After I was pulled off the wait list, the University’s acceptance letter fashioned itself in a way I didn’t. Yet Walker Percy insists that “there is no fashion so absurd, even grotesque, that it cannot be adopted, given two things: the authority of the fashion-setter (Dior, Jackie Onassis) and the vacuity or noughtness of the consumer.” Many students enter a Notre Dame fashioned as their dream school; many later fashion their undergraduate years as the best years of their lives. We are ND.
Percy asks what a saleslady means when “she fits a customer with an article of clothing and says: ‘It’s you’?” In the various “stages of consumption,” you see someone in authority wearing it, then others wear it, then you try it on uncertainly, then you buy it and wear it. Then “it is you and you are it” until “it is devoured” and made everyday, before it is set aside for a new style.
But fashion is not accessible to everyone. Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch until 2014, said in 2006 that his stores “go after the cool kids.” He said that “a lot of people don’t belong, and they can’t belong.”
Jeffries is right, in a way. A place is fashioned by what it is, which seems to imply that there are things which it must not be. Notre Dame is a Catholic university, necessitating certain trappings of American Catholic and university life. There are Masses and priests and a theology department on campus. Students are required to attend classes and to maintain certain grades. Partying is a part of social life, but the University seeks to enforce some Christian norms. This is part of what the University invites with the words, “Welcome home.”
But there are other aspects that come with this welcome. With all the aspirations that our promotional materials put before you, here are some realities that also come with life at this University: Some of you will be sexually assaulted or raped during your time here. Some of you will struggle and agonize over your sexuality. Some of you will get kicked out of the dorm and have to find a place to live mid-semester. Many of you will fail a class for the first time. Some of you, like me, will browse other universities’ websites to see if you can transfer and still graduate in four years.
So when we say, “We are ND,” what are we putting on? What are we entering into? Would you treat your classmates differently if, at orientation, one of the comments made in DPAC was: “Students sitting in this room will be raped before they graduate?” And would you act differently if they said, “Some of you will do it and not think you did?”
One response would be to cower in fear, to make college a one-man-show where you will neither be hurt by others nor hurt others. One response would be to reject wholesale the identification of “Domer” and to begin a crusade against “the institution.” Another response would be to create rules and regulations and ever-adjusted definitions of consent to make clear the formal duties that drunk co-eds (or non-co-eds) have to each other, or to have little pins outside your doors and on your backpacks to announce safe spaces or pregnancy resources, or to refer troubled students to the appropriate professionals. Perhaps these or similar responses are necessary, but they are not sufficient.
Whether we like it or not, we are ND. And we’re deluded if we believe that sole responsibility lies with the administration or disciplinary panels to address the darker parts of being a Domer. We don’t get to call Notre Dame “home” if we don’t take responsibility for it. And we don’t get to call this community a “family” if we don’t take responsibility for each other.
We also have to take responsibility for ourselves. Notre Dame grads frequently bemoan post-college life. They lack the vibrant community they easily found in college. I think these are frequently the people who tried to learn community without responsibility. They entered a world created for them, but they themselves did not creatively contribute. They attended SYR’s but never hosted dorm parties. They played dorm sports but never organized Frisbee on the quad. They went to the dining hall but never hosted dinner parties. They loved community, but they never learned to create or sustain it.
Leonardo da Vinci once said that “people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” If you want Notre Dame to be a family and a home, then make it so. Go out and happen to things, and to each other.
This column was published in The Observer on Wednesday, September 21, 2016.