LAYERS OF CLAY
As I come up on a full year of being out of college classrooms after a decade teaching in them, I can’t help but think of where my journey into adulthood began two decades ago in that great cocoon called college. It was as a skinny freshman where I learned so many first lessons…
I arrived at California University of Pennsylvania on a sunny afternoon in 1995. Wide-eyed, skinny, and unsure, the mix of emotions I felt ranged from eager excitement to abject horror. The blurry future of my high school imagination had arrived, and I had no clue what I was doing.
After church, my mom and aunt drove me to California, Pennsylvania, a cozy hamlet nestled in a sharp bending crook of the Monongahela River. After some confusion, we located McCloskey Hall, my freshman home.
My roommate, who I didn’t know and couldn’t stalk/meet virtually in those pre-online social media days, had apparently already checked in. The bed farthest from the door, beneath our sole window, was covered with his things. Two closets, separated by a built in dresser and mirror, filled out the left side of the small dorm room.
The only other furniture was two desks, which I naively expected would be used for schoolwork rather than video game consoles, a television set, and unread textbooks. Oh yeah, stereos and CDs also took up lots of space. We were, after all, still a few years away from digital music. I can’t remember a single person with their own laptop that year.
The floor space of the sparse unit was about the size of the paint on a basketball court. After years of trying to box people out beneath the hoop, I was now getting boxed into these unfamiliar confines. The concrete wall of my new home would not have been out of place in a penitentiary, but it was mine, the frame of a life landing somewhere between freedom and institutionalization.
As I stared out the window overlooking the quad, my mom and aunt set about making up the bed. It wouldn’t take long to arrange my meager possessions, and they focused on anything they could control while facing the prospect of leaving the youngest of three kids to the mercy of real world wolves.
My sister Bethany and her future husband Mark had also showed up to support my transition. College veterans, they joked with me and offered encouragement to help put me at ease.
Around the time my family was leaving, my roommate Rico showed up, shirt off and sweating after some basketball. It struck me how comfortable he was, already out and about on campus. Then again, the dude was going on 21 and looked like Ricky Martin, which was really saying something back then. (Come to think about it, how does Ricky Martin still look like Ricky Martin two decades later?) I hated taking my shirt off in public. In private too back then, now that I think about it.
Something important happens in the mind of a teenager who’s about to say goodbye to his family for the first time. Growing up is a mostly involuntary pursuit. Most of us sprint towards independence while simultaneously trying to fend off the outstretched fingers of personal responsibility. “You can go now,” we seem to say to the people who’ve ran our lives for so long. “Go, so I can set about all the failing I have to do. I’ll see you again once I’ve mucked things up royally.”
Facing the reality of full-blown independence for the first time, I felt eager to start killing my childhood as quickly as possible. I was as hopeful, vibrant, and doomed as the fluttering leaves on the autumn trees around me.
During an orientation tour, I remember how proud the guide was to point to a building called Watkins something or other, explaining how it was named for his father. After spending my entire upbringing traveling along the eastern part of America to visit famous buildings and the homes of notable dead people, this nugget struck me.
For one thing, it was history. But I was also taken by the idea of how a guy could be so known in a place, on a campus, that he would have an entire building named after him.
I scanned the structure, my vision tilting from the base of the red brick structure to the angular roof, a half pyramid flanked by conical corners.
Who would come to know me? I was oriented towards the wrong goal and would’ve traded legacy for instant acceptance in a heartbeat.
That desire to be known, to be accepted, to be popular, would shape almost every moment of my freshman year. But the great adventure was underway. My disorientation was in full swing.
Check out the followup to this post–The Skinny Freshman, part 2: Unknowns
And see where it all began with Don’t Forget the Toilet Paper: A Memoir