Through the Looking Glass

And just like that, the school year ended, but everything else continued. Thousands of students returned home, retreating to a familiarity that resists the passage of time. Now that I’ve been home almost three weeks, I’d like to reflect on how this last year at school has been.

I’m not sure exactly what to make of my first year at college. Whatever it was, it began abruptly, with a thousand other freshmen putting their best foot forward, presenting only the greatest and coolest versions of themselves over icebreaker games and dining hall encounters. It began in a rush, ushered forth by an energetic combination of anxiety and wonder. We were battered by a hurricane of new faces, new opportunities, new visions of a so-called “Dartmouth Experience” — and we liked it. Those things always were.

For the first time, I could only rely on myself. I suppose 12 years of public school had done this to me. I couldn’t remember the last time I didn’t have an existing support system. If adjusting to college is tough for a sheltered suburban teenager, being surrounded by seemingly too-cool, too-confident students is the sugar in the raw that feeds the angst.

Up until winter term, I felt like the end of everything was upon me. The end of good grades. The end of social confidence. The end of home cooked meals. Despite it all though, I was happy. Dartmouth had so much to offer. I knew I was in a special place at a special time. I liked Dartmouth.

But I wasn’t sure if I loved it. With or without my approval though, everything continued; and, as the year unfolded, slowly, slowly, before accelerating in a race toward June, everything got better and better.

This past spring, I experienced moments of being, my mind recognizing happiness while taking in the beauty of the still campus around me. I think for the first time, I could say there were extended periods where I really loved what I was doing, where I was and what I lived for.

It was because of the culmination of a million things, some big and some small. I liked the murky sapphire of the springtime night sky, a glow that burns long after the day’s energy fades. The campus always looked beautiful, peaceful. I liked being self-aware enough to know when I would enjoy a quiet night alone more than a night out with friends. I liked being liked.

*****

By week nine of every term, everyone starts to burn out, exhausted by life. I was tired. The professors were tired. The library was tired, and the Green was tired. Sometimes, I felt like I was just going through the motions, like I was being pulled toward an amorphous distance without knowing why. And I think, to an extent, we all were. We journeyed dazed through days, blacked out from a relentless routine. But we were happy; or at least, we survived. Maybe that’s enough for now.

It’s so easy to lose perspective at the College. To forget that there are other voices crying out beyond my tiny piece of wilderness. We are all insulated by a Dartmouth aegis — a shield so opaque, so adamant that soon we forget there are other things out there.

One night, I complained that I had had a bad week because of all my obligations. My floormate, in turn, complained of her struggles with chemistry; then, at once, she noted the humor behind two Ivy League students complaining as though they had nothing. We laughed at the banality of it all. We laughed until our frustration evaporated, and we were lucky it was just that easy. I was humbled to the brink of joy.

I don’t know what the theme of this post was besides some scattered reflections about college, but I’d like to end this update by sharing the following excerpt from Dartmouth alumna Claire Groden’s piece in The Dartmouth, titled “Don’t Succumb to Overcommitment.”

Being busy is such a comfort. It is an affirmation of worth, a parade of commitments that block off the typical traffic of self-doubt and self-consciousness. Throughout my time at Dartmouth, I’ve overfilled my days so I’d be too busy and exhausted to be by myself, because loneliness at Dartmouth is a terrifying thing. At a school where even being in the library is a social activity, where is a person supposed to eat alone, study alone, exercise alone, without feeling even a little on display? The only solution I found was rarely being alone, or making sure I was drowning in work when I was…

 

…On Saturday night of this year’s Green Key weekend, I spontaneously drove off campus with two good friends. We wound through empty Vermont roads to Gile Mountain, and after giving up on finding the trailhead to the fire tower, parked on the gravel shoulder. We stood in the center of the pavement, the glowing butts of our cigarettes like little light flares in the dense blackness beneath the canopy of trees.

 

It was so quiet that my ears strained, picking out each smoky exhale and the whispering of an invisible brook. Our phones were useless, beyond the reach of service and 3G. We stared at the stars, but mostly talked about ways to incapacitate the hypothetical rapist, kidnapper or serial killer. (Apparently, it’s easier than you might think to rip off a guy’s earlobe.) We were so helplessly alone, self-conscious of our own fear, that we reveled in it. Each time a car approached, we held our breaths praying it wouldn’t stop. When it passed, we laughed giddily, exhilarated by our irrational fear and the bravery of our isolation. It’s weird. But I know that next year, when I’m thumbing through my memories of this place to reconstruct some lost feeling, this night will come through sharply, still smelling a little like clove cigarettes.

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