This May, as the last snows of winter melted into the dusky, hesitant warmth of a New England spring and the campus teemed, as it always is before finals, with a sense of heavily caffeinated exhaustion and anticipation, a blast of human cruelty rocked the University. Johanna Justin-Jinich ’10, by all accounts the sort of person whose presence should have proved the fundamental benevolence of the human spirit, was shot down in an act of random cruelty that would make even the most devout believer question the notion of an ordered universe. By contrast, the attacker, Stephen Morgan, was a contemptible insect only worthy of acknowledgement because we were frightened that his automatic weapon might hold more bullets, destined for those who were unquestionably his betters, both intellectually and morally.
At first, it seemed that there would be time to grieve. The shooter had vanished and the act appeared, to all eyes, like a crime of passion. But then the news came in that the police had discovered Mr. Morgan’s journal—a chilling document which detailed his intentions to turn Wesleyan into the “Jewish Columbine”—and that, if we valued our lives, we would stay indoors so as to avoid any chance of meeting the same fate as our schoolmate. Grieving suddenly hit the backburner as the horror of being targeted by this madman made us band together to keep our rooms occupied, our fellow students feeling as safe as possible, and the campus secure.
And then it all ended. Morgan turned himself into authorities, and grief finally set in. Those of us who had known Johanna showed quiet grace in suffering, and those of us who knew them set about trying to ease that suffering. Candlelight vigils, both formal and informal, were organized, and along with the mixture of crushing sadness and relief, something Wesleyan rarely ever sees hit the campus: a feeling of genuine community, across all barriers, whether political, racial, sexual or financial.
This sensation was highly overdue, and though it finally did emerge, the point must be made that it should not have come to such an extreme for us—as a community—to realize that this is one campus. It is often easy, especially at Wesleyan, to forget that our admission here had as much to do with our ability to contribute to this campus as a community as it did with our ability to contribute money and/or prestige as alumni. This understanding has gotten so lost at Wesleyan that the administration has actually convened councils for the purpose of encouraging school spirit, and as someone who has sat on these councils, I have heard firsthand just how difficult so many people thought it would be to navigate the endless web of conflicting identities, ideologies and lifestyles which make up this campus. Perhaps the tragedy of this spring has made the feeling of community among students more notable, but the fact that a death in the proverbial family is what it took to encourage such a feeling calls for a quick discussion of why we have become desensitized to all but a drastic tragedy.
This question is by no means straightforward. It would be easy to place blame on any single divisive factor of the Wesleyan experience and make a convincing argument for it, whether it be the overemphasis of self-segregation on the basis of identity politics, the poisonously obstreperous and often petty level of much our partisan political discourse, or the wide cultural divides which accrue as students choose one passion from countless monomaniacal and entrenched interests (some even with their own program house). Yet, as is often the case where dubiously navigable questions are concerned, the answer is actually “all of the above.”
Taken by themselves, none of these elements necessarily compromises a collegiate experience, but the underlying danger is that, despite our attendance at the same college, most or many students may have no idea what actually makes a Wesleyan student a Wesleyan student. All of the elements of the conventional answer (that Wesleyan students are weird, doomed for obscurity and unanimously Left Wing) have, by this point, been refuted. The quixotic efforts of groups such as “Keep Wes Weird” notwithstanding, the student body has slowly but surely moved in a mainstream direction, dispelling a certain stereotype of Wesleyan students as socially alienated freaks with a history of being picked last in gym class. The rise of alumni projects like the television series “Mad Men” and the short film “Dr. Horrible” as pop cultural icons has suddenly shoved Wesleyan students and the Wesleyan campus into the spotlight. And as for being unanimously Left Wing, the reader should only refer to the title of this column if one wishes to see that stereotype dismissed.
So deprived of our comfort zone, here we stand as a campus, staring into the postmodern void of being excellent at so many things, but unsure which of them differentiate us from our equally excellent peers. The efforts of previous generations of students aside, Wesleyan has truly become the “Independent Ivy,” but we seem unsure from what we are independent, and in what way. This is a question which must be answered, so that those searching for community will not find their rare moments of solace solely at the point of a mad man’s gun. It is easy to yell “Go Wes” now that we have come off the high of freshman orientation, but the question I encourage my readers to ask is far more urgent, and far less easy to grapple with:
What, after all, is “Wes”?