It’s possible that once, a long time ago, I was present at a college house party when cops arrived.
Okay. I was definitely present. And probably not once but twice. I didn’t get a ticket or arrested, but my friends and I were scared out of our wits. We were afraid of what our parents would do to us if they found out we’d been arrested. We were afraid of what jail might have looked and felt like. We were afraid of what having an arrest on our records would do to the possibilities in our futures. This had been instilled by entire communities through word and example. College of Charleston president Glenn McConnell shared an intention to instill at least some similar respect in an email he sent last week to students after several reported incidences prompted a suspension of all alcohol related activities for fraternities and sororities. Apparently, for students at the College of Charleston — which was just named one of the top 20 party schools in the U.S. by the Princeton Review — this mindset is now antiquated.
A few days after moving to Charleston last year, I put my kids to bed, full of anticipation for their first day of school. Soon after, a party started across the street. Remembering my college days, I went to bed and listened to music on my headphones and read a book until I fell asleep.
Around 2:30 a.m. I was awakened by a glass bottle breaking in the middle of the street, followed by shouts, laughter, and curses. Soon my dog was barking because the noise kept getting louder. My son woke up in tears, and once I’d comforted both him and the dog, I tried to lay down, but the moment I closed my eyes I heard two girls yelling in my driveway. I walked onto the balcony and saw them sitting there with their beer bottles.
“Hey!” I said crankily. “Can you move along and keep it down? My kids are trying to sleep.”
“Who are you?” the girls yelled. “Oh my gawh!”
“I’m the person who owns this house, now get out of my driveway!”
“OhmyGAHD! I can’t believe she’s talking to us like that!”
When my son woke up again I’d had it. I called the police.
Fast forward to last weekend. As we sat talking in the kitchen, we heard roars and shouts from across the street. It didn’t stop, so we went outside to check it out at the same time as one of our neighbors. A squad car had already arrived in response to another neighbor’s call, and what seemed like hundreds of kids were pouring out of a house.
“Hi,” one girl grinned at us as she put her bra on beneath her shirt.
An officer came and gave us the details, and said one kid in particular was making the situation worse for everyone by taking a bad attitude with the cops.
After the policeman returned to his car, the kid in question appeared — his voice dripping with faux concern — asked if we lived around here and how we’d been affected by the party. Lacking the self-awareness to realize his terrible acting skills, he furrowed his brow at our answers and said, “Hmmm. Yeah. I understand.”
“I really don’t think you do,” I said.
When he tried to insist, I asked him about his own mortgage and responsibilities.
“I pay my own rent!”
You could have seen my eyes roll from Mars.
The conversation ended with the kid telling us we could go fuck ourselves.
Cultural values and mindsets tend to work in impressionable waves. There’s been plenty of reports claiming that millennials are basically the worst crop of humans to have inexplicably appeared on the planet Earth. We know this isn’t true. Millennials didn’t independently arrive at the belief that there are no authorities, only peers. They grew up seeing a skepticism of authority from their parents, who grew up with financial crises and rising divorce statistics. The kids’ grandparents experienced their first taste of widespread material wealth after bucking the hierarchical framework that allowed their own parents to break free of Depression-era mindsets. A chain of questioning authority led us here, where the resulting demand for respect has evolved into an expectation rather than something to be earned.
In our “Millennial Magnet” city, college students manage life with feedback only from their peers, leaving disrespect and disdain toward older and more experienced neighbors unchecked. But the blame for this doesn’t only fall on the GenX and late Boomer shoulders. An example of respect for others needs to be set by everyone. What cultural attitudes are we impressing on students while they’re here, anyway?
When a college with a diversity problem defunds programs that directly affect accessibility for students of color and the disabled, an impression is left of an institution’s disinterest in a variety of experiential points of view. When a city can’t seem to figure out the order in which it should prioritize tourism development versus the foundations that make a community “home,” it gives the impression that business is more important than everyday relationships. If the city and College of Charleston act as if the vast array of the community’s experiences matter, students will learn to be good neighbors by default.
I’m tired of being shocked by the behavior of my college neighbors, and from what I hear when out walking the peninsula, so are many residents. Let’s step up as a whole community — one that includes a college administration that appreciates the wealth of local resources and people that should supplement the academic experience, a city that would like to keep a dynamic and diverse community close to its core, and neighbors who treat each other with mutual respect.
Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist focusing on gender, race, and class intersections while attempting to figure out why Americans find “diversity” to be a scary word.