It was the only semester I ever lived in a dormitory,
and I learned lessons about how the real world works.
It was 1970. I was 20, and I wanted to get out
of Lawrence. I don't know how I picked the godforsaken place, but I ended up in a college in rural southwestern New Hampshire.
Those were the days before business expansion into the area. The region was mired in Appalachian style poverty- with people
living in rusted out trailers and run down farms. And the resultant sparse contact with the outside world, combined with the
constantly overcast weather exacerbated the sense of isolation of the place- which could be overwhelming at times.
One day in the student union, I was talking with two friends from Massachusetts about poverty. We decided that instead of
mere talk, we should actually do something about poverty. We decided to start a collection for the poor of the area. We talked
to people, and before long the news spread around campus. A meeting was held. Word spread more, and donations came in. There
was publicity, and more meetings. Our poverty collection became a movement, and even more people joined, some sincere and
others motivated by status seeking and crass opportunism.
The power of our movement was growing, as if
we had started a pebble rolling down a mountainside which became a landslide. But a delicate psychological balance was breached-
and control was slipping out of our hands. We original three long haired guys morphed into subcommittees and semi-committees
with everybody doing their own thing.
Somebody talked to the manager of the school cafeteria, and made
an arrangement. If boarding students wished, they could sign a waiver agreeing not to eat in the cafeteria on a certain day.
When a few hundred students signed the waiver, the manager contributed the difference to the poverty fund. My friends and
I also signed the waiver, and we decided that later that day we would make supper in the dorm room. Meanwhile we weren't aware-
or if we were, we didn't care- that another committee across campus was pushing the idea that students should not only sign
the waiver, but should also fast that entire day- in order to raise consciousness about hunger and suffering. My friends and
I neither proposed that idea nor were consulted, and felt no need to go along with it. The night of the fast, we cooked in
the dorm room. We failed to consider the odor of roast pork with onions and gravy permeating the dorm building where students
were suffering hunger. Let's just say that it aroused deep resentment, magnified by the narrow minded provincialism of the
place, which had already made them suspicious of outsiders.
So without having done anything wrong, our stock
fell. Vague rumors circulated about mismanagement of funds, malfeasance- false, of course, but could those Massholes be involved?
I learned that avoiding the appearance of impropriety is almost as important as avoiding the actual impropriety.
But other lessons were yet to come. Eventually the collection phase ended, and a power struggle ensued among the various factions.
Moreover, we had forgotten to ask the most basic question: Whom do we distribute the funds to? You can't simply go around
door to door and say, "Hi, I see by the wretched house you live in that you're poor. Here's some money. The folks in those
old hollows were proud Yankee stock, and would probably have starved to death before accepting our money. We had neither thought
to ask them what they needed, nor knew how to ask them. We were from another planet.
Then I learned about politics in the last week of the
semester. The fund was a political football, and still in play. While students and faculty were distracted with finals and
leaving for the summer, the chairman one of the committees -claiming legitimacy- passed a resolution of his group to hire
two people to work through the summer to "research" the question of fund disbursement. When we investigated, we discovered
that the two people hired would be the very same chairman of the committee and his girlfriend - and their salaries would consume
the entire fund- in today's dollars about $20,000.
The three of us went to the dean; a young, hip guy
in his thirties, and we told him everything. The next day, he banned all committees and seized control of the fund. He contacted
an old man from the village church and asked him straight out what they needed. The old man distributed the money to the poor
Vilified, despite the noblest of intentions; loveless, despite a surplus of women on campus;
shunned, but more experienced in the world; we three longhairs hitchhiked home after that one semester having seen how the
real world works and having learned that it's not always easy to help people, but sometimes you should try anyway.