Thursday, July 19, 2012

The lonely campus

Today I went back in time. I had to run an errand and to do it, I had to go into the building where I spent the majority of my first year of university. I hated that building. I hated that year. I had forgotten both of those things until I stepped through the heavy doors into the strange dark lobby that had stairs that took you up to the real stairs and another staircase that went up - but only one floor - and unseeing windows around a hexagonal opening one floor up. It still smelled the same. Like old gym socks and chalk and those packages of 200 sheets of loose leaf paper. Does anyone still use those?

I walked straight to the back and to right, where the stairs are. Today I got to down, deep into a basement that felt like it knew it belonged in an institution. Back then, back then I only went up. I would plod up those stairs, dragging my feet, dreading the hours I would spend there. When at last the lecturing stopped, when the words I didn't care about and thus really didn't try to understand ended, I would speed walk down those stairs and get out of that building as fast as I could.

My table-mate, M, and I would head up to the little institution-run snack bar next door and I'd get a grapefruit juice and a rice krispie square, pretty much every day. Those two symbols of my miserable first year sustained me until lunch when I could escape to the cafeteria in my dorm, with its long tables and orange-tinted lights. That rite of passage, "dining" in the dining room, harsh and unkind on so many levels, provided so much comfort when I was so unhappy the rest of the day.

On bad days, I had to head back to the building I came to regard as a jail for more lectures or tutorials, but on good days, the afternoons were spent in a lab somewhere else on campus. Labs I detested. It only took me two Chemistry labs to realize that while I really did love sciences, lab work drove me insane. Math was my favourite subject and I knew I was happier sitting at a table strewn with calculations and diagrams than in a lab, measuring potentially dangerous chemicals to .001 of a mg and hoping the guy at the bench next to me didn't dump my solution out of the centrifuge instead of the water that was balancing it. Rooms full of asbestos tables and stinky chemicals and fume hoods were not my thing. It was better than the lectures though.

When I left the room I visited this morning, I climbed back up the stairs to the main floor. I stood at the foot of the stairs and debated with myself about going up to that place where I was so unhappy, just to see if it was still as I remember it. In the end, I turned away from the stairs and the hallways with their lockers and the feeling that I was back in high school and I walked back out into the warm summer sun. Today was not the day to go back to that unhappy time.

As I walked back to my office, my thoughts wandered and I saw the campus as I saw it as a student. I arrived, straight out of college prep school, work ethic in place, ready to conquer my courses, but it didn't worked out that way. There were the little disasters that wouldn't likely have mattered except that they piled up and up and up until all I could see were disasters. The matter of the battle with the registrar's office. The matter of the missing grades. The matter of the computer glitch unregistering me. The matter of the dorm room that was routinely assigned and unassigned over a few weeks. There was the roommate who had never been in a city of more than 5,000 people before and was so excited to be gone from her little town. There was the room assignment on what was said to be on one of the two loudest party floors on campus. There were the cramps that sidelined me for almost three days. There was the profound loneliness. There was the homesickness for a place that was never really home. There were the migraines, the many, many migraines. There were other health problems.

I was unhappy. Most of that eventually resolved itself - I obviously got my dorm room assigned and they found my grades. They re-registered me for the courses that vanished into thin air and were full to capacity when I tired to re-register. I transferred out of my dorm to a different residence complex and while I didn't get the quiet house I craved, I did get a room in an all girls house which is somehow quieter by design. I met some amazing people who are still my friends today. I got over the loneliness. I'm not sure I'll ever get over the's not a biting or as deep as it was when I started university, but it's there, under my skin. When I'm least expecting it, it pops its head out to say hello. The smell of pikake, the smell of my first roommate's perfume, the smell of sticky rice and pineapple, those things all take me back.

As I climbed the stairs to my office I decided that my first year wasn't all that miserable. The strange building where my lectures were held had a very beautiful glass-enclosed staircase off on end of it. I think it was built as an emergency escape route because it didn't match the utilitarian concrete blocks of the rest of the building. It was also our after-hours access to the building. Everyone in my program had a key and code. I found the staircase useful when I wanted to have a private conversation - when you live in the dorms you quickly discover that no conversation is ever private unless you go somewhere far away. It was also a good place for some quiet time, alone. I learned what I didn't want to do at university and that helped point me toward what I did want to do. I survived all of the hurdles I had to leap just to get settled. I made some amazing friends. I (eventually) figured out my head and my other health issues. I gained some perspective. I found out I am fully capable of living a happy life even if I'm lonely or homesick or missing someone. But today I also remembered that it is possible to be lonely even while you're travelling among 30,000 other people.

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