Dear Cornellians, when I started writing this column in September, I set out with the goal of creating the perfect break in your day — lighthearted, comforting, relatable and readable. I wanted to be thoughtful but not quite controversial. I wanted you to think but still be able to focus on eating your sandwich. As a result, I found myself trying to come up with inside jokes and easy references that tapped deep into Cornell’s collective memory every other Tuesday at 3 a.m. Collective memory is the memory of a group of people, typically passed down from one generation to the next. A collective memory combines the differing knowledge, experiences and backgrounds of the individuals in a given group into one big amalgamation of culture. American collective memory includes everything from JFK’s assassination to Bugs Bunny to the invention of the Internet.
It’s hard to define this collective memory for Cornell just as it’s hard to find a universally appealing Slope Day artist or to make an all-encompassing Shit Cornellians Say Youtube video.
When I write, I try to remember the people I’ve met the past four years — friends, classmates, neighbors, and acquaintances — and what would resonate with them. I people-watch outside of Olin Library, daydreaming about the secret lives of the Cornellians who seem no more than strangers to me. I think about what it really means to be a Cornellian, about what unites Cornell.
The truth is that we all go to different Cornells. What Cornell means to me is undoubtedly different than what it means to you. My time here, made up of some whirlwind combination of the Pale Fire Lounge, Cayuga’s Waiters, CTP, CTB and Alpha Phi may have no significance whatsoever to you. Maybe you liked Level B better than Ruloffs, didn’t join Greek life, got your coffee from the Green Dragon, spent your afternoons on the lacrosse field and never experienced the Cornell I know and love. For all I know, you and I had completely parallel, separate yet equal experiences at the very same university. The fact that 13,000 of us can be here on the same campus and not go to the “same Cornell,” is at once a defining, empowering and crippling feature of our ivory tower.
We’re systematically divided, split into seven schools, over 50 majors, hundreds of extracurricular activities and sports, widely varied workloads and course material. We’re housed separately across campuses in dorms, program houses, apartments, frats and Collegetown. We send out Facebook invites in semi-desperate hope of sharing the parts of Cornell that are important to us. Our loyalties are spread far and wide and only overlap here and there.We default to making comments about the weather because it may be the one thing that unites us. No matter what your major is, you can’t escape Ithaca’s biting “April showers.” We tell friends and parents that the weather is cruel and unusual. Sunshine becomes our favorite distraction, our lifeblood. We bond over the most clichéd of topics, the fodder of banal small talk. Maybe sad, but definitely true.
So if we’re really so fragmented, why do I feel an automatic connection whenever I see a Lynah Rink t-shirt or a Cornell bumper sticker outside of our Ithaca bubble? Doesn’t school spirit rely on a shared common experience?
Well, the Class of 2012 has been through a lot. We’ve seen more than our fair share of tragedies and we’ve lived through subsequent changes that have transformed the atmosphere of our campus forever. But we were also there that one time our basketball team was in the Sweet Sixteen. We’re the only graduating class that will truly remember (or not remember) Dinos, J.O.s and the Palms. We are the seniors, the last to ever experience Professor Maas teaching Psych 101, waiting in line overnight for hockey tickets or going to open frat parties. Ithaca may be Fences now, but we know that Ithaca is and always will be Gorges. We will take this memory of “our” Cornell with us for years to come while leaving behind our legacy, our plans for a new and hopefully improved Cornell. I can’t speak for everyone and I won’t try to, but I know that when I walk at graduation, I’ll feel a bittersweet taste in my mouth, and I’ll be blinking back tears. I’ll know that as I leave this place I’ve grown to call home, everyone in the stadium is leaving a place they’ve grown to call home too.
Collective memory is strong because it combines such different experiences. Each of our respective memories highlights a different Cornell, personalized to our different interests and choices. But when combined, our memories hold the knowledge of seven schools, over 50 majors and endless learning experiences. It’s like the moment when Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Heart join forces to become Captain Planet. Our collected memories create a rich, powerful and comprehensive vision of our too-soon-to-be alma mater. While individually our memories might seem disjointed and varied, it is because of this variation, not in spite of it, that the spirit of Cornell lasts long after graduation. We are stronger as Cornellians than we would be alone. At least I know I am.
Thanks to Kenny, the first friend I made as a result of my column. Thanks to Adam and Charlotte, my personal editors and sanity keepers. Thanks to The Sun for letting me more-or-less ignore the designation of “Arts and Entertainment.” Thanks to you for reading and I hope my column has made your days a little bit sweeter.