like it—for a Break in a Serious Way. Packing bags and booking flights seemed harrowing at best—why burden myself with unnecessary adult responsibilities? I shall never grow up! I opted for half a week of reverie instead. For the duration of the break, I became half narcoleptic ne’er-do-well and half philosopher-king. (My domain being, of course, my largely abandoned residential hall—I walked from bedroom to bathroom and back again clad solely in my underwear! It was liberating!) In short, I was a lazy bum, but a thinking man’s lazy bum.

As I wandered through empty corridors and academic buildings and played at John Nash searching for an original idea, though, all I could hear was that dull, anticipatory silence, so I abandoned the whole Beautiful Mind thing and started thinking about that old cliché minefield instead. If I had a penny for every literary type who lays claim to the idea of “deafening silence,” I would get a lot of commemorative Disneyland coins minted, sell my collection, and turn a pretty profit. (And then I wouldn’t have to worry about original ideas or writing the great American novel or anything like that, and then I could devote my Fall Breaks entirely to sleeping—see how this works?) But there is something to the trope, especially when you’re listening to the silence of a place normally full of the kind of discord and din unique to college students. On Friday night, I sat in Frary and ate my macaroni and cheese with tremulous cadence and stared up at the vaulted ceilings. My fellow diners, few and far between, spoke in hushed tones—people, the noisy lot that they are by nature, will often respect the silence of a near-vacant dining hall. As for me, I was thinking about the building.

People in college, I’ve noticed, tend to spend a lot of time thinking about themselves. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, because it’s perfectly natural; that constant stimulation principle to which I referred earlier has got a lot to do with it, I think, because we’re given so much to choose from—classes, meal options, highly subsidized trips to cool places—and we’re young and free from the shackles of the nuclear family and the world is ours, and so on and so forth. But when you sit nearly alone in a building like Frary, and you look over at Prometheus on the back wall, you suddenly seem a lot less significant to the story of your school (at least, if you’re me). The surrounding silence begins to pulsate with life: stories of graduating classes long gone by, decades-old tales of hard work, homesickness, determination, academic dishonesty, lust, betrayal, music, drug use, theft of cutlery—and each actor thinking his or herself the central character in the drama, the quintessential student of the Claremont Colleges. You can never begin to fully know a place, I realized, until you spend time alone with it.

And I guess the enigma comes in here, because it’s the silence of Fall Break and everything that comes with it that’s got me questioning my place here. On one hand, I’m a student here; if I can’t be the past, at least I can be the now. On the other, this is not my beautiful house. By the time this is printed, everyone will have flocked back; the dining halls will once again roar with the chatter of hundreds, and I’ll have to wear pants on my way to the bathroom. But I’ll still be turning the question over in my mind. So I guess it’s been a Break in an Even More Serious Way Than I Thought—a break in consciousness, or attitude, or something. We survived the first half of our first semester; we’re still here. What, then, do we make of it, and what do we do with the rest of our days here? I guess that only time will tell.

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