It’s that time of year again. With the brisk autumn breeze come to the Amherst campus, in hordes and droves, the most academically gifted, extracurricularly involved, and altogether presentable students the New England prep-school circuit (and a handful of impressively endowed public schools) has to offer. And their parents.
Thankfully the college has a convenient method for corralling these keen kids: the prospective student tour. The basic form is simple and infinitely replicable. At a scheduled time on a scheduled date, Amherst-interested youth and their parental unit(s) meander down to the admissions office and embark upon a leisurely and meticulously planned stroll across campus, hitting all the key spots (a not-decrepit dorm [e.g., not Cohan], Val [notably not the food], the strikingly scenic view from atop Memorial Hill) while an exuberant student tour guide (invariably an extrovert, often a theater aficionado) runs through every admissions-brochure cliche possible to cram into a 45-minute period (drink when you hear “around half of students take a Five College class,” “the open curriculum — you never have to take a math class ever again,” or “we are now approaching the best — and only, haha — dining hall on campus”). Going on a tour is basically like downing a smoothie-blend of all the promises that admissions officers make when trying to sell you on Amherst.
But the way we campus inhabitants experience the tours is quite different. Each morning, I awake to a monologue about the merits of PVTA-ing to Mount Holyoke outside my third-floor Morrow window — apparently, it’s not worth it. I can only hear the soliloquy because of the grainy max-volume microphones they use even when the tour is all of eight people and which make them sound like rabid-bulldog political organizers rallying in support of the right to bore me to death.
The upside: The tours have massively improved my patience for trudging behind slow-moving crowds. With inexplicable precision, the ambling clusters seem to have learned my class schedule; they clog the requisite pathways, trailing behind their backwards-walking tour guide (“Be sure to let me know if I’m about to hit something” — toothy smile — “All right, guys?”) in a manner and speed not unlike the eponymous stumblers of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
By far my most unsettling regular encounter with tourers is when I sense their coolly appraising gaze catch on me. I think I know how the monkeys at the zoo feel. Or the fish at my dentist’s office. I’ll be in Val, snacking and working, and I glance to the window only to see an old man in a brand-new mammoth hat staring back. He’s unashamed, as if behind a one-way mirror. (“Observe, kiddo, the Amherst student in his natural habitat. Isn’t it marvelous how he types his essays, with the simple carefree air that only a liberal-arts-college student can muster? Isn’t nature beautiful?” I imagine he says.)
I want to be clear: Neither the tour guides nor the prospective students are the object of my mild annoyance. The former are just doing their job, and in a sense so are the latter. The college itself is responsible for the lethargic, disconcerting propaganda machines that are the prospective student tours. (Ragging on the college is passé, but tragically still a necessity.) They seem to exist primarily as a way to influence the way these possible future application statistics see the college; I think it incredibly likely that the high-schoolers would learn more about Amherst just walking around on their own, free of the filter: schlepping their way through the Cohan basement, peeking nervously through the window of abandoned and dilapidated Merrill, and, I’m sure, still ending up atop Memorial Hill to watch the purple-tinted sunset over the Holyoke Range.
While my qualms with the tours themselves are real, in writing this rant I think I’ve stumbled onto an explanation buried deep in my subconscious for why they bother me so much. To put my cards on the table, I’m one of the very prep-school brats I’m referencing (albeit from Texas rather than New England), and my junior spring break was spent gazing up at the high towers and pointed arches of all the elite East Coast colleges that you can reasonably visit in a two-week period. So having to see the tours and hear all the admissions cliches takes me back to a time when I was preoccupied with securing a successful future, which I tied heavily to getting into one of said elite East Coast colleges. They’re an unwelcome reminder.
But my cynicism belongs only to me. In the true spirit of the issue perhaps I should return to my student-tour qualms with fresh eyes and try to approach the admissions process with an ounce of charity — after all, where would I be without my Mammoth pride?