Like most people on campus, I’ve always had a well-defined idea of “Mary Lyon culture,” and, like most opinions on campus, this conception was based mostly off conjecture and rumor rather than facts or actual experience. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited ML, and I can’t name more than a few people I know who have actually lived there. Yet for myself and many others — including the editor who gave me this assignment — those two little letters have always connoted a land where nerds, nudists, and Nerf gun warriors run wild, a mysterious dorm far away, geographically and culturally, from the main campus.
In fact, while ML may be a bit of a hike from the rest of the college, the dorm is not exactly “quirky” in the way our dominant on-campus mythology constructs it. Current and former ML residents, in fact (including a nudist and one of the founders of the famed human-vs.-zombie Nerf gun wars) pointed out that the dorm’s most unique and consistent feature is an incredibly strong, involved sense of community, a place where people easily make a lot of friends.
Doriana Thornton ’16 lived in ML for a year and half. They spent their first semester of freshman year hanging out in ML every chance they could, and then moved in with a senior for the spring. The following year, Thornton lived in the dorm in a single.
Thornton was drawn to ML largely due to the residents, rather than any “quirky” activities.
“For me, what made ML so special was the people that lived there with me my freshman year and the closeness I had with them,” Thornton said. “Having people that shared my interests in sex positivity and body positivity was so cool.”
Asked how they found their way to ML in the first place, Thornton let loose their signature laugh and said, “It’s actually a pretty hilarious story.” After their Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention orientation workshop, Thornton mentioned to their workshop facilitator that they enjoyed playing strip Apples to Apples (similar to strip poker) at home. The facilitator encouraged Thornton to come to ML that Friday evening, when the game would take place.
“I was just really happy to be around that,” Thornton remembered fondly. Earlier that day, during an orientation ice-breaker, Thornton had been asked what they were most worried about at the college. “I had said, ‘Not being able to be naked, just around, like I can be at home,” Thornton remembered. Thus, being able to hang out naked in ML was “just really funny and really nice.”
The same night of the game, Thornton met someone who would remain their close friend throughout their first semester at the college. “We went and danced naked in the woods, and it was such a great experience. And that was my first time in ML,” they concluded, laughing again.
Thornton also enjoyed the distance between ML and the rest of campus, and said that it made them more likely to go for lengthy walks. “When I lived in ML, I walked a lot more and was a lot more willing to go on walking adventures,” Thornton said (they now reside in the Barn). “I remember doing ridiculous shit and walking to ridiculous places in the freezing cold.”
ML breakfast is also a unique and positive feature of life in the dorm, Thornton emphasized. They worked in the ML breakfast room for three semesters. Anyone can order “kooky” food, Thornton said — “We have food coloring and sprinkles and shit, and we’ll make you something neat, and we’ll sing … it’s pretty nutty … I made dope-ass omelets all day.”
Thornton, like the other ML residents I spoke to, talked about their time in the dorm with happiness and ease. “ML was great, just great people,” they said. “There were always just a lot of people in their hallways, in their rooms — it was pretty easy, most days, to walk around and hear something happening, and to just go into that person’s room and hang out with them.”
I was curious if this was a quality that pertained to the dorm itself, or came more from the people who ended up living there. “I honestly do think it was the people that lived there,” Thornton said. They reflected that their sophomore year was not quite as enjoyable as their freshman year, as many people had moved out. “I did still make really close friends, but I found myself sleeping more often in places that weren’t ML, and kind of bringing a community of people that didn’t live in ML over there to hang out, instead of already having those great people there,” Thornton said.
Thornton remembers too many funny ML stories to tell, they said — for instance, a Nerf gun battle once transformed into an eight-hour cuddle-fest. They also reflected on the way in which ML created a space for them to feel comfortable with and learn more about their own sexuality. “ML was where I got to explore my kinkiness,” Thornton said. During their freshman year, what Thornton referred to as a “high concentration of kinky people” lived in ML, and contributed to this comfortable atmosphere. (For more about kinky activity on campus, check out “Whips and chains excite them, sometimes,” in the first-ever issue of the Swarthmore Review, which mounted an exploration of BDSM at the college.) “I had never had the chance to explore such an important part of my sexuality before coming to college — actually, I hadn’t had a chance to explore much of my sexuality at all — and it was really cool to find people who had similar interests, or at least were not appalled by mine,” Thornton said.
ML culture is by no means static, Thornton pointed out. “I think the culture changes every year based on who’s living there,” they said. “There’s always an underlying culture of people who are into nerdy shit … actually, I don’t know. I have no idea — I mean, athletes used to live there and have crazy parties,” Thornton said, referencing the common story, difficult to substantiate but probably true, that ML was, years ago, inhabited almost exclusively by varsity athletes.
Thornton saw change within the dorm even on a year-to-year basis. “I know that during my sophomore year there weren’t as many sex-positive people … I had fewer friends there because dynamics were just different. For me, at least, every year’s been really different.”
The ML environment is also subjective, Thornton pointed out. “The culture also depends on where you are — like, how you feel at home in a place depends on where you’re at and what you need,” they said. “So I don’t know if any dorm has a culture … I pushed myself over there and spent all my time there because I felt so at home, but I haven’t been back this year. I’m not scared to go back or anything — it’s just that that place had so much meaning to me my freshman years and then a very different meaning my sophomore year … I don’t know, I just haven’t been back.”
Josh Ginzberg ’15 was placed in ML as an incoming freshman, and was initially nervous about living in the dorm, but, after sophomore year on campus, came back to ML as a SAM and now serves as an RA.
