As someone who enjoys going out alone at night, I often end up sitting on the sidelines of basements — perched on the bar, leaning against a pipe, tucked into a corner on a bench. Sometimes I watch pong games, analyzing the way teams play together. Couples play differently than friends, as do people who have just met. Pong makes for an interesting social experiment in this way: the different rules at different houses, different levels of competitiveness between players and teams, varying displays of compatibility and coordination. Some people play with water, others exclusively with beer; some people get distracted halfway through and end up playing with a paddle in one hand and a phone in the other, as they attempt to plan a better night than the one they're already having. Some people get too drunk and stumble as they serve, or hit the ball haphazardly, watching with dull eyes as it ricochets around the grimy basement, scooping it out of sludgy puddles with loose fingers only to miss the table again on their next serve.
I wonder what I look like playing pong to the outside observer. My tree always has at least a few water cups, but even people with whom I've spent hours upon hours in basements have not noticed that I don't drink. I play better when there's good music on. I sing and dance and often end up laughing hysterically trying to pick up a bouncing pong ball, my hair in my face, my cheeks flushed, frat grime soaking into my shoes and inevitably smeared across my arm, or my leg.
See, my brain works in patterns, particularly when it comes to how people interact with one another. What I mean is, I like to people watch. I've been a lifeguard for four years; I've literally gotten paid to watch people. Still, I wonder if as a school we're not doing enough watching—watching over others, that is. We watch ourselves plenty, maybe too much. We watch how we look, what we eat, when we work, when we play, how we appear to the rest of the Dartmouth world. But we are so caught up in watching ourselves that we don't have time to watch out for each other.
I'm not saying that we need to keep tabs on everyone at all times. We're all adults. We're independent, self-sufficient, strong and capable human beings. And yet, I have twice had to support people while swimming in the river because they could not swim and no one else was paying attention. I have had friends get frighteningly ill and have not realized until I ran into them weeks later and gave my automatic "Hi! How are you?" only to discover that they'd been home for two weeks, or in the hospital. Once I found someone vomiting outside a frat, no friends in sight, not even a roommate to call. I've had intoxicated friends abandoned by groups of people they'd gone out with—at home, at school, and abroad. It's all fun and carefree until the ambulance shows up.
So, then, what are we supposed to do? It's not our job to be responsible for the decisions and misadventures of everyone around us. And certainly, self-care is extremely important. But maybe we need to reassess how we show that we care. Maybe it’s about being more aware of what’s going on around us, or noticing when someone's going through a tough time, and just being there to talk for a few minutes. Maybe it's about responding to that text, even if the answer is no. Or, maybe it's about being open with the people we care about and willing to share when we're not okay. Everyone on this campus walks around looking so goddamn perfect that it's almost impossible to remember that it's okay to not be okay—and to remember that everyone is fighting their own battles, no matter how put-together they might seem.
This summer, I went back to the Lodj for the first time since First Year Trips and just being there reminded me of the reasons why I love this school. Trips were my true introduction to Dartmouth. People were willing to talk to each other, to open up. We were excited for the future. We were all in a vulnerable place, in a new place, and there was something exhilarating about the sun and the blue skies and waking up in a mental fog at 4am to hike Moosilauke in the rain and dancing together on wet grass with bare feet, aware that we were all sunburned and covered in mosquito bites and had mud in places that mud should never be.
We talk about the Dartmouth community being such an incredible entity—this intangible glowing resource that we can supposedly tap like a maple tree, but after a while it all just becomes words. We walk around with our heads down and we don't check in with our friends after a long night out, or a long week in the library.
I think the biggest thing to remember is that there is no normal. It's okay not to be okay. It's okay to feel overwhelmed, compressed, overstressed and under-slept and so small that maybe if you curled up in a corner, you'd disappear entirely. It's okay to cry, or to smile; it's okay to laugh because there's nothing else to do. This doesn't have to be the time of our lives. But it is a time and we are alive, and we are lucky to have each other.