Puzzling Out the Lewis and Clark Identity

Illustration by Sky Harris

By Molly Robinson Kelly /// Faculty Advisor

Have you ever been in a waiting room, or a vacation rental house, and found yourself bored enough to set to work on one of the bedraggled jigsaw puzzles so often left in such places? You dump the pieces out and start with something identifiable: an edge, a tree, a leg. The concave curves of one piece fit into the convex bulges of another, and slowly, the pieces connect to one another and start to form an image like the one on the box cover. You pick up speed; connections get easier as the number of remaining pieces grows smaller. As you go along, however, you find one mysterious piece. It appears to belong to the puzzle, but its contours don’t fit into any of the other pieces. You turn it this way and that, try to press it together with its brethren, but its curves and bulge are always too big, or too small. Eventually, you get called away and you leave the puzzle, its unruly outlier piece lying questioningly alongside its orderly companions.

Do you ever feel like this puzzle piece? If you do, paradoxically, you are probably not alone. In the almost 11 years I’ve been at Lewis and Clark, faculty, administrators, and students alike have been puzzling about community. Community as in, that thing we wished we had but (alas!) seem to feel we don’t. We hear that some students, faculty and staff leave LC because it lacks a sense of community. It would seem that we come to LC hoping to feel a connection to others who have also chosen to be here, but we often fail to find it. We might attribute this failing to ourselves (I don’t fit in!) or to others (these people are not like me!); to destiny, or “the Administration,” or the weather, but however we explain it, the rough edges of our being don’t join comfortably with others. We would like to be part of the larger group that people call “the LC community,” but we just can’t manage to find it or, more importantly perhaps, to feel it.

I came to LC after spending time at three institutions (Princeton, Bryn Mawr, University of Alabama) that did not seem troubled by lack of community. Students were proud to be there, to wear the gear, to paint themselves in school colors for games, and especially to participate in the myriad traditions they saw themselves as inheriting from a long and worthy line of forebears. At LC, it was different. Students didn’t seem particularly attached to Lewis and Clark. They were focused on the wider world, which they intended to change. They liked this little place on the hill of trees. They just didn’t give it much thought, so intent were they on their interests and plans. If there was a Lewis and Clark student identity, it was well hidden.

It wasn’t until I had taught at LC for a few years that I perceived traits shared by so many of my students that I began to see them as part of the LC identity. For starters, LC students are incredibly creative. If I want to spice up my classes, all I have to do is ask my students to do something creative and talk about it. Creative endeavors light them up, visibly. They define creativity broadly—cooking, skiing, translating, knitting, photography, wood engraving, and tapestry have all come up in my classes, alongside the more expected writing, music, and theater—but they all know already that creativity adds something good to their lives.

They are also unfailingly sensitive, in how they relate to each other and the world. This sensitivity has its beautiful side. I’ve seen students attune themselves immediately to someone in class who is feeling awkward or inarticulate. Instead of the impatient or vaguely superior reactions I’ve seen at other places, time and again I’ve watched LC students react to their struggling peers with kindness. They cast sympathetic glances; they tactfully intervene to draw attention away from the afflicted student. No matter how oddly someone might behave, you never see LC students roll their eyes.

Unfortunately, the sensitivity I’ve noticed in LC students also has its painful side. Over the years, I’ve witnessed many moments of acute distress and suffering in my students. So many tears have been spilled in my office that I keep a box of Kleenex near my meeting table. Statistics bear out my sense that life hits LC students harder than most. According to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) survey of freshmen entering Lewis and Clark in 2010, 12.5% of LC students report having mental health issues, as compared to 6-7% for schools in our comparison groups (from LC’s External Review of Graduation and Persistence Rates, May 2012). In my experience, psychological distress can accompany creative and sensitive individuals more than it does others, and this statistic fits what I know of our students.

Finally, LC students can be… how to put it… a bit odd. Like their beloved Portland, they wear their weirdness with pride. But wait: have you taken a good look at the faculty lately? Unabashed eccentricity is hardly limited to the student body. Let’s face it, this campus is swarming with brilliant, creative oddballs.

The other evening, I attended the Halfway There event and sat at a dinner table with Rocky Campbell, who graduated from LC in 2000 with a degree in German Studies and SOAN. Rocky told us that when he was at LC, he didn’t have any sense of there being a typical LC student, or community. But then, years after graduating, he joined the Board of Alumni, and found himself in meetings with other LC alums. He described the quasi-epiphany he experienced when he looked around the room and realized that he felt strongly connected to these people. It wasn’t so much because they had attended the same school, but that they shared an outlook and a way of being in the world. He said, laughing, “I don’t know, they were just… Lewis and Clark!”

So maybe, we’re all a bunch of misfit puzzle pieces spread out on a table. No administrator, no wise god, no statistical study can figure out how our odd shapes fit together because not fitting is the very nature of us. And yet, even if our strange edges must stand at some distance from each other, and we may never form a coherent image people will recognize, like a football player or a charming old building covered with ivy, if you take a few steps back, you might just see something else emerging from the way we sit there, both apart and together. Something slightly bizarre and chaotic, but bursting with color and unexpectedness. It might even be recognizable to you as… something you’re part of. Perhaps we are a community after all: a glorious community of oddballs, loners, creative types, and misfits. Maybe it’s time to just go ahead and revel in the way we fit, precisely because we don’t.

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