Wabash Made Me

If you’ll forgive me, this has nothing much to do with videogames. However, I saw this video of Michael Abbott discussing Wabash College’s environment, and wanted to post my own feelings about it; since I feel my Tumblr would not be the appropriate venue for such, that meant I felt I would put this here.

My own experience with Wabash still leaves me confused. At times I’ve contemplated writing a small book about it, largely focused on how Wabash both defined and challenged me as a genderqueer-identified gay male.

My first experience with Wabash was a brochure that gave me the typical spiel about the college, trumpeting facts and statistics for which I had no comparison other than the other brochures that cluttered my mailbox. Coming from a family where my parents were educated in Germany, I pretty much waded into the information that was being thrown at me by myself. What struck me about this particular brochure is the back had the mail-in card and asked a question: “When I come to Wabash I will be: (check either boy or man). When I leave Wabash I will be: (check either boy or man).” In a tongue-in-cheek manner I checked both as boy and sent it off.

When Wabash finally did send me the application, I recall taking it to school with me and sitting with my group of friends who were bedecked in black eyeliner and t-shirts that proudly displayed names like the Misfits, Tool, and Nine Inch Nails. I was never known as straight at this particular school, so we all had a good guffaw at the notion of myself attending an all-male college whose brochure was full of men who would be more prone to wearing Abercrombie & Fitch and other such labels.

At the same time, I applied to every college where I didn’t have to pay an admissions fee. My living situation at that time was such that I was without electricity, had no phone (at one point Wabash wanted to call me, so I gave them the number of a payphone near my house, and waited by it at the prearranged time), and my family was always one accident away from eviction and the homelessness that would entail. I wanted to go to college, and was encouraged to do so by teachers and counselors who never acknowledged my situation openly, even if they danced around it. This also meant I applied to every and any scholarship I could find: Wabash has quite a few to which I sent off materials. One of those was for creative writing and, to my surprise, it received a response.

What resulted is Wabash College offering to fly me out to Indiana and to stay with them for a Fine Arts Weekend, where I would read aloud some of my writing, attend a few classes, and stay with another Fine Arts Fellow. It was an offer I didn’t feel I could refuse. The weekend was as confusing as I’ve previously claimed my whole experience to be.

While meeting people around the fraternity in which I was staying, many topics were broached: my interests, in what I was involved, in what I thought I would major, my high school, and if I had a girlfriend. One thing I refused to reveal was my sexuality, even though I knew it would be a ‘thing’ were I to attend.

In the same fraternity in which I was staying was another Fine Arts Scholarship applicant, though for music. As often happens at Wabash, that weekend featured a rather raucous party atmosphere, where the main attractions were to be alcohol and women. As I wasn’t really interested in either, I mostly stayed to myself and used someone’s computer to catch up on my email and such (something I did rarely then, and mostly at Clarksville’s public library). The other scholarship applicant came in to talk to me, and his very first question? “Are you gay or something?”

In complete opposition to this party atmosphere in which I felt uncomfortable, were the professors. From Abbott’s tour of the Fine Arts building, to the interview I had with Professors Castro and Hudson, and then the classes in which I sat, I was given the impression that the academics I would be presented would be exponentially more rigorous than the classes I was taking in high school, where I never took homework home, and easily participated in multiple extracurricular activities (as much to be involved as to stay away from home). I wanted to be challenged in that way.

In the end, I did receive scholarships and grants enough that my loans were not really that much. Wabash became, in my mind, the only college I could attend and not plunge myself into severe debt. With a hope that it would spell something new, I sent off my materials to acknowledge I would be attending, and spent that last summer torn between excitement and a quiet dread.

Over my four years at Wabash, I learned quite a bit. The lessons I learned foremost were how to educate myself, and how to question both that education as well as my surroundings. While the culture the Wabash professors seemed to want to press was to question and critically address topics, the feeling I received from a majority of the student body was one of just wishing I would be more normal and be quiet for once. I spent my time there constructing an identity that was not me.

I was not unaccustomed to putting on masks. The one I happened to put on at Wabash was one of being completely brazen, and daring people to question me. I put myself out there as much to question others’ beliefs, as to make myself a target and gather attention to the fact that there were other experiences. In many ways, it felt like a playing field where I could test how far I could push buttons and make people change their views.

Had I not attended Wabash, I doubt I would have become as outspoken as I have on certain topics. I would not have learned to check my own privilege as regards race when I did; this was a topic I forced myself to acknowledge when speaking with close friends who were participating in their own activism as regards race (I still recall some of my earliest conversations, and cringe when I think of what ignorant words came out of my mouth). It’s not as likely that I would have taken up my Gender Studies area of concentration. I would not have started writing about videogames when I did. There are many things Wabash introduced to me both in and outside the classroom.

Yet, when I left Wabash, I was completely lost. I had no idea how to function as myself, but almost completely as a caricature of a human being. I knew how to be an actor, how to be an activist, and how to be a spectacle demanding attention. I knew how to be openly gay at an all-male college. I also knew how to be male in sex, but not in gender in such an environment. All of this was mixed with the fact that I was nowhere near my family, and felt a deep sense of loneliness (which is not to say I was alone, I had very close friends with whom I still talk regularly). There was so much time spent wanting to make other people question their own beliefs, that I had not firmly established my own. By the time I walked away with my diploma, my hair both black and blonde in splotches, a rose clenched between my teeth (they were given us to give our mothers, though mine could not attend), I only had the vaguest ideas of who I was.

For quite some time I’ve acknowledged that Wabash gave me the voice I have, and that it stoked my passion for desiring to be critical. At the same time, I realize that as an all-male institution, if it wishes to remain such and not crumble into complete irrelevance, it needs to embrace a culture of questioning, as Abbott discusses during the embedded Chapel talk.

In my circle of friends there were people who were not-white, trans, gay, bi, and many other identifications besides. Wabash was stuck in between two environments: an academic body that seemed to encourage diversity against a predominantly white, straight, cis, able-bodied, and middle-class student body that did not want to question their own behavior, let alone how to accept something ‘other.’

Being all-male is one matter. Expecting everyone to conform to one type of male experience is completely another (especially when it typically engages in rhetoric and behavior that treats women as both objects and Other).

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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One Response to Wabash Made Me

  1. NordicNinja says:

    What a great post, and I missed that video of Michael. Thanks Denis!

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