I have a strange confession to make—I was at my first Carman party a few days ago. Kind of an unusual position to be in as a junior, though.
I guess I at least have the excuse of not spending my first year at Columbia, but as I gazed around—baffled at the bright hallways, the stairwells, the decor—I was reminded of how vastly different all of our dorms are. Carman is coveted, nice, and social; Schapiro (my own) is regarded rather less highly; Furnald is generally assumed to be one step up from “pariah.” The fact that I can list any one of these dorms offhand and have a whole host of qualities and preconceptions spring to mind is itself rather telling about the clear, distinct environments Columbia has. It’s also telling about the communities we’ve selected for ourselves.
These differences and divides are not some bizarre aberration, specific to Columbia. On school campuses, they’re completely natural, in the fullest sense of that word. In a very real sense, Columbia is an ecosystem, a whole bundle of roles and interactions, as complex and codependent as anything in nature.
So, just for a moment, switch out the tired, boring lens of high school drama and teen movies, the facile tropes about school communities we’ve heard a thousand times before, and look through a documentary camera instead. What is our ecosystem like?
Let’s take a leaf out of the book of Jacques Cousteau and dive into the ecosystem that is Columbia. And I do mean dive: 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is water, 80 percent of its life forms live there, and while jungles and savannas put their variety on garish display, an ocean—like Columbia—hides its variety beneath the surface. So what kind of ocean are we?
Let’s start at the top, kookily called the photic zone—everywhere that the light touches. Instas, finstas, mixers, parties, on full display. Plants grow here, the vast majority of fish, from trout to sharks, reside here, and in a Columbia context, social life flourishes here. If you proceeded, on a smooth track, through the first-year dorm and the sophomore dorm, through Carman and McBain, you’ve probably been here. And yet, while this is the most visible part—by no means is it all there is to the ocean.
Journeying further down, away from the glossy admission pamphlets, from the mixers, from the Canada Goose-lined surface, you go through the tongue-twisting mesopelagic and bathypelagic zones in quick succession. If you’ve ever watched nature documentaries and seen submarines and scuba divers go on their merry way, it is probably occurring to you right now that whereas salmon and eels and bright coral reefs get all the press clippings, about all we associate with this part of the ocean is “that’s where squids are.” Yet there’s this whole middle layer of Columbia too, and practically all that can be said is that that’s where people are. Because there are plenty of people, really, who aren’t social or antisocial, who don’t live in a dorm with a reputation for either of those things, and who are doing just fine.
But we ignore this fact, just like we ignore the dependable, livable middle of the ocean, for the same reason—it’s so much more exciting to focus on the extremes on either side.
In the oceanic context, this manifests itself in the form of a gallery of bug-eyed monsters—giant tubeworms clustering around vents; pale, sightless fish; monstrosities with lights stuck to their heads, with teeth like needles. This is the hadal zone, and it’s named for hell.
But it’s not hell, no more than Furnald or Wien or the basement of Brooks and Hewitt are places where fun goes to die. It’s just different. An anglerfish isn’t a monster—it’s got the lure and the teeth not out of some desire to terrify but just because it needs to eat, like anything else. We just like guppies more because we’re used to guppies.
People who don’t “take advantage” of the city or the chance to work at Goldman Sachs, who don’t go to events or parties, are Columbians just as much as the rest of us. Condemning someone for not being social, whether they’re deeply embedded in our stress culture or just inclined to be introverted, is like condemning an anglerfish for not swimming to the surface.
People who should know better do this—ocean biologists casually call a species of deep-sea jellyfish “big ugly,” even though it mostly looks like a plush toy, and we single out Furnald and Wien and forget the many, many valid reasons for someone to want to be alone.
So no, antisocial dorms aren’t hell; they’re just a bit different from what we’re used to, from the carefully curated image of Columbia that’s on the glossy brochures. And people who don’t want to be caught in the Columbia drama, in the New York City social abyss, aren’t monsters any more than a toothy fish is. We should appreciate them, just like we should appreciate all the people, unheralded, floating nebulously between there and the top of Columbia society.
Let’s look past the surface.
Mark Tentarelli is a junior at Columbia College majoring in political science-statistics. Interests include catching up on Stranger Things, racquetball, incisive political analysis, and shelter animals. Inside Looking In runs alternate Thursdays.
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