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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

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Unavoidably detained by the world

Against the backdrop of the bright orange and yellow seats, the man sat almost attempting to shrink himself behind his big, black duffle bag. The train, overflowing with people, had a thick haze of carbon dioxide filling the small voids between bodies. 

Every few seconds he would squirm his hand into the duffle and pop out a big, puffy Cheeto. When enough people had gotten off the train, I sat next to him and learned his name, Ben, and his occupation, a janitor in the financial district of New York. His first question of substance threw me through a loop, “What does home mean to you?”

I didn’t really know how to answer it — the people, place, amorphous idea of ‘religious community’, or maybe as a concept it only derives meaning from what we place on it. What can home be, or what is it?

I was apprehensive about coming to Notre Dame. I made a buzzer-beater decision to choose it. In the final Zoom call from admission we were told by Don Bishop, the former director of admissions, in a somewhat smirking tone, “If we’re doing our job right, these should not be the best four years of your life.” A glimmering light of honesty in a foggy haze of propaganda. 

The smooth asphalt circle. Gaunt-brutalist-80s architecture building. A frail tree hanging next to the front door frame. Siegfried became my introduction to Notre Dame. Playing cards with Smoge and his Quad after a football game. Moving in, seeing the smiling (masked) face of my first-year RA, Pat McGuire. It became the place where I slept, and eventually where I found brotherhood

Slivers of eudaemonia abound throughout campus. I will forever cherish small moments. The morsels of intellectual breakthrough with my research advisor, Meghan Sullivan — who routinely made me fall in love with learning whenever that devotion waned. During dorm mass giving hugs to every man in the pews as a sign of peace. My thesis advisor Peter Cajka who made me excited to learn and enraptured by the pursuit of knowledge. Or: office hours with Korey Garibaldi and Kathleen Cummings, who helped me master the simple art of a sentence.

But do slivers really count as home? 

A cadre of priests who became my own safety net — Fr. Joe Pedersen, Fr. Gerry Olinger, Fr. Drew Clary, Fr. Joe Corpora, Fr. Kevin Grove — were always there to sit on the dirty shag carpet in my despair. Always there to tussle about various political stances. Each of whom came from different universes of thought from each other and myself.

When I first started the job as a resident assistant in Siegfried, one of my friends questioned me on my ability to make it a “comfortable home for Catholics who feel disenfranchised by the University.” I originally attempted to cover up my perceived deficiency in providing for Catholic students by COVERING my door with flyers for the Hallow app, prayers to various Saints and every campus ministry resource I could find. 

Notre Dame is a weird bizarro world where those with power — money, influence or institutional backing — claim a mantle of persecution while actively persecuting others. Students for Child-Oriented Policies (SCOP) in their words, was founded in response to the creation of an LGBTQ+ club on campus. In their video fundraising, they depicted a rejection felt by “society, Notre Dame and peers for their preservation of traditional sexual morals.”

Students will decry a type of “cancel culture” that makes them feel persecuted for their speech. Those same individuals then stand by stating nothing when students are charged for protesting complicity in genocide and actively have police outside of every single event they hold. Those same individuals cheer as clubs with any pro-choice tilt are denied club status. A “persecution” that is so achingly hollow when those claiming to have stones thrown at them then begin to launch boulders at other people.

Many in University administration claim that, “If everyone is angry at us, we’re doing something right.” There is however a stark difference in power — when clubs with particular views are funded by super PACs, have nearly unrestricted support of the University and a media ecosystem willing to publish whatever horses**t opinion they have. Nobody would look to the civil rights movement today and say both sides are angry at the state for the incredibly slow unwinding of anti-black policies.

A reality crystalized earlier this semester when I was in an on-campus medical appointment and was told, “When a man and a woman get together that is a little piece of heaven. When it’s two men, that’s just an early disgusting hell.” Being asked while going around the dining halls collecting signatures for a non-discrimination petition, “Well-done, medium-rare or rare? How thoroughly do you wish to be cooked in hell?” Watching as my friend, a 5-foot-7-inch Black woman, was told at a football game that she did “a really good job last basketball season,” and she looked “like an animal on the prowl.”

That is the unfortunate contradiction of being at Notre Dame. A shroud of beatific kindness that’s so often undergirded by a brittle cruelty. In the 1990s Nikole Hannah-Jones (the creator of The 1619 Project) wrote a letter to the editor of The Observer entitled, “Notre Dame is yours but the world is mine.” She etched how her experience in the “white wilderness of Notre Dame” was an encounter with the cruel underbelly of the Catholic community that called itself a “family” as long as you looked, thought and acted the right way.

I have done things that 18-year-old Dane cannot fathom — crossing thresholds and arenas of possibility. Driving to the Iowa caucuses in the middle of winter with Isa Sheikh. Posing in Vogue for Thom Browne. Becoming a finalist for the Rhodes, Marshall and Truman scholarships (but not winning a single one — ouch). Getting flown around the world by the grace of Our Lady (Nepal, Bosnia and Herzegovina, College Station, Dallas, Arkansas for a summer, New York City, District of Columbia, New Haven, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and more). All things that would not have been possible without this place.

Notre Dame has taught me how to soak in the world like a sponge — people, experiences and knowledge that have exponentially accelerated my desire to make the world a more just place. 

Notre Dame has been a house, but not a home. Being here has broken me down. My experiences have injected me with cynicism. I realize the soaring values that far outshine the slimy reality. One of my favorite books, Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust,” has a line where the protagonists write a note to their parents, “(We) have been unavoidably detained by the world, expect us when you see us.” To Notre Dame, I say the same. 

To SCOP, the Irish Rover and the Sycamore Trust — Notre Dame is yours (for now). Yet, for me — a smart, empathetic and driven young man — the world is mine. You can fund a super PAC, use the power of the police to tear your fellow students down and be unwilling to engage in the cold hard work of engaging with those who are different than you. 

I hold a deep gratitude for the ways this place has challenged my ideals, made my will stronger and beliefs more nuanced. Nobody has the right to make me feel the ways I have let this place make me feel. I look forward to using my degree from Notre Dame to undo the broken structures you have perpetuated and to make Notre Dame (and the world) live up to our ideals.

The older man, chomping on his Cheetos, described home as a sense of safety. Of being able to unequivocally be yourself and not be judged for your job or place in life. Notre Dame has made it so that I feel my own power in the world — in the middle of my parish, in the Middle East and with people who could not think more differently than I do. Expect me when you see me.

Dane is a senior from Seattle graduating with a degree in American studies and peace studies. After Notre Dame, he’ll continue his career in government and public policy doing community organizing in Virginia. You can contact Dane at lucasdanesherman@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.