The Feb. 6 issue of the New Yorker (the normal three days late) contained the sad and gripping tale of the college student, Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide last September after being tormented over his liaison with a man.
The excellent article (“The Story of a Suicide”) by Ian Parker clears up a lot of bad information that had been going around. Clementi and his roommate were thrown together for only a few days, long enough to propel him off the George Washington Bridge.
I was struck by two factors of this modern tragedy – one about the flaws in dormitory policies, one about how far bullying has advanced with modern technology.
College life comes off as Lord of the Flies, with electronics.
The young man, a violinist, had just come out to his parents, leaving inevitably jangled emotions. Then he went away to Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, but it could have been anywhere.
The article makes a good case for commuting to college, at least for the first few years. The system of matching up two strangers to live in a closet with beds and desks seems to be an experiment in abnormal psychology. Four roommates might be better than two – somebody just might exert leadership, compassion, know limits to cruelty.
Never having lived in a college dorm (I went from commuting to renting a crummy room near school to bunking in with my wife), I cannot imagine the thwarting of creativity, of privacy, in such close quarters.
I know, millions of students go through it, what’s the alternative, but it seems like a Petri dish for breeding bad vibrations. If some psych lab had been peeking in on these ill-matched roommates, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Instead, a whole cyber-dorm of unformed children was essentially peeking in.
We all know how cruel the human race can be. (Let he who is without sin, etc.) It is tempting enough to taunt the other, even without contemporary toys. But electronic spy equipment in the hands of 18-year-olds, away from home for the first time, is downright dangerous.
Clementi, just discovering his sexuality, arranged a tryst, asking his new untrustworthy blowhard roommate to clear out for a few hours, as millions of college students surely have done. In time, he might have been able to shrug off the notoriety or learn to be discreet. The realization that he had been observed put the young man on a bridge. Nobody showed rudimentary conscience until it was too late.
The author shows how the legal system seems unclear about just what crime was committed. We all know the cruelty of the tweet, the viciousness of the email. The escalation of the electronic toys race should make any adult shudder while sending children off to college.
*A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall -- Bob Dylan
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.