A Tyranny of Silence

It is Spring Break! The Mount Holyoke campus is barren of most of its students. I am spending this week within the white walls of my room, still too afraid to play music on my speakers. (I have been reported for playing music just from my laptop when classes are on but campus police has even come to my room for a noise complaint during January break, so I’m not going to risk it.) All the doors in the dorms are shut, the corridors are flushed with fluorescent light and there is dead silence. Then I realize; this is almost exactly how it is when everyone is here. Except now there is the added benefit of not having to awkwardly dance around the other students as we go on our daily back and forth from classes and the bathroom. This school is a massive red-brick body that will stand in its stubborn solemnity with or without us. It is we who must deform ourselves to fit inside it.

Simone De Beauvior visited some of the other Sister Schools in 1947 and wrote: “I spend three days at Smith and Wellesley sleeping in the white guest rooms that remind me of clinics or monasteries.” Later on she describes Smith’s atmosphere as intimate and cheerful. The schools De Beauvoir visited are very similar to Mount Holyoke, but my own visits to the Smith houses have shown a sense of community that Mount Holyoke is devoid of. Here the girl who lives on the other side of the wall is not expected to come to your room to say “could you keep it down please, I’m trying to sleep.” Rather the norm is to call campus police. Here, in the white-walled cubicles where we spend our glory years, the tyranny of silence reigns over sound, over expression, over interaction.

For some time my friends and I used to gather in a sunroom in one of the residential buildings. We turned it into the only room I have seen serving its function as a social space in our dorms. On two occasions at the completion of a new poem I went to that sunroom to share it with whoever was in there. My friends used to draw and colour in flowers and trees and sunsets and put them up on the walls. We had an impressive mural when the office of residential life gave instructions to the cleaning lady to take down the drawings and paintings and throw them away, rendering the walls hospital white again. Why this hostility to colour and life?

If you live in a hospital you will begin to believe that you are sick. So I leave campus on most weekends to keep my soul alive at the nearby Hampshire College where students play instruments with their doors open and other students come in and jam with them. Where new art is made in the spaces outside of class. And where this is encouraged rather than seen as a problem. In its short life, Hampshire College has produced more notable alums, especially in the arts, than Mount Holyoke has done as the oldest women’s institution in the world. These include Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of Men in Black and Lupita Nyong’o who recently won an Oscar. Mount Holyoke still harps on about Emily Dickinson who was here for a year, a hundred years ago, and left probably feeling too suffocated to stay.

Earlier today I visited the greenhouse to look at the flowers. It amazes me how meticulously the plants in there are cared for. Each in a room that has just the right amount of light for that plant species, each plant in its separate little pot getting just the right amount of water. And it occurred to me that we live in a greenhouse.

All of us in our separate little temperature controlled incubators being fed superficial fertilizers. When a student’s existence causes a slight disturbance in what De Beauvoir saw as the “superficial Eden”, that student must be cut down. We are not expected to be tolerant or flexible. That which upholds this muted tyranny does not adjust, our peers must adjust to this sterile obsession. There are quiet floors in two dorms which cater to those whose ears do not want to be burdened with sound waves. There are also quiet hours agreed on in every dorm. And yet even outside of those floors and those hours there is something called “24 hour courtesy” which means that you can be silenced at any time. This courtesy does not extend towards those who want to play loud music or have loud conversations with friends. It is not even democratic. Six people could be having a get-together. Twenty people on their floor might not mind. But if one person decides they don’t like it, that is who this courtesy will be applied to.

The most common rebuttal I have heard is “but this is a college.” My response is; exactly! Where else are we supposed to exchange ideas with our peers? In our beautiful common rooms you won’t find lively discussions, you find one or two people studying across the room from each other in perfect silence. This college does not foster the sharing of ideas outside of class. We don’t learn tolerance or social skills. We are separated clinically from each other by rules that make it difficult to use common spaces, by so-called courtesy to absolute silence and by an institution that enforces those things.

And yet Mount Holyoke, the overbearing gardener, claims to produce women who are fearless, who never fear change and who will go where no one else will go. I wonder, where will these stunted seedlings go from here? Where are these women going to find their artificial incubators outside of this school? In which cities will the police rush over because your neighbour is playing music from her laptop? And say they move to a place where the police are in dire need of wasted time, will they be able to quieten the noise of traffic or the sounds of the café below? Maybe they will all live in the suburbs of small towns, each at a safe distance from one another, avoiding each others eyes when they take out their trash.

Maya Wegerif