I attended convocation at the place where I work, today. It was okay. Too hot and humid for my liking. But I quickly found a spot in the shade, and attempted to cool off after the student government president, dean of faculty, and president of the college all delivered addresses. Being there, watching the students sitting in plastic chairs, baking under the sun, reminded me of my first day at college.
It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime memories. Like the day you get your driver’s license, your senior prom (for better or for worse), the day you get married, the moment you watch your child come into the world (if you’re lucky enough to experience the latter two.).
My first day at college was a mixture of excitement (ecstatic about the physical distance I’d be placing between me, and the place where I grew up), sadness (it felt like I was leaving the place where I grew up, and everyone I knew, behind), and anxiety (I wondered less about whether my roommates would be weirdoes, and more about whether I brought enough deodorant).
But that first day, I was away from my family, really, for the first time in my life. Away from the responsibilities of coming home at a decent hour, or calling my mother to tell her where I’d be. Removed from the wailing police sirens and other urban lullabies that sang me to sleep. Separated from my friends, the bodegas, bus routes and Path trains, and everything that made New Jersey home.
The one thing I didn’t know – the one thing I wish I had known – was that, that day, I was literally starting my life. It wasn’t like the time I went to a different high school than all of my friends, and I had to adjust. It was like the time I moved to a different part of the city, and I had to make new friends. No, starting college was much different than anything I had ever experienced.
That night, I remember setting up my things and going to bed. I hadn’t slept much the night before, and my roommates wouldn’t be arriving until the next day. When the next day arrived, it became real. The nightlife. The drunkenness. My classmates wandering around from building to building. Chatting, buzzing, trying desperately to fit in.
I sat back, watching it all unfold, thinking to myself, is this really how it’s going to be for the next four years. Wondering where, or how, I’d even fit in. Fitting in, isn’t that what most students are just trying to do? Find their place, their niche, the place where they feel like they belong. That was me on a Saturday night, with most of my classmates (or so it seemed) stumbling from party to party, praying life didn’t pass them by.
The pit of my stomach felt unsettled. I knew I’d belonged, but that’s not what was playing out in front of me. I wanted no part of the inebriated environment. That was some shit I couldn’t get down with. Some shit that I judged my classmates for. See, what I didn’t know at that time, was that we were all in the same boat – drunk or not. Laughing with people we’d just met or sitting by our lonesome. We were all in the same predicament. Just trying to make this new place feel like home.
And, all these years later, that’s become so much of what life is about. Trying to make things feel normal, like you’ve been there forever. Whether it’s a new job or a new house. A cute guy you just met or the newest cell phone you just had to buy. We’re all in the same boat. Trying to make each, and every experience, feel like a little less intimidating, a little more welcoming. An organic extension of ourselves. Like that old Cheers song, a place where everybody knows our name.
That’s what so much of life has become. Vying, trying, and fighting, desperately, just to not feel out of place. Whether we’re chatting on our cell phones while walking down the street, meanwhile missing out on life that’s taking place all around us. After all, who wants to be an outsider, when it’s much more comfortable being part of the in crowd – however you define that term.
The college experience teaches us lesson that we can hold onto for the rest of our lives. Life is going to bring uncertainty and anxiety. Life is going to be confusing and chaotic. Life isn’t always going to feel normal and organic. The sooner we allow ourselves to get used to this reality, the better off we’ll be at adjusting to the every-changing scenery around us.
I wish I could tell my eighteen-year-old self that, the day I moved into college. But that’s also the beauty of it. Some things you can’t learn reading some obscure passage or by heeding the advice of other people. Some things you just have to learn on your own. Like how to make each and every experience, an organic extension of yourself.