Big Chair, Bigger Heart

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Parrish Beach, a pillar (pasture, rather) of the Swarthmore community: a see-all, tell-none source — until now. What would Swarthmore’s campus be without its largest and most strangely-named patch of grass? Where would we dump all of those piles of dirt? Where would glow-in-the-dark condoms plucked from the Mephistos SHA table end up if not on that beach, having fallen from the pockets of first years praying to glow-in-the-dark gods they’ll get some soon?

I caught up with Beach at the top of Magill Walk, a landmark spot for tour groups and orientation tablings. “I stepped on the Magill Plaque in [1881],” said Beach, who has never obtained enough credits to graduate. “Maybe the legend is true. Or maybe the college should put a little more focus on accessibility.” She explained that, being a gigantic swath of grass, she doesn’t fit in any of the classrooms. Not even Sci 101. “When they put in the big* lecture hall, I thought it might be my turn to be an academic weapon,” said Beach. When facilities fenced her in, however, it became impossible for her to take any course on the other side of Parrish.

Despite her academic failures, Beach has been an active member of the Swarthmore community since the beginning. She houses Swarthmore’s most iconic building, Parrish Hall. Beach believes strongly that she deserves more recognition – as much as her towering namesake or the adirondacks peppering her grass. “People talk about Magill and the Big Chair. They sit under the trees and have picnics on the lawn. They forget there’s someone under all that. I’d just love not to feel invisible, you know?”

Beach has become plenty visible of late, though perhaps not for the reasons she would like. The construction associated with the “To Zero by Thirty-Five” initiative has stripped her bare. When asked about these invasive procedures, however, she became immediately defensive. 

“It’s not cosmetic,” she told me. “People think it’s just for appearances, but it’s not. If it were, I wouldn’t leave piles of dirt everywhere. Those are my guts, all spilled out. It’s got to be for some higher purpose.” 

Beach turned away, but couldn’t hide a look of devastation. She refused to comment on whether or not she had been consulted in the planning of the project. She did, however, comment on its tagline. “We really are putting our smallest footprint forward,” she told me, smiling sadly. “I may be a whole two acres of grass and dirt piles, but Valerie said it herself! I’ve got dainty feet!”

I asked Beach about her favorite and least favorite Swarthmore traditions, and she brightened up immediately. “Least favorite is easy: all of orientation. People in sweaty sneakers stomping on me all day long, hot, hot weather, and enough icebreakers to shatter any glacier on the planet that hasn’t melted already. By the end of it all, I want to end it all, every year. There’s something about four hundred eighteen-year-olds asking each other the same four boring questions over and over again that makes you want to pull all your grass out and scream.” 

She went on about icebreakers for several minutes and, after sensing that she would not stop complaining without complete redirection, I abandoned that line of questioning. Dear reader, you will have to ask her about her favorite Swarthmore traditions on your own time.

Changing course, I asked Beach about her relationship with Scott The Arboretum.** Her face fell. “Scott and I were very close for many years,” she said. “Since I started undergoing these procedures, he’s been distant. Putting up fences. I feel so closed off from him now.” The Arboretum was established in 1929, and Beach is one of the few campus presences who remembers clearly the time before him. 

“It wasn’t the same before him,” she said. “Scott is such a good friend. He has this funny habit of stopping to read every little plaque he sees, which makes walks across campus an arduous journey for his cohort. But it’s sort of endearing.”

Finally, I asked Beach how she envisions the Swarthmore College of tomorrow. She thought for a moment before answering, then looked wistfully at the Big Chair, where sat a happy-go-lucky first year who was clearly in humanities courses only. “I see a Swarthmore where everyone has the same crippling workload,” she said. “You, for example, obviously have too much free time. Why else would you be interviewing me?”

*Readers will note that Sci 101 is big only by Swarthmore standards. 

**Mr. The Arboretum was unable to meet with me, as he is currently on a meditation retreat with Sue MacQueen.

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