Colleges are back, showing the way, or ways

By John Pixley

We were driving north on Mills Avenue, stopped at the light at Arrow Highway. There was a spiffy little black car ahead of us with an interesting bumper sticker: “Beto for Texas.”

Beto? Surely that’s Beto O’Rourke. Now, there’s a bumper sticker I haven’t seen in these parts and someone I haven’t heard about for a minute.

Yeah, Beto O’Rourke — the guy who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. The one who, in what was surely a first for a candidate for president or any office (outside maybe high school or college), skateboarded in a video that went viral. Yeah, that guy. Well, he’s now running for governor in Texas. So, this is a new sticker, not some faded one from years past.

As we headed north on Claremont Boulevard, we followed the car until it turned left, appropriately, into a large Pitzer College parking lot. It figured, I thought. Probably some kid from Austin, out here attending Pitzer, a college known for liberal activism.

Yes, the Colleges are back in session, with thousands of students back in town. Actually, they have been here for over a month, but their presence is still a breath of fresh air and a reminder that these prestigious, if not elite, institutions put our fair town on the map. They certainly enrich Claremont and make it all the more fair. And so many friends have told me, when I say I’m from Claremont, that they have a relative or a dear friend who went to college here.

I don’t know if the car was going to Pitzer, and it was probably unfair to characterize the driver as I did. The driver may have been headed to Claremont McKenna or Harvey Mudd, both of which are also on the street he or she had turned on. Almost instinctively, I was going off on the old stereotypes that were all but ingrained in me growing up in this college town: Pitzer College = liberals, “potheads”; Harvey Mudd = nerds, geeks; Claremont McKenna = conservatives, jocks; Scripps = feminists; and Pomona = preppies.

Yeah, like I say, these are old stereotypes about the five undergraduate institutions here. Scripps is still a women’s college where feminist ideals are very likely encouraged, and Pitzer still ranks high on the progressive activism scale. But, for example, when I was growing up, CMC was Claremont Men’s College, not Claremont McKenna College, and was very unlikely to host such speakers as Ken Kesey and the former leftist L.A. Times political cartoonist Paul Conrad (although the reception to his commencement address was tepid and included some boos).

In any case, the students are back, and things have picked up.  It’s not like in years past, when Claremont literally came back to life when the colleges resumed classes, back when it was said the sidewalks rolled up at 5 p.m., when the city, at least in my eyes, was a sleepy, small town.  Now not only are there more things going on around town, including a much livelier Village, there have been more and more concerts, plays, talks and other presentations at the Colleges — at least one a day or evening practically — in the last 15 or 20 years.

This is very much the case now as the colleges get back to somewhat normal; when the pandemic is over but not over, despite what President Biden said recently on 60 Minutes; when life is going ahead almost at full throttle, even as thousands are still getting COVID and hundreds are dying from it every day; when we don’t know whether or not to wear a mask; when I feel naked, not to mention unsafe, if I go out without one, and almost foolish, like I’m hopelessly not in style, out of fashion, if I wear one. The Colleges are moving along carefully, doing their thing as best they can in this weird time.

It has been good to be back in Little Bridges at Pomona College for concerts. I am comforted that all are required to mask up, including, when possible, the performers. But I will say it’s better than a year or so ago when attending a Pomona College concert required not only a mask but also a health attestation form and sometimes a vaccination card and I.D, like going through an airport security line.

 It has been even more of a treat to be back attending talks at Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum, which hasn’t been open to us townies for the last two years. I’m not going as often as I used to, but, again, it’s a treat to drop in and see such speakers as Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Guns, Germs and, Steel,” and Mary Ziegler, who studies abortion rights and how they relate to democracy, a hot topic these days.

I wear a mask there, but I’m very much in the minority, with most attendees unmasked. From what I see, most of those who do wear masks are community members and students, perhaps from other colleges, who come in after dinner to hear the speakers. Never mind the signs saying masks are required indoors except when eating, and the Athenaeum Fellow, when introducing the speaker, announcing that the college “strongly recommends” wearing masks. Is it required or “strongly recommended?” Maybe this confusion is why most here don’t bother with the mask.  Maybe everyone assumes everyone is vaccinated and that that’s good enough. Or is it some remnant of the college’s conservative, laissez-faire past? (See? Stereotypes die hard.)

 In any case, it’s nice to have the students back, masked (preferably) or unmasked. Whether it’s the guy, unmasked, I saw at the Athenaeum wearing slim white pants, a black, short-sleeved, button-up shirt and Top-Siders, looking like a Cape Cod native finding himself in sunny SoCal.  Or the one, masked when he wasn’t eating, I saw with long, blonde frizzy hair in a lazy Afro and a barely-there goatee, wearing a faded blue t-shirt and green shorts. He walked in wearing a big, brown, broad-brimmed straw hat with a tag hanging off the side. This may not have been included in the Ath’s dress code, but it fit right in with the greater L.A scene.

So, welcome back the students, enlivening Claremont all the more.

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