By Joely DeSimone ’15
Volume XXXVII, Issue 2, April 4, 2014
One Thursday night several weeks ago, I was walking alone through town on my way from campus to the Hill. It was raining but I felt calm, unconcerned about getting wet. I took in a deep breath and looked around. Everything I saw held my memories—catching up with friends over my first (legal) drink(s) at High Horse on a Monday night, TYPOs at Fresh Side, and the tree on the town common whose branches were meticulously wound in white Christmas lights last December. The places I’ve been are laden with my memories of them.
Two boys walked loudly by, Subway sandwiches swinging in plastic bags by their sides. A guy in Amherst Chinese leaned toward his girlfriend to refill her glass of water, smiling with the complete joy of doing her a simple favor and appreciating being right there next to her. A girl on a couch in Lime Red read a book with dog-eared pages and a bent spine. Across the street, through the fogged windows of Black Sheep, I could make out the shifting silhouettes of musicians and the neck of a string bass, though I couldn’t hear their music. All around me, people were forming memories of their own as I passed.
I thought about the impact Amherst has had on me. This place—the friends, the professors, classes, and the experiences I’ve had here—has changed me. Every Amherst student has had their equal share of memorable Amherst moments, most completely separate from my own. Someone was sitting inside Black Sheep that night, soaking up the music. Perhaps the Am Chi guy will cherish the returned gaze of his girlfriend and the Subway boys will remember sharing late night snacks together. After all, they weren’t that drunk.
I’ve had many conversations with friends about “Shadow Amherst.” The term’s definition seems to differ from person to person, but I understand it to include any student one doesn’t know or come in contact with regularly. Its allusion to a foreign, cobwebbed darkness lends it negative connotations. On my walk in the rain, I realized that “Shadow Amherst” doesn’t really exist. Each Amherst student is necessarily at the center of his own Amherst experience—what he sees and learns and does is what he will remember of his four years here. Just because his sphere doesn’t intersect with your own, however, doesn’t cast that student to The Shadow. I’ve never taken an LJST class or attended a lacrosse game, and there are others who’ve never taken a biology class or seen the Amherst Symphony Orchestra perform. Neither the lacrosse player nor the cellist exists in The Shadow, however. Each is simply experiencing different aspects of the space Amherst provides.
There’s a parable I read recently about several blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and each identifying what it is he’s experiencing: the man by the leg thinks he’s touching a pillar; the man by the tail, a rope; the man by the ear, a fan. None is wrong, none is less valid than another, but none is fully right either. Each is merely experiencing a certain, incomplete part of the whole. I suppose this parable needs to be slightly modified for my purposes here: Amherst provides the space and resources for each of us to construct our own experiences and memories—our own leg or tail or ear—that, taken together, form the entire Amherst elephant.
I further dislike the label because The Shadow is defined from the perspective of The Enlightened. The Shadow is comprised of all those students The Enlightened one doesn’t cross paths with frequently. This places the Enlightened at the center of the Amherst community and seems to blame the unknown students for being unknown. “The Shadow” implies students’ purposeful desire to remain hidden and aloof, to shy away from The Enlightened’s spotlight. Calling someone “Shadow Amherst” dismisses that person’s own light while deflecting all responsibility for future acquaintanceship.
I live in Plimpton this year, so you may be thinking, “Oh look, here’s some Shadow Girl writing about the nonexistence of The Shadow to make herself feel better.” But I guess that’s exactly my point. Because my Amherst experience has felt so full, I don’t imagine myself to be in The Shadow even though I’ve met people who don’t even know where the Hill is, implying that they don’t even care to know. I feel very much a part of Amherst even though others hear “Plimpton” and think I must be some sort of recluse living out there somewhere…in that direction, I think…far away…yeah, and on a hill.
Rather than believing Shadow People have something to offer—that Shadow People can be cool too, once you get to know them…really!—I think we should stop using the term “Shadow” altogether. No one would say he’s in The Shadow because each student is the protagonist of his own Amherst story. My friends and I joke about indiscreetly greeting each other with “Terras Irradient” when tour groups walk by in the hopes that bewildered pre-frosh will take it as a piece of Amherst slang and adopt it during Orientation the next year. So far, this hasn’t happened. I’m not sure why. But more seriously, with a motto like that—“Let them give light to the world”—shouldn’t we stop ascribing people to that somewhat undefined but most certainly undesirable Shadow?
Each sphere or sub-community of Amherst is different, but none is greater or lesser than another. We each bring our own perspectives to college, each create our own experiences and memories, and each sit at the center of these experiences. We need to appreciate that each Amherst student is part of a sub-community and that the college makes concerted efforts to provide space for us all. We all have memories of Black Sheep, be they first dates, birthday brunches, or musical events on Thursday nights. I perhaps could have walked into Black Sheep that night and joined in the scene I only barely witnessed. That would be the next step. But for now, I think we at least need to recognize that, behind that fogged window, someone is listening, absorbing the scene, and saving it as a memory.