Guest column Oliver Haug: ‘This is the Smith I love’

  • Smith College seniors cheer at the start of a student-organized commencement ceremony, Thursday, March 12, at the Quadrangle. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Natalie Zimmerman, left, and Ali Bergeron hug as they get ready for a Smith College student-organized commencement ceremony, Thursday, March 12, at the Quadrangle. gAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Vivian Brock, left, helps Kirstin DiMauro with her graduation gown as they get ready for a Smith College student-organized commencement ceremony, Thursday, Mar. 12, 2020 at the Quadrangle. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 3/20/2020 3:31:41 PM
Modified: 3/20/2020 3:31:29 PM

Picture this: A college freshman, newly transplanted to Northampton from California. It’s their birthday. They’ve just turned 19 and chopped all their hair off in celebration of the biggest life transition they’ve undergone so far.

They’re walking down Main street. It’s a Thursday, and they’re going downtown to cast their mail-in ballot, a vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election. Unexpectedly, it begins to snow — a far too early blizzard that certainly won’t stick, but is beautiful nonetheless, the tiny flakes catching in their newly shorn hair. This is their first time seeing snow. Thirteen days later — well, you know the rest of that story.

That kid was me, my first year of college. It’s safe to say that my four years at Smith College have not been the “conventional” college experience. Over the past four years, as I’ve been “becoming an adult” and “discovering my identity,” it seems that the world we live in has been moving closer and closer to the brink of collapse.

Tonight I’m dressed in full regalia to attend my graduation ceremony, two months earlier than expected. I take the stage, walk up to the microphone and shout my own name for the world to hear — not the name listed on Smith’s forms, not the one my family knows me by, but the one I’ve chosen as my own. The people I’ve spent the past four years with, who have seen me through so many iterations of identity and stuck by me the entire time, roar back in response.

There are speeches by our student leadership and by an underclassman dressed up as Nancy Pelosi (our planned commencement speaker). The graduation is not the solemn, pompous affair we’d been expecting for four years — it’s raucous and loud. There are few parents, and fewer professors. Seniors wear everything from high heels to hoodies, and take group photos with beers in their hands.

Following the announcement that our senior year had been cut short, the entire production of Smith tradition was dropped. Photo shoots scheduled for pristine May days take place on blustery March afternoons. You can see crowds of dolled-up seniors running around campus in clothing made to be worn two months from now, hair and robes whipping around in the wind.

Students traipse through the Grecourt gates (which, according to campus superstition, means that they will not graduate) on a whim. On my friend’s last night here, we don our regalia over bike shorts and T-shirts and walk through the gates late at night, no one around to take our picture, just us and the moon and the silent campus around us.

This is the Smith I love — not the traditions, not the pomp and circumstance, not the puritanical all-white Ivy day or the or the school song in Latin (Gaudeamus Igitur, if you’re curious). It’s the care we show for each other in times of great distress.

The fact that the second we received the email saying that most of us would be sent home, students began organizing to advocate for our peers for whom this was not an option. It’s the fact that graduates who I haven’t talked to in years are texting me to ask if I’m OK, and if they can do anything for me.

It’s the multitude of alums who have reached out and offered up their homes to students who don’t have anywhere to go. And it’s the fact that I could shout my own name at my graduation — that I could define myself on my own terms, rather than being beholden to the expectations of an administration or a society that expects me to be ashamed of my trans identity.

Disaster tends to reveal who your true allies are. It reveals who will come through for you. And the Smith community has, in so many ways.

I’ve said what feels like an infinite number of goodbyes over the past few days. But most of them feel more like promises — promises to be there, whenever there’s a need. Promises that even if we don’t talk for the next five years, that our doors are always open, that there’s always a spot on our couch for those who might need it.

And to be honest, it’s the only kind of ending I want, in a time this unprecedented. An ending that’s a promise — to stand by each other.

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