The Screams These Walls Shall Not Contain: A Personal Statement

Posted by at 8:06AM

by Peter McDonald ’11, Chi Theta Chi resident 2009-2011

The walls of Chi Theta Chi are thin, very thin, as are the floors. Solitude comes at a premium, though the space is still suitable for studying. The thinness of the walls has significant effect on house life, though. They are a constant annoyance for the more gossip-minded residents because there is a significant chance that whomever they’re talking about, might actually hear them, even if they’re on the second floor (the presence of gossip, by the way, indicates the presence of a healthy, functioning community, because it means people actually care about what other people do). The walls and floors also pose a problem whenever someone decides to blast their music, a lesson I learned numerous times throughout the years. This is not a soundproof house by any means. The audible manifestations of joy and passion that fill it spill out into the hallways frequently. The courtyard is almost a whispering gallery.

In the summer of 2010, my computer started booting for eternity. For the following year, my second in Chi Theta Chi, without the money or time to spend fixing it, I had to rely on the computers in the cluster in the basement. Like all parts of XƟX, the cluster had its own personality, one that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the residences on campus. The paint job is light blue. The ceiling above the cluster is mostly drywall. A knock on it produces a hollow sound. It did have a couch, which became my bed for about three to four nights each week, when I didn’t feel like making the two-flight trek back to my assigned room. One would not think that a person could become attached to a computer cluster, but by the end of just two quarters, attached I became. I spent so much time there that it was a running joke among the residents that I lived in the cluster. Sound travels downward as easily as it does any other direction; any loud noises from the dining hall or the foyer will make their way into the cluster.

I have heard that Stanford is in the midst of a mental health crisis, a crisis motivated by the “Stanford duck syndrome.” We all tell each other that we are not alone, and then we spend almost all of our times away from each other, either physically or with an electronic shield. I remember the lounges of my residences freshman and sophomore year. They were almost always empty. After the first weeks of fall quarter at the max, one feels foolish for wanting to bond with one’s housemates, and so our struggles continue underneath the surface, the metal doors become the mirroring pond, with the reinforced walls, at the expense of learning about each other and growing together, all to preserve the essentialist veneer, the veneer that plagues the Ivy League, the veneer we all buy into at our own cost, the belief that “those kinds of things,” the kinds of things we don’t want to but need to talk about, just don’t happen at Stanford. At Chi Theta Chi, the common areas are almost never empty. We must carry out our unpleasant business with at least some effort.

About every week, at a random point throughout the night, while in the cluster attempting to study or read, a shriek would break out above me, which I usually attempted to ignore. It was probably nothing, but each time, a small lump of dread would amass in my stomach, afraid that in the house that I love so much a scene of something terrible was unfolding, a scene of one of “those kinds of things.” I had always maintained that Chi Theta Chi was the place where I was going to find out whether the veneer had anything behind it, where I would experience real life without the pre-approved filter, brought to you by Stanford administrators, without the cleaning crew that would clean up anything out of place. Was this time going to be the time where I would learn a depressing but all too real lesson about the true nature of humanity? All I ever wanted in life was for Hobbes to be wrong.

I would endeavor to put these thoughts out of my mind and return to my work, but there was almost always a follow-up shriek, and sometimes a loud clunk. At this point, I would feel compelled to investigate. I was not going to let the community I loved be subject to the bystander effect, as much as it might hurt me to do so. Sometimes bothering to put on my shoes, sometimes not, I would race up the stairs, half wondering if I should be holding a baseball bat. I would make the turn to the dining room only to un-tense my muscles and breathe a sigh of relief. Every single time, someone was breaking out in shrieks of laughter, and striking a blow against Hobbes. The clunk? Somebody had laughed so hard they had fallen out of their chair. Every time, I would ask what was so funny. About half the time, after multiple breathless attempts at an explanation, I still wouldn’t get it. It didn’t matter. It was enough to know that somebody found something that funny with such regularity.

The reality of Stanford is a devastating paradox. We are here to learn about the world, and yet we close off and segment our own world at every chance we get. In some ways, we leave with more ignorance than with which we came in. By the end of my first year, Every time I arose from the stairs though, my faith in the house would be renewed; my faith in the inherent benevolence of humanity, given the freedom and respect it deserves, would grow just a little stronger. Through the honeymoon of fall, through the stress of finals, through frustrations over the cleanliness of the house, through the house at its most emotional and irrational, I would rise the stairs and witness in front of me visual confirmation that in its nature, in its fundament, Chi Theta Chi is a happy house. Are there tears? Yes. Are there existential crises? Maybe a few, but we don’t get to hide them from everyone. Nobody gets the luxury of being let go.

I cannot speak to the thickness of the walls and floors in EBF or Columbae or Kairos, and how they do or do not constrain the flow of laughter, nor can I tell you if our walls and floors are in strict accordance with the building codes for university student housing in Santa Clara County, but I do know that inspections are planned to begin in the spring, and that the house is supposed to be vacated by the summer for renovations.

If the house were to truly lose its independence and become a fully integrated university-owned co-op, if it were to be renovated in a fashion that would bring it to the same standards as every other university-owned residence at Stanford, future residents might be able to play their music a little bit louder, they might have a little more quiet when they are trying to study, but it would come at a cost: someone might break out in fits of hysterical laughter and others wouldn’t know about it. It may never be the subject of a civil suit, but I see this deprivation as a life safety issue as well. The nature of a paternalistic institution, like the one that oversees housing at Stanford, from the architecture to the administration to the calendar, is built to protect its young charges from ever having to hear shrieks or screams. However, if we are really here though to have a a small community experience, to integrated living and learning, to prepare students for a life of leadership, intellectual engagement, citizenship and service, then we need a place to hear the screams, because screams are a part of life, and we need to learn to know how to deal with them. And, so we can make sure that they are screams of laughter, every single time.

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5 Responses to “The Screams These Walls Shall Not Contain: A Personal Statement”

  1. Anonymous says:

    “whomever they’re talking about, might actually here them”

    *hear

  2. Luke says:

    Right the duck on!

    University housing take note: your attempts to make students “more comfortable” by unstuffing (ie segregating) and compartmentalizing students in thick, plain walls (ie burying us in our solitude), may be the root cause of the horrendous binge drinking, social alienation, and general mental anguish of many Stanford students.

    We have the entire rest of our lives to live in corporate constructed fantasy lands in exurbia! Please don’t make us start now!

  3. Joy says:

    Right on Peter. Well said.

  4. Jessica Talbert says:

    Love you for this Shotgun. You’re amazing.

  5. Robin Jones Maloney says:

    Nicely stated, Peter! You capture the essence of the house as it was when I lived there many years ago. Glad it still holds the same magic today.

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