The summer before my freshman year at UMass I was at some family function, a dinner or a funeral or something, and I was talking to a cousin about my plans to attend UMass Amherst in the fall. At first, this cousin, whose actual blood relation to me is so distant as to render it completely tenuous, mistakenly thought I had said Amherst College.
I had grown used to this. In Los Angeles (the small village where I come from), nobody has heard of UMass Amherst, and everyone has heard of Amherst College. Generally speaking, I embraced this. For example, when at a party in Jon Solomon’s dad’s house’s backyard, Jon’s sister’s smoke-show best friend Nicole Meyers-Cohen (she came from one of those hyphenated families) thought I had said I would be attending Amherst College in the fall, I just rolled with it.
“Amherst College in the fall. Yep. Fantastic school, am I right? Hey, so – you here with a boyfriend, or what?”
Of course, when your distant 50-something-year-old hippie cousin mistakenly thinks you’re going to be attending Amherst College in the fall, you correct her: “No, actually I’m going to UMass Amherst. You know, the big state school next door?”
That it was the big state school next door to Amherst College is actually all I knew about UMass before I got here, having never visited the state of Massachusetts – let alone UMass – before showing up that first day in September. So had she ever heard of UMass?
It turns out, as I imagine is the case with older distant hippie cousins, that mine knows something about everything. So of course, she knew all about UMass Amherst. “UMass,” she said in straightforward, I-Came-Of-Age-In-The-60s-And-Thus-Know-Everything-About-Everything snarkiness, “That place is just about the ugliest campus I’ve ever seen.”
Like I said, at that point I had never visited UMass and as such, I was worried. The ugliest campus she’s ever seen? My cousin is cut from that old hippie cloth. You know, the folks who get all worked up that you’re not outside in a public square at this very cold moment protesting a war in the nude. All these people do is visit college campuses selling their knitted and potted goods to impressionable students. A woman like this has clearly has seen a lot of college campuses. If UMass is the ugliest campus she’s ever seen, it must be pretty awful looking.
Well, as my final year at UMass comes to an end, and every walk to class brings back all sorts of warm and fuzzy memories (the first time I skipped a class, the first time I dove into the campus pond), I can say with full confidence that my distant older hippie cousin was wrong.
The UMass campus is beautiful. And I don’t mean beautiful in the way that an old oil tycoon might look at the squalor and filth in which he was raised as possessing some sort of nostalgic beauty because it made him the successful oil tycoon that he is today. Rather, I truly believe our campus is aesthetically beautiful.
Now granted, if you were to pluck some of our buildings off the campus like a single petal plucked off a radiant sunflower in the springtime and place it, say, in a Hadley parking lot, the aesthetic beauty of that single building might not shine through. This can be said of some of the more architecturally brutal buildings on campus – your Machmers and your Campus Centers. Yet these buildings, when placed among the more classically beautiful buildings on campus – your Goodells and your Old Chapels – deliver the same kind of aesthetic beauty one might see in a collage made up of materials found both in a yard of old scrap metal and a yard of abandoned Greek era sculptures, if such a thing exists (and I hope it does).
Then we have buildings like Herter, buildings that would make a perfect backdrop for a movie about Bosnia and Herzegovina. These buildings might strike one, at first glance as being, well, ugly. A building like Herter is not beautiful in the same way the Amherst College Octagon is beautiful. And yes, the interiors of these buildings are often messy. The bathroom walls in these buildings are often covered in amateur graffiti (relieving myself in Herter today, I saw “Remember the Alamo” written in black sharpie and then next to it in faint blue pen: “Remember the what?” and then over that in all caps “DUBSTEP SUCKS”). Yet, a building like Herter, placed next to the grass outside the Haigis Mall and only a short walk away from the campus pond, makes our campus beautiful in a fragmented sense. Beautiful in the way the random circular patterns of ceiling stucco are beautiful or the way the graffiti in the Herter bathroom is beautiful.
And they tell me that on the other side of campus we have truly pretty buildings, buildings made of brick and glass – beautiful, clean, shiny engineering buildings where science students do whatever it is science students do (tons of homework, I imagine). I’ve never seen these buildings.
Perhaps one day I will venture out into the great Northeastern unknown and see one. For now, on my Western edge of campus, I can say I really think this place is beautiful. And just wait until the ducks start having baby ducks. Hey, Amherst College, we get ducklings!
Isaac Himmelman is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached is firstname.lastname@example.org.