Ginzberg’s favorite feature of ML life is the strong sense of community. “I think a lot of dorms have difficulty with this, maybe because of the structure or because of the people in them, with cross-hall interaction, but ML has no problem with that,” Ginzberg said. As a freshman living on the second floor, Ginzberg’s friends were on different floors and of different class years.
“It was just a really great dorm community,” he said. “It really does tend towards a real dorm community, and then people find their groups of friends and everything, but there’s definitely a lot of interaction across all halls and class years.” Ginzberg thinks this stems in part from ML’s distance from the rest of campus. “I have no doubt that’s a function of being so far away from everyone else, but it’s also a lot about the people,” he said.
I asked Ginzberg about fun ML activities, and he mentioned movie screenings in the first-floor lounge, along with ice-cream parties. But I told him that what I really wanted to know about were the Nerf wars. To my surprise, Ginzberg revealed that he was actually one of the creators and first participants in the Nerf wars, which many on campus think of as an ML institution, but is actually a recent (and recently lapsed) phenomenon.
Ginzberg treated me to a brief history of the brief tradition. “I came to college, and I was like, ‘Oh, college means Nerf guns,’” Ginzberg said. As someone whose well-meaning yuppie parents did not allow them to possess any fake weaponry as a child, including Nerf and water guns — I was given a spray bottle instead, which was, needless to say, immensely dissatisfying — I can see the appeal and also the logic behind this statement. “A couple of other people thought the same thing, including my roommate,” Ginzberg recalled. The purchase of several cheap Nerf guns, and then the they ran around the dorm “pursuing and hunting each other,” Ginzberg said.
The Nerf wars rapidly grew in size, averaging twenty five to thirty participants each week (if only I could get this many people to write for the Phoenix or play women’s rugby…), until, at one point in Ginzberg’s sophomore year, 65 people showed up. “That was way too much — we had to restrict it to ML-only at that point, because it’s a residential space,” Ginzberg said ruefully.
Usually, Ginzberg explained, Nerf wars are conducted in what he called “humans-vs.-zombies mode,” which removes some of the competitive aspect of the game, as the zombies inevitably emerge as the victors. “There’s less cheating that way,” Ginzberg explained, “less of people saying that they didn’t feel a Nerf dart, because when you’re running with adrenaline you don’t feel a Nerf dart.”
In humans-vs.-zombies mode, humans shoot at zombies, who, if hit, must “go down” for thirty seconds. If a zombie tags a human, however, the human must become a zombie for the rest of the match, meaning that the number of zombies is constantly increasing. “You get some really creative people hiding behind doors, some humans trying to camp out in really open spaces so that they can see where people are coming from,” Ginzberg recalled.
Seeming to further prove the idea that ML culture changes from year to year, however, Ginzberg said that the Nerf wars have tapered off this year, due mostly to seniors’ lack of interest. “There hasn’t been as much enthusiasm, but there’s still a box of Nerf guns, so if people want to do that, they definitely can,” Ginzberg said.
Ginzberg thinks that the design of ML contributes to its communal feel, specifically the first-floor lounge. “You walk in and you’re in the biggest gathering space in the dorm, and that makes it very easy to join whatever’s going on — there’s always lots of hanging out, and we’ve got a TV in there and I think a PlayStation or something, and people just gather.”
So if ML is so great, why does it get such a bad reputation? Ginzberg thinks this is mostly because of the distance. “I can’t imagine why else it would get a bad rap,” he said. “It is far, for people who aren’t used to the walk or don’t like rolling out of bed and running to class, but I got to class a lot later when I lived on campus — it teaches time management pretty well, because you pretty much have to learn.”
I asked Ginzberg about people who might not enjoy or participate as fully in ML’s community. He again chalked this up mostly to distance. “It’s not like other dorms — you can’t just walk to the dorm that’s twenty feet away,” Ginzberg said. “You actually have to make an effort to get on campus, and it definitely is hard for some people.”
Others, though, Ginzberg remarked, like the distance, particularly those people who might want more alone time or space from the rest of campus. “You do get a bunch of different sorts of people in ML, some who really love the community and some who try to make or join another community,” he said. “It just takes some time to settle in, maybe a month or two, or there are some people for whom it never really clicks.”
I kept pressing, though — what about ML’s reputation as a nerd haven? “There’s definitely a very large contingent of people who do like some of the more classic nerd stuff — I would say I’m one of them — but I’d also say that there are plenty of people on campus who get attracted to that stuff who never live in ML and honestly never visit,” Ginzberg said.
So where does the stigma come from? “It would be unfair of me to say that ML gets its rep from people who haven’t been there, but a lot of proponents of ML’s more negative reputation have never been there, or have gone once and have had some bad experience and concluded that that encapsulated the dorm,” Ginzberg said.
Ginzberg expressed concern that this incorrect perception might frighten first-years who were assigned to live there. “There are things that are true — it does appeal to people who are comfortable being far from some of the social centers on campus and sometimes that does include a greater than average proportion of science-fiction/fantasy fans, more classic nerd people … I personally don’t see why it’s a negative but otherwise I don’t think it deserves much of what it gets,” Ginzberg said. “A lot of the reputation is from years ago,” he added, referencing ML’s history as a gathering space for the Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature, the precursor to the modern-day science fiction/fantasy club which organizes the annual Pterodactyl Hunt and campus-wide live-action role play, Psi Phi.
“It changes every few years,” Ginzberg concluded. “The fact that it used to be a place where so many varsity athletes gravitated towards, and then became a place for SWIL, and in the years I’ve been here has been neither, and has been a very community-oriented space … I don’t know if it’s going to stay that way, but that’s been my experience of it.”