Confusion Corner: New way to define an old-time college town

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October 21, 2008

2:08 AM

Williamsburg, Va. n. (will-yuhmz-burg) 1. So-called college town characterized by equal parts pretension, condescension and soul-crushing humidity. Population best understood in derogatory stereotypical terms such as full of jocks, nerds, pseudo-intellectuals, crotchety old farts, young rapscallions, drunks, stoners, sober sallies, godless heathens, religious nutjobs, fascists, communists, anarchists, socialists and hack columnists. The above engage in a tenuous and elaborate ruse to present the image of a unified community to outsiders while inwardly feeding an endless cycle of bickering and prejudice which will inevitably lead to the population’s own demise. Also, somehow, able to threaten the old mores of religious values and free expression — simultaneously.

2. An elegantly restored colonial city with an institution of higher learning that fosters a tightly knit, diverse student community of critical, free thinkers. The school and city provide a myriad of opportunities for students to express themselves socially, intellectually and athletically in an open and welcoming environment. Still, it is stricken with soul-crushing humidity.

Every fall that I’ve returned to the College of William and Mary has been characterized by both emotional trepidation and excitement. I look forward to all of the so-called studying I’ll be doing with friends and the odd street person dressed as a colonist, while I simultaneously find myself dreading much of what school in general, and Williamsburg in particular, represents. Over the years, however, my unease has evaporated, leaving in its place a fondness that I will be slow to let go of after graduation next spring. I actually have a sneaking suspicion that I will, one day, miss this place a lot.

This is not to say that my change of heart corresponds with a greater movement among the student body. The further I get from cynicism, in fact, the louder it all seems to get around me. People “can’t wait to get out,” or “have nothing to do,” or “resent getting their sweat glands ravaged.” Despite my misgivings, I should think these are not uncommon sentiments — not now, and not in the city’s long and illustrious history. With that in mind, I follow in the grand traditions of Sir Isaac Newton and Nick at Nite in offering an immutable law pertaining to the facts of life: Williamsburg is an area that people love to hate.

Historically, my statement certainly rings true. If one extends our borders just a tad to include Jamestown, then this area has a long history of spiritual aridity — one can imagine the Jamestown settlers lamenting the sad offerings in the way of nightlife, an attitude only accentuated by the loss of over 80 percent of colonists to hunger and malaria and an inability to paint with all the colors of the wind.

Along the same bent, the University of Virginia takes every opportunity to remind us of Thomas Jefferson’s comment, that Williamsburg was an inhospitable bog. Then again, Jefferson was prone to wearing wigs over his real hair, a fact that precludes my ability to take his opinion seriously. In fact, it would not surprise me to learn that the humidity of this interminable bog frizzed up his faux-coif, so that he had no choice but to retreat deep into his mountain lair. Sissy.

No, Williamsburg-hate runs fast and deep, and comes from people on all sides — a fact that perplexes me when I look around. The community as a whole teems with unique groupings and relationships that could only happen here. In a community where The Pillory and The Virginia Informer can coexist, and students can publish treatises on blowjobs, there is a solid commitment to the freedom of expression. And at a school where the Campus Catholic Ministries and the Drag Ball compete to hold their events in the very same facilities, a commitment to maintaining a welcoming environment exists, mostly.

Williamsburg neither represents an inner circle of hell, nor is it the most exciting place in the world. More likely, Williamsburg is a microcosm of American society as a whole — except with fewer bars — touting most of its best elements, and a few of its worst. But that’s on a broad level, beyond most of the day-to-day. What matters more, as with any place, are the people with whom you surround yourself. And here, the options pretty much run the gamut of possibilities.

Brad Clark is a new Confusion Corner columnist. He now thrives on Williamsburg’s humidity.

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