“Shimer College was founded in 1853 in Mount Carroll, an Illinois Prairie town. They’ve been battling various catastrophes for decades. The local train service was shut down in the 1970s, making their first campus untenably isolated and also – according to the New York Times – ‘a haven for drug users’. That nearly finished them off.”
I spent most of my childhood in Mount Carroll. When I was six or seven, during Shimer’s last few years in our community, I was chastised by my stepmother for repeating a remark I’d overheard from a fellow 2nd Grader about Shimer students being a bunch of hippies who did drugs.
Instead of perhaps calmly explaining to me that making generalized assumptions, particularly regarding people about whom you knew very little, was the ignorant and lazy way to go about forming one’s opinion, my stepmother, as per usual, got all huffed up with self-righteous indignation. It was as if I’d just rattled off the most vile string of words she’d ever heard.
With a scolding tone, she informed me that my great-grandmother (by then a retired teacher) had graduated from Shimer College.
“Are you saying your grandmother’s a hippie that did drugs?!” (*)
The argument made no sense to me. My great-grandmother graduated from Shimer fifty years ago, I thought, so what’s that got to do with the kids going to school there now?
What I realize now is that my stepmother was also making a generalized assumption about Shimer students, of whom she knew very little, only her assumption was traveling in the opposite direction of the rumors I’d heard.
To be jumped on like this, for merely repeating (what I thought was) a well-known rumor about Shimer drug use…well, that was more than a bit confusing for my seven-year-old mind, especially coming from my stepmother. Like my dad, she was vehemently anti-smoking, anti-alcohol, anti-drug.
This was the same woman who, in 1974, had angrily poured two mugs of beer for my four-year-old stepbrother and I (when I was five), then told us we couldn’t leave the kitchen table until we drank them…
…only because she’d grown irritated that he and I would often tell each other how good our “beer” was whenever we drank our bottles of Orange Crush. Forcing us to drink real beer was her way of teaching us a lesson…which could have easily backfired if either of us discovered a taste for beer and downed the entire mug.
Same as my stepbrother that day, I took one sip and nearly choked. Neither of us could take another. We had to sit at that table, staring at those mugs of beer for what seemed like the next thirty minutes or so before she sent us to our room. Lesson learned? Kindergarteners drinking Orange Crush have no business pretending to drink beer!
This same woman, just two or three years later, was now offended that I seemed to be expressing disapproval of our local hippie drug users, that I was being narrow-minded and judgmental. Or that I was repeating something she, for some reason, believed to be not even remotely true.
But you can tell a rumor’s got some kernel of truth to it when, thirty years later, even The New York Times finds it worth a mention:
Not exactly a vindication of my Seventies Childhood impression of the Shimer student body, but close enough.
(*) Years later, it occurred to me that, if I’d known in the mid-Seventies what I found out later on, I could have responded with “Great-Grandma’s not a hippie drug user, but her granddaughter, my mom, is. Mom told me herself she used to party with pot-smoking Shimer hippies when she was a teenager in the mid-to-late Sixties. So there.”