The length of a vast plateau of cement spread before me. Four square towers, far taller than any tree I had ever seen, guarded each corner. The harsh sea of gray may have seemed uninviting to some, but my heart drank in the wide open space, the light flowing from every angle. A tall slender bell tower stood at the center, surrounded by a shallow pool of sparkling water. Around the water’s edge students gathered in small groups talking and laughing or splashing in the water as they dived for Frisbees. Walking to the edge, checking briefly to see if anyone was going to stop me, I slipped off my Dr. Scholl’s and stepped in. The chill of the water rose up my legs, waking places I had kept silent for so long. Closing my eyes I took in a deep breath of freedom. Excitement and hope grew to vie with more familiar fear and worry. I would be okay here on my own. I could do this.
Patches of bright green grass were precisely placed and tightly cropped. A few trees were scattered across the open spaces, some isolated in huge pots. How odd it felt seeing a full grown tree restricted within concrete boundaries, almost as if we had traded places. Each tower was surrounded by a perfect square of three story low rise dorms. Four suites of six students were located on each of the tower’s 21 floors. The occupants of one quadrangle outnumbered those of my entire town by hundreds. The elevator swept me to my dorm room located on the top floor of one of the towers. Moving from window to window a view of the entire campus opened beneath me. I was on top of this new world! I would be sharing this corner of the floor with five other young women. Two of them were from the south, a place called Long Island. They laughed when I asked where it was, but not the kind of laugh that made me feel small or stupid, the kind that conveyed simple amusement and wonder at our differences. One was from just twenty miles away and another from the city only thirty miles south of my small town – although it was quickly evident our lives were separated by far more than a few miles. And one was from a town as tiny as mine but much further north. She would last only one semester and then be replaced by another. Little did we know that four of the resulting six, along with one added in the following year, would form a central group of five that stayed connected not only through our years at school, but through the future challenges of marriages, children, careers, and beyond.
There always seemed to be someone available and eager to talk or explore. The tug of companionship soon overtook the sense of safety I found in my corner of my room. Despite our differences we all seemed to be looking for a place to fit, for a direction to aim, for acceptance within this mass of peers. Cafeteria chatter buzzed like cicadas in the woods and the bustling energy seeping through my skin fed my deep yearnings. Endless opportunities for drinking and dancing, and derelict behaviors if you chose -and it seemed almost everyone chose – filled the weekends. Absence of parental restraints released an array of choices that could, and did for some, lead to disaster. Temptation sat waiting around every corner. I partook in some. But my inherent fears merged with a determined focus, mapping new boundaries in this unexplored territory.
Skills honed for most of my life proved helpful. My ears collected words and tones of voice while my eyes monitored facial expressions and body movements. These observations fed a brain that connected the dots and sketched a framework that shaped my behaviors, all in an effort to disguise the ignorance I feared flickered around my body like a neon sign. What to wear was the easiest: bell bottomed jeans, tight fitting t-shirt or leotard topped with a baggy flannel shirt, and work boots or clogs. Sometimes I felt like I had invaded my father’s closet! Hair, for both sexes, was long and straight and parted in the middle, often framing wire rimmed glasses. I hit a bullseye on that one without even trying. There was a broader canvas here to paint our differences on, yet everyone seemed to want to belong to the bigger sameness. Looking like the others was one thing, socially interacting was another. Conversations about music, politics, or religion returned me to the safety of silence as I retreated to the nearest corner, trying to force rigid muscles to look relaxed. I had no clue about the different cultural references I heard, not even enough to know if they were positive or negative. There was nowhere to go to quickly gather bits of information, no World Wide Web, just eyes wide open. I quickly adopted smiling or laughing, especially laughing – of the machine gun variety when really nervous – as acceptable interactions requiring no words, no real commitment to thoughts or ideas.
–To be continued