Let’s call this a confession.
Not long ago I was asked how I ended up attending Amherst College. In rummaging through my memory, I was abashed to realize that—and I mean this literally—I came to Amherst because of a copy of The Official Preppy Handbook in a mall bookstore. This satirical guide to the WASP elite of the Northeast was a bestseller in 1980, the year I entered high school. As a middle-class white girl from the rural exurb of Clackamas County, Ore., I had never heard of Amherst or pretty much anything else in the book. Nonetheless, something about the way the College was depicted captivated my imagination.
This seemed to make sense in retrospect. Though I had never been to New England, I had a vague but vigorous belief that it was my natural habitat, where I could mingle with the tweedy, the bookish, the freethinkers and the eccentrics. At the tender age of 14, I was already brimming with intellectual pretensions, a self-styled bohemian bluestocking who was certain that I’d been born into the aristocracy of the mind but left to languish among the philistines. When I saw Amherst topping a list of selective colleges (the college guidebook was still a new concept then), it cemented my ambition to apply. I somehow became convinced that Amherst would be the sort of cultural utopia I longed for.
So when asked to write something in honor of the Bicentennial of the Fairest College, I dug out a copy of The Preppy Handbook to see what had so captivated me. To my surprise, this is the entry I found on page 85:
Amherst College. Amherst, Mass., 01002: The “h” is silent. 1,115 men, 408 women, all competing with Smith and Holyoke for attention. 43% from Prep schools. 18% go to law school. The Fair Isle capital of the northeast. Every student excels in winter sports. Heavy frat action. SATs: V650, M670.
Now, this makes absolutely no sense. Not one item on this list bore any relationship to me, then or now. I knew no one who attended prep school and wasn’t even sure Oregon had prep schools. I’d never seen a Fair Isle sweater before, I wasn’t clear on what counted as a winter sport, I looked down my nose at fraternities and my SAT math score hovered somewhere south of 400. I was inexplicably unfazed by the stark gender imbalance and the snide comment about Smith and Mount Holyoke.
How this cynical little portrait catapulted me to Amherst I cannot explain, except to conclude that my imaginative desires outstripped my powers of observation. But so it did. Oddly, the process of applying, finagling financial aid and convincing my frugal father to let me go did almost nothing to abate my ignorance of the College. Accustomed to the large state universities of the West, when I arrived on campus in the fall of 1985 I was shocked to find the College so small (that, at least, I should’ve gleaned from the handbook). It was a thrilling surprise to discover there was no core curriculum, bringing a welcome end to my dismal math career. And I had no idea what this “Williams” was that everyone kept mentioning (apparently, I had not bothered to read to the end of the alphabet on the selective colleges list).
Yet, here’s the kicker: Once I got the lay of the land, life at Amherst was almost exactly as I’d envisioned it. For the first time, I was surrounded on all sides by unashamed book readers, midnight debaters, highbrow wisecrackers, eccentric creators and ambitious minds. It wasn’t just my friends or our cohort. However people arrived—as jocks, preps, grinds, flakes, rebels and all the other teenage stereotypes of those years—it seemed to me that the College created a community, however imperfect, out of our most thoughtful, curious and eager impulses. When I took a work-study job in Frost Library’s Archives and Special Collections, and later when I wrote about Amherst as a professional historian, I found the annals of the College teeming with these sorts of characters. Even now, decades later, I delight in finding these traits among fellow alumni, faculty and staff.