The old college try

by Mellissa Martinez

After a recent tense city hall standoff, it appears that Pomona College will at last be permitted to move forward with its controversial new art museum. As a lifelong resident of Claremont and an employee of the Colleges, I find myself in the position of having friends on both sides of the debate.

Although it may be a long time before either side can see eye to eye, perhaps an idiomatic view of the goings-on can provide a unique perspective.

The disagreement between townspeople and the college came as a surprise to many. Most reports state that residents aren’t opposed to the idea of the new museum, but they are quite dissatisfied with the proposed location; some locals fear the college’s move across to the west side of College Avenue will eventually extend too far into the Village, which has led to the common use of the expression ‘college creep.’

The verb ‘to creep’ comes from the Proto Indo-European root meaning ‘crooked.’ Synonyms include ‘slither,’ ‘slink’ and ‘writhe.’ The verb led to the noun, meaning ‘despicable person,’ ‘thief’ and even ‘lice,’ while the adjective ‘creepy’ describes scary feelings or unease. More recently, the Urban Dictionary defines a ‘creeper’ as someone who does weird things—like stare at you while you sleep.

To its credit, Pomona College has taken residents’ concerns seriously and continued to jump through hoops to get the museum approved. They agreed to the initial provisions set forth by the council’s planning commission and have won the subsequent lawsuit aimed at stopping their creep across College Avenue.

The expression “jump through hoops” comes from the circus. It refers to the circular ring covered with thin paper, through which acrobats or trained animals would leap. In 1917, several decades after many had viewed successful (and probably non-successful) circus leaps, the expression made its way into English as a metaphor for performing a grueling series of tests at someone else’s request.

Ironically (for this piece), circuses and colleges played a role in the creation of the word ‘townie.’ Short for ‘townsman,’ ‘townie’ became a common term used in the 1820s and beyond to differentiate university students and circus workers who were just passing through from those who actually lived in the town.

Residents who oppose the museum point out that students will come and go but they—the townies—will be the ones to live with the parking restrictions and environmental impacts of the new structure. They passionately reject the displacement of historically-significant structures, the removal of venerable trees and what they see as inflexibility on the part of Pomona. In defending their position, they certainly gave it the old college try!

The expression “to give it the old college try” doesn’t come from colleges or circuses (or towns for that matter), it comes from baseball. As the story goes, a young man, probably Frankie Frisch, left college in the early 1900s to pursue major league success. In his first major game, the rookie made a valiant attempt to go after a ball that was out of his reach (stories of his heroic effort vary). A reporter seized on the opportunity to praise the former college kid’s effort by writing, “That’s the eye, young fellow. The old college try.”

As an unabashed Claremont townie, I have been opposed to city proposals in the past, namely a 7-Eleven on a corner near my house. There were residents who disagreed with me (many who didn’t live nearby) and I am thankful that they didn’t win that battle. Despite hurt feelings and bruised egos, we all moved on and friendships endured. Certainly there is no comparison between a 7-Eleven and a museum of art, but no matter how strong the sentiment, I am not an advocate of burning bridges.

‘To burn one’s bridges,’ or destroy any chance of returning to the status quo, is a version of ‘to burn one’s boats (behind oneself).’ The boat idiom still exists in British English, Spanish, French and even Chinese, while American English and German speakers prefer the bridge variant. Most likely, the origin lies in legendary boat-burning acts of military heroes. One article also notes that in antiquity, military bridges were actually made of boats. The point was to cut oneself off from all means of turning back.  

Is it possible that the longstanding amicable relationship between the town and gown has been compromised? Not likely. As I see it, there are many residents that found themselves somewhere in the middle or even in support of Pomona’s plans. Now, the logical way forward is through reconciliation. There are many idioms to choose from—opponents could mend fences, bury the hatchet, patch things up or make amends.

From my perspective, what really matters is that everyone continues to live in harmony—the trees, the PhDs…and the townies.


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